WVNY, Apr. 28, 2003
By Kelly Reardon
Twenty years ago the town of Island Pond made national headlines. The charge? An extremist cult was abusing its children.
Those charges have been dropped and now the group is bigger than ever, with 3,000 members around the world.
They live together in communities, giving up all of their possessions to await the second coming.
For Jeff Whitten and his family, every morning begins with song and prayer.
“We believe that this is the truth,” Whitten said. “We believe that this is the only way that people can really be fulfilled.”
Every moment of every day at the Maples, their community in Island Pond, is a gesture to their God “Yashua.”
Days begin early with shared chores and labor, worship bookending mundane tasks.
“Some days I do laundry. Some days I do sewing. Some days I make lunch,” Jennifer Whitten, Jeff’s wife, explained.
In businesses and workshops, the Bible is the center of their world.
The Twelve Tribes are everywhere.
Members preach on Church Street in Burlington.
They built Muddy Waters on Main Street.
They make Common Sense products, sold in the City Market.
There are 30 communities in dozens of states and countries.
In Vermont, the Island Pond Community was the site of a massive raid in 1984.
That year, Jeff Whitten was 11-years-old and his wife was 7-years-old.
“What I remember was getting dressed,” Jeff said. “I heard a noise outside.”
Jeff hid behind the door of his bedroom until social workers found him.
They brought him down the stairs and held him and 90 other children until the end of the night.
Governor Dick Snelling had ordered the raid under suspicion of child abuse and neglect inside the compound.
Later, a Judge ruled the raid unconstitutional and found no evidence of abuse.
Close to two decades later, the group is still dealing with controversy.
Big companies like Origins have dropped contracts with Twelve Tribes factories, after the state of New York fined an upstate factory $2,000 for violating child labor laws.
But some call it a smear campaign against an alternative lifestyle.
“I’m not religious, but I find their way of life appealing,” he said. “We know we’re not a cult because each person has the free will to do what they choose,” Whitten added. The sad part is that the truth hasn’t gotten out.”