I recently discovered the Twelve Tribes, a faith community with about 2,000-3,000 adherents worldwide. Formed a little over 40 years ago, their beliefs represent an interesting mix of fundamentalist Christianity and Judaism. The Holy Bible is considered to be the literal and unerring word of God, and Jesus (whom they call Yahshuah) is considered to be the Messiah. They don’t belong to any particular denomination because they believe that even the early Christian church sullied the teachings of Yahshuah (and James and Paul) to accommodate both pagans and Gentiles. They believe that God revealed himself to Moses as Yahweh and that Mosaic Law should be followed as closely as possible, and they observe most Jewish holidays as well as a Saturday Sabbath. Truthfully, I agree with very few of the tenets of their faith, but I had a wonderful time celebrating the Sabbath with them. It was a good reminder that religion is a curious blend of belief and practice, and finding the perfect combination is not always easy.
Here in Asheville, the Twelve Tribes community consists of about 35 people who live and work at Gladheart Farm. Everyone who is part of the Twelve Tribes movement agrees to live communally. In this particular community, the farm property and all the proceeds from the farming enterprise belong to the entire group, a single person does the grocery shopping for everyone, and meals are eaten together at assigned times. They also eat naturally as much as possible, sew their own clothes when they can, birth at home, and home-school their children. As you might imagine, they are frequently accused of being isolationist or even cultish. I got to know the folks there because my family has purchased a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) share from them for the last several years. They provide us with a weekly box of veggies, and we share in some of the costs and risks of growing them. Several weeks ago, one of the community members at the Farmer’s Market invited me to attend their regular Friday evening Shabbat services. I was finally able to attend a couple of weeks ago – along with a friend who was raised Jewish.
The evening began around 6:00PM. Upon entering the main farm house, we were given a small snack of juice and home-made trail mix. This would tide us over until dinner. Various members introduced themselves as everyone settled in for the service. I’m highly sensitive to what people of various faith traditions wear, so I immediately noticed that all the women had on long dresses/skirts and all wore a head covering of some sort. Nearly all the men had long hair tied back in a pony tail and facial hair. I later discovered that these practices are followed by all Twelve Tribes members: women dress modestly and men avoid excessive or unnatural grooming.
Everyone was seated in chairs around the edges of the living room. The necessity of that arrangement soon became obvious. All of sudden, one of the women rose from her seat and started singing a song. A guy on the other side of the room quickly joined in to accompany her on his guitar as everyone else began singing, too. Then, about half a dozen community members jumped up, formed a circle in the center of the room, and started dancing. Everyone in the dancing circle held hands, and there were clearly steps, but the steps were fairly simple – moving forward in unison, moving backward in unison, and sashaying to the left or right by crossing one foot over the other. Occasionally, a quick spin or a hand clap would be thrown in. If you are familiar with Israeli folk dances, then you can imagine what the dances were like.
When the song was over, all the dancers sat down, until someone else began to sing. The guitar-player joined in on the new song, and another small group of dancers jumped up. Each song was associated with a particular dance, but the style was the same. This happened over and over again. I began to realize that no one was really leading the celebration. The group itself was running the show. Moved by the spirit, so to speak, someone would start a song and everyone else would join in – either with their voices or their instruments. Those inspired to dance would jump up and enter the dance circle. Everyone else remained in their seats, tapping their feet or patting their hands on their legs to the beat. The littlest children played tambourines or did their own version of the dance near the chairs occupied by their parents. Although most of the dancers were women and older children, the men are certainly allowed to dance, too. A long-time community member who was sitting next to me explained that the Twelve Tribe communities have hundreds of songs to choose from. They are written by community members and shared when they visit one another or during regional gatherings. I was amazed that everyone seemed to know both the lyrics and the dances.
After about ½ hour, the dancing ended and people began to stand and share their thoughts on the Bible. From what I could tell, individuals were sharing personal insights gleaned from passages they had been studying. Interestingly, Twelve Tribes members are not theologically trained in any formal way, and there are no ministers or rabbis. Nevertheless, their use of the Scriptures was quite impressive! At various times, references were made to Acts, Exodus, Proverbs, James, the Gospels, and several Pauline epistles. In Christian churches, parishioners might hear a passage from the Old Testament, a passage from the New Testament, and maybe a Psalm. It was almost dizzying to hear all these different Biblical references in a single short discourse. The monologues were entirely open-ended, but I was able to discern a few recurring themes, all of which meshed with the stated beliefs of the organization: God gave Moses the laws; God sent Jesus Christ, his only Son, to redeem us from our sins; Paul offered important teachings for understanding how Jesus’ message manifests in daily life; and God would come again for a final judgment.
