Some of the concerns local residents have about the Twelve Tribes don’t come from a business standpoint.
“Anyone reading this article should Google ’Twelve Tribes,’” said Alice Lichtenstein, a local author and Oneonta resident. “I was really horrified and terrified at some levels.”
Lichtenstein said she first researched the group after talking to John Mason, owner of the Body and Soul Lifestyle Centre at 175-177 Main St., where the Twelve Tribes proposes opening a coffeehouse.
Allegations against the group include child labor, child abuse and racism, but members deny the charges.
“They’re really into corporal punishment,” said David Pike, a former member of the Twelve Tribes now living on Staten Island.
Pike said he left the group last June.
“There are some good things, but there were many insidious things,” Pike said.
While the allegations of child labor, child abuse and racism are horrific enough, Lichtenstein said, those aren’t her main fears.
“What worries me the most is that they target the community,” she said. “I feel our community has to make a very clear stand that they don’t want this in our community.”
The group’s full name is the “Twelve Tribes — Commonwealth of Israel.” The Twelve Tribes represent twelve tribes of Israel and the different places in the world that the group has communities.
Twelve Tribes has the markings of a cult, said the Rev. Gary Bonebrake from the Main Street Baptist Church in Oneonta. He said Twelve Tribes members believe that they are the only group with the truth.
“The group would look at all the other churches and say, ’You’re in error,’” Bonebrake said.
“We are absolutely convinced that our beliefs are the truth, our practices are the way, and our culture is the life that the creator wants to fill the earth,” the Twelve Tribes website said. “Of course, we do not endorse beliefs and practices that are contrary to ours.”Pike said the group does teach members that they have the highest purpose in life — to teach the Twelve Tribes’ message to others.
“It gives you pride, but you can’t call it pride because you’re humble,” Pike said.
The allegations against the tribes are false, said Roderick Frandino, a Twelve Tribes member working on the Oneonta proposal.title>br>
“People don’t like the way we live our life,” he said.
Frandino said the group does believe in corporal punishment and keeping families close and working together.
“We don’t harm our children or hurt our children,” Frandino said. “We train them. We don’t just leave our children to themselves.”
The group is not a cult, Frandino said.
“We don’t practice strange, obscure, dark practices,” he said. “We believe in the God of heaven and his son.”
The group generally is very friendly and personable, said Lisle Dalton, an assistant professor of religious studies at Hartwick College in Oneonta.
“No, they’re not stockpiling weapons, nor are they going to mix a big batch of Kool-Aid and serve it in their cafes,” said Rick Ross, a deprogrammer and executive director of the Rick A. Ross Institute in New Jersey. “But they are a controlling group.”
The members of the Twelve Tribes don’t watch television or movies, Dalton said.
“’We’re insulated, but not isolated,’ is the way they like to put it,” Dalton said.
In some ways the Twelve Tribes is very similar to certain evangelical Christian congregations, Dalton said. What the Twelve Tribes is experiencing is similar to what other new groups experience, he said.
“If you challenge the established religions, sometimes people get nervous,” Kenneth Hart, a member of the Twelve Tribes in Dorchester, Mass.
“The Twelve Tribes is just a group of people who want to do a little more than save the whales,” he said. “You live together and take care of each other.”
The group takes a very strict interpretation of the Bible.
“He (the member and believer) will be filled with the holy spirit and from that time on he will no longer live for himself, but for the one who died for him,” the website said. “The practical reality of this is that he will share a common life of love and unity with those disciples who shared the good news with him.”
They also believe that the world will eventually form one government, one religion and then end.
Despite that, however, the Twelve Tribes has been spreading out into entrepreneurship and is trying to improve its public image, Dalton said.
“If you’re going to be an entrepreneur, you have to make nice with your neighbors and get along with the community,” he said.
Bonebrake said he has tried to approach the Twelve Tribes on various occasions.
“I’ve sat down and talked with them,” he said. “Those conversations have not gone well.”
Hart said people need to keep an open mind when dealing with the tribes and their communities.
“You have to give people a chance,” he said. “That’s what America’s all about.”