Vista residents have watched curiously as newcomers, dressed in what some describe as “prairie clothes,” spent the past year building a deli in downtown Vista.
The men with their beards, sometimes accompanied by women in shapeless dresses, arrived each day to hammer nails and install fixtures in the two-story building that resembles a funky treehouse, with its hand-carved wood detailing and a 1970s-style logo for their Yellow Deli.
The workers are part of the local community of a worldwide group called the Twelve Tribes, whose members attempt to live like the early Christians as described in the Book of Acts.
Twelve Tribes members share their income and eschew self-interest in favor of a communal lifestyle, and the group is guided by a reclusive leader known as Yoneq.
Some have called the group a cult, although its members cringe at that word. In Massachusetts, New York, Tennessee and Vermont, critics have drawn attention to the group’s recruitment practices, its strict rules and the lack of wages paid to members.
Others dismiss those concerns, saying members are adults who made the choice to become part of an alternative world.
The Twelve Tribes has a 66-acre farm with avocado groves in Valley Center and a house in Vista. It plans to open the deli on East Broadway in Vista on Feb. 14.
The deli will be staffed by unpaid group members who will brew coffee and its signature yerba mate tea. They will fix salads with chard and avocados from their farm — and they hope people will want to chat about God or learn about the Twelve Tribes.
David Pike, 53, who was a member for seven years, said he believes the group is deeply flawed. Pike, who joined soon after leaving a drug-and-alcohol rehabilitation program, said the structured life prevented him from drinking, but he became concerned over the use of a rod to discipline children and the “slave labor” lifestyle.
“A major factor was finding out there were similar groups that claimed to be the only ones and the only way,” Pike said. “I was seeing the possibility of it being a cult.”
Cult awareness activist Steven Hassan of Somerville, Mass., said the group used to set up first-aid tents at Grateful Dead concerts to lure drugged-out youths.
“I think any group that says its leader is the sole prophet of God on Earth and he understands the Bible better than anyone else … is a problem,” Hassan said.
“They want total commitment. They want you to turn over your money and your property and your free will.”