| News -Press.com |
April 26, 2002
Religious Group's Plans, Investment Go Up In Smoke
A controversial religious sect has no plans to recruit in Fort Myers, although
members bought the former American Legion Hall before fire gutted it earlier
this month. They don't proselytize, members say. They just want to live a Scripture-
inspired life and prepare for the coming of a messiah they call Yahshua. "In
Twelve Tribes, people are here because they want to be here," said Bruce
Carver, 47, a Twelve Tribes member who bought the property in February with
two other members. "We don't think our life is for everyone. It's a life
It's also a life that involves abusing child labor laws and embracing racist,
anti Semitic, homophobic views, critics say. The Twelve Tribes follow a leader
who is unaccountable to anyone and believes he has the ear of God, according
to Bob Pardon, a congreagtional minister and director of the nonprofit Institute
for Religious Research. That's a dangerous mix," said Pardon, whose nondenominational,
Christian foundation studies religious claims in light of history, science and
the Bible. As for their Fort Myers presence, Pardon speculated the tribes were
looking for a group home or business location.
The first street property is zoned residential, Carver said, and he and his
partners had not finalized plans for its use beyond converting a portion of
the 16,000 square foot building into a duplex. A restaurant, a lodge, an educational
center were mentioned as possibilities by tribes people, if the city allowed
the appropriate zoning variances. All plans are on hold as the April 4 blaze
is investigated and insurance companies and engineers assess the damage. The
state Fire Marshal's Office, which still is investigating the fire as "suspicious,"
estimated damage at $650,000 - about $30,000 short of what the trio of owners
paid for it. Tribes people say the 1928 building was purchased as an investment.
Carver, who lives with another member in Arcadia, said he didn't think anybody
there knew that we were of the Twelve Tribes or that anyone in Fort Myers knew
what Twelve Tribes is about," he said. What it's about is the bible, according
The tribes practice a hybrid of Christian and Hebrew beliefs and rituals intended
literally to reflect Scripture. In the 1960s, they might have been dismissed
as Jesus freaks. Now, post -Waco, post Heaven's Gate, suspicions arise about
cultish followings "Certainly we get that comparison all the time. We expect
it," said Ed Wiseman, 54. "If we're really radically different and
distinct, we don't expect people to swallow us hook, line and sinker. It's human
nature to mistrust what you don't understand."
Wiseman and his wife, Jean, live at the Twelve Tribes Jog Run Farm in suburban
West Palm Beach, the nearest of the sect's 29 communities around the world.
Most are in the northeast states. Like about 3,000 tribes people, the Wiseman's
have given up their worldly possessions, dress in humble attire and share dwellings
and earnings with other believers. Some take up new Hebrew names; Wiseman is
known as Hakam, which he said means "wise man" in Hebrew
About 50 others live at the five -acre ranch lushly landscaped with oleander
and bougainvillea and palms. The group makes a living trimming trees and selling
firewood, but also maintains a plant nursery, fruit trees and vegetable gardens.
Earnings maintain the community.
"A lot of people are attracted to the simple lifestyle," Pardon said,
but "there's a really seamy underbelly." Children are home-schooled
and apprenticed to learn skills- and spanked when parents see fit. Tribes members
elsewhere have faced allegations and charges regarding treatment of children
but rarely have been prosecuted, Pardon said. In 1984, a police raid took 112
children from a Vermont community for questioning but quickly released them.
"The group has traditionally fallen through the cracks," he said.
"They really skirt the edges of the law in many ways."
Wiseman's teen-age son, Zebulon, left the group and complained to the Boston
Herald of being beaten, having money withheld and being overworked. To some,
his accusations might echo typical adolescent rebellion. "He's trying to
find himself," his father said. "We don't raise them to mindlessly
follow." And if they want to leave the tribes, members might try to persuade
them otherwise but don't pressure them to stay, he said.
Wiseman, who joined the tribes in 1974 at age 26, said the conformity members
practice is dictated by the bible- down to their priestly beards and natural
fiber clothes. Television's verboten; the tribes want to remain separate from
popular culture. "We don't really have a police force going around telling
people to not listen to the radio," Wiseman said.
Members travel in public places, keep up on current events and sing and dance
at their Friday night Erev Shabbat, the beginning of their Sabbath celebtration.
The event resembles a church social. Visitors mingle with members sitting in
green resin chairs. Musicians play guitar, piano, flute and string bass while
worshippers sing songs of praise. Men and women stand in the center of the gathering,
clasp hands and perform simple dance steps.
At a recent celebration, a few black visitors watched the weekly rite- in apparent
contradiction to the tribes' reputed racist views. One of their publications,
"in the shadow of Colossus," features a tract condemning multiculturalism,
while another seems to promote segregation. "We're not racist," Wiseman
said. "One of our basic beliefs is that salvation is available to all men."
And theirs is coming when the messiah, Yahshua, appears from heaven, they believe.
Elbert Spriggs, who founded the tribes in the mid -1970s, is not the savior
but a man who is helping them prepare for the real one, they say. Although some
critics have said Spriggs lives a lavish lifestyle supported by his flock, Wiseman
said the leader does not get all the communities earnings. "He has a lot
of wisdom, great ideas, grace and understanding," he said. "He does
not lord it over people. He uses it to teach that we can grow together as a