NEWBURYPORT, Mass. — The city is used to summer visitors, but the three buses that rolled into downtown Wednesday drew more attention than most.
The lead vehicle — a small bus with a psychedelic paint job adorned with the symbols of the ’60s counterculture — pulled up in front of the tourist information booth on Merrimac Street early in the afternoon and was quickly joined by a pair of larger buses, 1955 Scenics lovingly reconstructed and customized with handmade wood paneling.
Just as curious as the vehicles were the people who poured out of them. The men had long beards and long hair tied back, the women were in modest dresses that stood out in striking contrast to the attire of the average mid-July Newburyporter.
The visitors called themselves the Merrymakers and are members of the Twelve Tribes, a religious group with residential communities across North America and Europe.
Ishael Pimpare, who joined the group in 1981 with his wife and daughters, said the caravan is part of an effort to invite others to observe their lifestyle.
Members of the Twelve Tribes community model their lifestyle on the early Christian church, live in communes, home-school their children and do not marry outside their community.
They actively invite others to join their community, but they say they are not a cult.
“We’re not a sign-on-the-dotted-line kind of group,” Pimpare said. “We’re very open. We just invite people to come visit us and see what we’re about. A lot of people have a thirst for a life with more meaning than what the dominant culture today can provide.”
But the group has been labeled a cult in a variety of media reports. “It can be difficult to communicate what we’re about,” Pimpare said. “There’s also a tendency in the media to make us more exciting than we actually are.”
Many of the 32 passengers on the bus are from Twelve Tribes communities in Boston, Plymouth and upstate New York, but the caravan has been on the move for a while, traveling through California and British Columbia before crossing the United States. They are now on their way to Maine. The caravan pulled into Newburyport after Rockport police expelled them for failure to have the proper permits.
Upon arrival, they disembarked the bus and walked over to Market Square, where they sang and danced for an hour before retreating to the bus.
“Music and dance is a good way for us to bridge the gap between our culture and the people we want to reach out to,” Pimpare said. “So are the buses.”