After about ½ hour, the self-styled preaching came to a close. The service ended with a closing song/dance, and we moved to another house on the farm for dinner. That house contains an impressive commercial-like kitchen rivaling those seen in small restaurants. We were served a delicious meal of salad (made from veggies grown in the community garden), home-made bread, and moussaka (with eggplant from the garden and cheese from goats’ milk). After dinner, we returned to the first house for dessert and Israeli folk dancing (which my friend, having grown up Jewish, was quite familiar with). We excused ourselves around 10PM as the evening was coming to a close, and several community members invited us to come back any time. All in all, it was a lovely evening filled with joyful singing, enthusiastic dancing, and healthy eating.
The community members I met seem to totally embody the principles they preach. One of the Twelve Tribes tenets is that faith must be accompanied by good works. Martin Luther, whose catechism I memorized many times throughout my childhood, was known for his reformist doctrine that “salvation is through faith alone.” In my Midwestern Lutheran home, however, the value of hard work was made clear on a daily basis. I’m sure my parents would simply adore the work ethic at Gladheart Farm. On weekdays, everyone rises at 6AM for a morning service that is similar to, but shorter than, the Friday night Shabbat. For the remainder of the day, members handle all the various tasks associated with running a 35-person group living on a farm, including shopping, cleaning, cooking, maintaining buildings, caring for animals, repairing fences, operating greenhouses, planting, harvesting, sewing, and educating the children. The work day ends around 6PM when community members meet again for an evening worship service before dinner. They do refrain from working from sundown Friday to sunset Saturday as a way of observing the Sabbath, but from what I can tell, they’re quite industrious the rest of the time. Asheville, known for its drum circles, alternative therapies, outdoorsy types, and healthy-food markets, has also given me a deep appreciation for those who live off the land. At Gladheart Farm, that means canning and freezing food for the winter and selling certified organic produce to the broader Asheville community. For many other Twelve Tribes communities, it means running delis, coffee shops, or food markets with a focus on natural products.
While I find many aspects of their lifestyle to be rather admirable, I can’t say the same for their stated beliefs. I do not take any part of the Bible literally, I do not believe that Jesus Christ is my personal savior, I do not think the Old Testament is primarily a prophecy of the New Testament, and I worry that their concept of “submissive” women is too easily misconstrued and abused. I also disagree with their end-time views. As with many such Bible-centered prophecies, there is an emphasis on the book of Revelations and the ultimate conflict between good and evil. They believe the world is headed toward a single government and a single religion that is lawless, oppressive, and materialistic, and they use various current events to substantiate their claims. When the end-times arrive, all those who are corrupt (called the Unjust and Filthy) will be judged by God and damned to the Lake of Fire. Those who were never given an opportunity to accept Yahshuah as Messiah will not be damned, but they will be ruled in the eternal kingdom by Yahshuah and his faithful followers (that is, members of the Twelve Tribes who are called the Holy). In fact, the wedding photo shown above captures a ceremonial dance that dramatizes the battle of Armageddon. I won’t state that their views are less correct than mine, but they are certainly quite different in numerous essential ways.
In the end, I am left with contradictory feelings. The evening was chock full of joy and open-heartedness. Singing is my favorite spiritual practice, and I love folk dancing, so even though I couldn’t fully participate, I totally appreciated their form of worship as a lovely way to embrace and celebrate the Divine Presence. Beyond that, everyone was welcoming, the food was delicious, and community members were more than willing to explain what was going on. And yet, it was a bit difficult to get past the beliefs underlying their practices.
I have similar contradictory feelings about a lot of faith practices. I totally love candlelight Christmas Eve services. They are among the best things offered to the world by traditional Christianity, and yet, it’s all done in honor of a story that most surely didn’t happen in any real way. There is no historical evidence to support the idea that Jesus was born in Bethlehem, and I don’t believe in the virgin birth. And then there’s Buddhism. I deeply appreciate the major tenets of Buddhism. Their focus on compassion toward all sentient beings is a much-needed reminder for me in my daily life, and the Buddhist tradition easily accommodates interfaith approaches. But I’m really not a fan of sitting meditation! So what’s most important – beliefs, practice, or how one lives day to day? I’m still not sure how to answer that question, but based on what I saw at Gladheart Farm, the Twelve Tribes offers both a unique and heartfelt approach to living a loving and faith-full life.
Short Video of a Gladheart Farm Dance (I didn’t take this video, but I sat in the same spot as this camera-person when I was there.)