On Super Bowl Sunday in 1975, the Pittsburgh Steelers were playing the Minnesota Vikings, and church was canceled.
Services at a Presbyterian church in Chattanooga, Tenn., were postponed so people could watch the game on television.
But for a group of worshippers, it was the last straw. They believed strongly in the literal followings of the Bible, with cultural and social practices that conflicted with many of the area churches. The group left in disgust, and held its own services in a nearby park.
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The group grew, and eventually left Tennessee. Members formed their own community in 1977 in Island Pond, in the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont.
The group became the Twelve Tribes, with communities in 12 countries, including three in Vermont — Island Pond, Rutland and Bellows Falls.
But the conflict would not end.
In the 1980’s, Jim Bergeron, who grew up in Newport, was discharged from the Army for wearing his uniform to a peace demonstration while he was stationed in Germany.
“When I came out, it was like I had an automatic ticket to peace movements,” he said.
When the Lyndon State College graduate returned to Vermont, he remained an activist, keeping tabs on local government, writing daily “letters to the editor” in newspapers, protesting nuclear power, getting arrested and fighting for justice.
Years ago, Bergeron said he would have been in the paddy wagon with men and women opposing the proposal for a 20 percent increase in power at Vermont Yankee on a monthly basis, but he gave that up, along with all his belongings, when he joined Twelve Tribes.
“Some felt I abandoned the movement, stopped fighting for social change on their level,” he said.
“I knew deep in my heart, deep in my soul, that what I was doing wasn’t going to change anything.”
As Bergeron was fighting for social change, Twelve Tribes drew national attention when the community was accused of child abuse.
In the pre-dawn hours of June 22, 1984, 90 state troopers and 50 social workers raided the Island Pond community and took 112 children from their homes. They were returned later that day, and the court case was dismissed, with the judge calling the raid a “grossly negligent misuse of state power.”
The raid increased the general perception that Twelve Tribes was a religious cult.
“Some of my friends asked me to go up and vigil against the community for the way they treat their children,” Bergeron said, but he wanted to learn more about the community first.
Soon after the raid, he drove to Island Pond with his parents, who waited in the car while he went inside to get information. When he returned, his mother was talking to two women.
“One of woman comes up to me and says, ‘You must be Jimmy. I held you on my lap when you were 18 months old.’ The word ‘cult’ went out the window. These were Vermonters — my baby-sitter, family friends,” Bergeron said.
He moved in with them three weeks later.
“I read what they had to write and something spoke to my heart. They were on to something, and being persecuted for it.”
For Bergeron, joining Twelve Tribes was a life-changing decision that he is satisfied with. He met his wife through the community, and when they married seven years ago, she gave him the name he now goes by — Melevav — which means “from the heart” in Hebrew.
They live at Basin Farm in Bellows Falls with about 30 other members, and grow organic vegetables that they ship to other communities. Twelve Tribes is a network that shares its goods, and Basin Farm sells goods imported from its communities around the world.
Melevav also bakes bread in Rutland, and since August has been selling it from a cart in front of Key Bank in Brattleboro. Over the summer he sold it at the Brattleboro Farmers’ Market, and said it sells well in town, which is why he keeps coming back.
“We feel that God will add to us, and people will fall in love with us like I fell in love with the community,” he said, but he also tries not to push his beliefs on people who don’t want to hear them.
Accusations against Twelve Tribes include brainwashing, racism, sexual abuse, child abuse and oppression of women. The community has written responses denouncing each claim.
“It does hurt when people make statements and accusations without ever seeing our life,” he said. “We encourage people to come visit us and make the judgment for themselves at least.”