A festival of peace
PLYMOUTH — The imposing cedar-shingled house, set on a steep hill overlooking Plymouth Bay, has been a source of curiosity for many who have passed 33 Warren Ave. since the Twelve Tribes bought the former nursing home seven years ago.
What is the Twelve Tribes? Most passersby wonder, as they gaze up at the sprawling building framed by a spacious veranda and crowned with a widow’s walk, just what goes on there. But few have had occasion to turn into the driveway or walk up the hill to greet the community that lives in the house. That is, until last weekend.
After seven years in Plymouth, the Twelve Tribes held its first festival at the house to allow the public a glimpse into its way of life. The two-day celebration, which began with a wedding of two members from Dorchester on Saturday and continued with a festival through late Sunday evening, was the group’s first large-scale effort at outreach in the area since an ill-fated forum in 2001. And the outcome, a far cry from that earlier event, shows how the Twelve Tribes has, in a sense, worked its way into the larger community that once viewed the group as mysterious, secretive outsiders.
Kevin Gadsby , who serves as community coordinator, or overseer, of Plymouth’s 50 or so Twelve Tribes members, estimated that hundreds of people turned out for the festivities each of the two days, hailing from Bridgewater, Carver, Duxbury, Plymouth, Cape Cod, and various Boston suburbs.
“We had people who have been observing us for years come,” said Gadsby, who is known by his Hebrew name, Yatsaq. “One man was in tears on the day of the wedding as he watched the children dance. . . . We had such an amazing reception from people. It was wonderful.”
It was not always so for the religious movement that originated in 1973 and now has about 3,000 members with tribes in several parts of the United States as well as in Argentina, Australia, Brazil, England, France, Germany, and Spain. The Northeast community, known as the tribe Yehudah , has 12 locations in Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York, and Vermont .
The tribe Yehudah first moved to Plymouth in July 1999 , buying a large store on Main Street where it now operates the Common Sense Wholesome Food Market. A short time later, it bought a historic house on North Street, known as the Blue Blinds, then the house at 33 Warren Ave., along with a neighboring house .
As the group expanded its presence in Plymouth, public opinion was largely negative. “People began wondering what we were up to, so we rented space at Plymouth South [high school] and held a forum on Sept. 10, 2001,” Gadsby said. “It was a real hash-out, and there was a lot of mud slinging.” In mid-session, members were contacted by panicked relatives who said people were breaking windows at the Warren Avenue house. Gadsby and the others were forced to rush home from the forum.
Gadsby, who has been a Twelve Tribes member for 10 years and has lived in Plymouth since the group first arrived, said he was not surprised by the negative reception back then. Because members live communally and stand out with the way they dress, he said, “wherever we go, there’s a lot of suspicion.”
Since then, windows at the Common Sense Wholesome Food Market have been broken on several occasions, Gadsby said, but they are quietly repaired. And sometimes passersby will shout “Cult!” at members or when they see the Warren Avenue house. A year ago, a 14-year-old girl from the tribe was attacked by an angry woman, who punched her in the head as she walked along Warren Avenue. Gadsby said that was an isolated incident and that the woman was found to be mentally ill.
Public opinion, for the most part, has evolved from suspicion and hostility to curiosity, he said, as the group gradually integrated with the Plymouth community and others elsewhere. Its construction company, which began with a single member doing odd jobs in a pickup truck, now has a name: BOJ (for Bill’s Odd Jobs) Construction, and includes architects and engineers in addition to carpenters and master plumbers.
BOJ workers built a custom house overlooking the ocean on State Road a little more than a year ago for Madeleine and James Mulvihill, who had met tribe members when shopping at the group’s store. Gadsby said the group is looking to build more houses.
Meanwhile, members continue to renovate the Blue Blinds on North Street, which will eventually house a bakery on the main level. They also plan to overhaul the old Steven’s Florist building, next to the group’s Common Sense market downtown, and open a caf e there similar to the ones they run in Dorchester and Hyannis.
“Cafes are also for outreach,” Gadsby said. “We’re not there to preach to people, but just to demonstrate our life of love and taking care of each other.”
This month, public curiosity was piqued when the tribe, for the first time, entered a float in Plymouth’s Fourth of July parade. That day, the group’s two “Peacemaker” buses, equipped with kitchens, bathrooms, and accommodations to sleep 18 , were parked on Plymouth’s waterfront for the public to tour. In the evening, Twelve Tribes musicians entertained a large group of passersby on the porch of the Blue Blinds. Members handed out invitations throughout the day to last weekend’s festival.
Among last weekend’s guests were four Newton teenagers who had met tribe members for the first time just a few days earlier in Boston. The four enjoyed the food and joined in the dancing, then joined in a discussion at the “Open Forum” tent, where any issue could be raised by participants.
David Plotkin, 16, said he attended the festival to see what the Twelve Tribes is all about. His friend, 17-year-old Tina Dudley , said she was surprised by the openness and congeniality she found. “No one in Boston would be saying hello to you and offering you food,” she said. “The level of hospitality here is high.”
Roger Randall , who runs a real estate office in Plymouth, has become a friend of the local tribe, and members have gathered for weddings at his Manomet home. He sat in the shade on Sunday as members of all ages — easy to identify by their modest garb and long, tied-back hair — led others in rounds of Israeli circle dancing, accompanied by a dozen Twelve Tribes musicians.
“I just love the music, and I love the pageantry,” Randall said. “And I appreciate seeing good people happy.”
Randall, who is active in his own church, said the initial public suspicion of the group has lessened considerably over the past several years as Twelve Tribes members became a familiar sight downtown , along the waterfront, and on Warren Avenue.
“I think those fears people had have fallen by the wayside as they see what a nice job these people do,” he said.
Linda Williams , in Plymouth for her high school reunion last weekend, said she first met the Twelve Tribes while traveling in Georgia. “We just started talking, and I became fascinated by what they do,” she said. “Their life is very ordered and well thought out.”
Doug Hagen of North Plymouth, a member of the local No Place For Hate Committee, said he, too, had long been curious about the Twelve Tribes.
“I was very happy when they had this open house,” he said Sunday. “I’ve always wanted to see what they were about.” Hagen said the large story panels that members set up that day outlined the group’s history and mission. Group members also presented several seminars, discussing their beliefs and their way of life.
Visitors also were invited to tour the main level of the Warren Avenue house as members worked in the large kitchen preparing platters of skewered fresh fruit, stuffed dates, sandwiches, and iced green tea flavored with lemon and honey for their guests.
Cliff Regan , who works at the Plymouth courthouse, said he remembers when the house was a nursing home. “They’ve done a beautiful job restoring it,” he said.
Gadsby said the activities at the festival, such as the singing, dancing, and children’s performances, are pretty much the things the Twelve Tribes members do every day.
“We live a totally open life, and we know a lot of people watch us,” he said. “They want to know how we live, so we do things like the festival. Up on the hill, the house can look intimidating, but we don’t want it to look that way. We want it to look inviting.”
He said the weekend was so successful, with neighbors as well as people from outlying towns turning out in large numbers, that the group may hold similar open houses as frequently as once a month. In the meantime, anyone is welcome to visit the Warren Avenue house anytime, he said.