Recently, there was a long article written by a young black woman who stayed with us for a short while at our organic farm in Bellows Falls, Vermont. In what could only be characterized as a diatribe (Proverbs 17:4), she lays out a series of greviences in return for the hospitality we offered her. Here is our response:
I have been a Twelve Tribes member for 25 years. I am a wife and mother, employing many gifts and skills and learning others, as I continue in this life.
I noticed that the Voices section of The Commons was created as a forum for biased expressions of opinion rather than news. While it may be interesting to the readers, as if we could keep these issues in the realm of a slightly distant debate (just the beginning of a “salvo” was editor Jeff Potter’s term), the essay Clara Rose Thornton wrote was highly personal. So I decided to write a personal response to Ms. Thornton’s opinion about her experience at the Basin Farm.
First of all, we insist that the editor remove the references to a web site that is not our web site at all. We of the Twelve Tribes did not publish the material from that teaching web site, whether quoted in Ms. Thornton’s article or the reference put in an adjacent box by the editor of The Commons. Our web site is www.twelvetribes.org, which contains our published writings about many topics.
Before publishing in a newspaper, the editor is responsible to make sure that all sources are verifiable and reputable. A keystone in Ms. Thornton’s article is a reference to a Web site that has no author and no contact information, and that has a deliberately concealed identity in its domain record. We insist that this reference be removed.
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Now, on to the article: If people are going to hate us for thinking freely, or for the possibilities of what we might be thinking, then they should realize that they will become obsessed with paranoia over what everyone is thinking, or else they will need “thought police.”
But we will not give it up, nor will we hate others for thinking freely. And we will use our freedom of speech. We also fully support the rights of conscience and speech for others, even when they seem against us.
We do not agree that what was said to Ms. Thornton represents our collective heart toward her and her racial background, or that of any person.
Ms. Thorton was received as our guest, by our invitation. She actually called one of our other communities, saying she was in a desperate situation in Canada and needed help, and was referred to the Basin Farm. When she needed help, our people did not hesitate to help her.
We welcomed her into our home, where we raise our children, without bringing any hard questions or background checks. This is actually our habit, with hikers or travelers, or others who come to us for help or with a need. We believe in love and hospitality. Does love count for anything?
We see that among good neighbors and in good societies, people are to be judged by and appreciated for their lives and deeds, by their active care for creation and for other human beings.
Here are some comments we have in response to Clara Rose Thornton’s article about her time with us in our home.
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Ms. Thornton's article is an essay full of factual errors and interesting insinuations. I will begin with her closing comments, and a little story from my own experience.
“Freedom of religion is a right in this world. But I have a hard time accepting the freedom to poison helpless minds. I have a hard time accepting the freedom to hurt, to restrict and to bastardize and annihilate self-worth.
“And now, on this, the 25th anniversary of a shameful incident that brought this group of people to the cultural consciousness, I’m not sure what definitive statement to give to assess their current state. I do not know what should be done. I simply do not know.”
Actually, freedom of religion has only been supported as an inalienable human right in more recent times, and not without struggle and bloodshed (of the ones with “wrong doctrine”). The issue is not simply freedom of ceremony or freedom of doctrine, but the crucial matter is freedom of conscience. Some people have deeply held convictions of conscience that are non-religious.
You could say that this inalienable right of conscience is definitive of humanity, yet it is completely denied in some places. Even in the beginnings of this country, many people were cruelly mistreated and even killed — not for their actions toward others, but for their beliefs that differed from the majority and therefore were considered offensive or subversive. Conscience is all-important. Issues of conscience are worth being persecuted and dying for.
It is not clear who the minds are that Ms. Thornton thinks are being “helplessly poisoned.” She is insinuating something. I do know that whoever chooses to believe what is not true will be poisoned.
Freedom of speech must not be misconstrued as freedom to lie — but we of the Twelve Tribes would rather suffer because of someone misusing their freedom of speech than suffer the absence of freedom of speech for us and for others.
We — being a religious minority — realize from personal experience that what is published about you can affect the opinions of your neighbors, and the resulting alienation and even hostility does attack your self-worth. It takes character to refuse to be bitter or vindictive, and to keep on loving people.
It is very interesting that Ms. Thornton invokes the spirit of the 1984 raid on our people’s homes, an event that was provoked by people lying about us and writing articles much like her own. “Cult experts,” who were making money at their work, figured out how to use the media and how to incite the state to action. It promised to be good for their business.
Real people live in our houses, at our communities. Years ago, while I was working in the kitchen with some of my friends and many of our children, a wild-eyed man stomped into our house and stood breathing heavily, filling up the kitchen door with his bulk. It was frightening, especially to the children.
One of us gave a kind greeting and offered him tea. His response was to spew out some things about our people and our life, and then snarl, “I’m gonna expose you all, because you are using people!” (This, to a group of happy mothers and children.)
We responded calmly, and the situation was defused. But after he left, my 5-year-old looked up at me in great fear and asked, “Imma, does expose…does that mean the same as dispose?” We had been dealing with vegetable parings in the sink disposer, and the two words sounded so much alike to him. It took a little while to dispel that vivid impression from his mind.
Now at age 15, he has read Ms. Thornton’s article. He took note of Ms. Thornton’s closing remarks, and he asked, “Why does she say that she doesn’t know what should be done about us? It is not up to her that something should ‘be done’ about us.”
And my 20-year-old daughter responded also, “Who asked her to give a statement about what should be done? She wants us to be dealt with somehow…. But it’s not for her to say how we should be dealt with. And why did she say she had to slip out of the house, as if we were holding her hostage? She was free to go anytime.”
Maybe they sense a point that lies behind Ms. Thornton’s words, whether she realizes that point or not. But she should realize it. In saying these things about the Twelve Tribes, she is talking about three generations, and children who have grown up in a culture different from her own family background and from popular culture.
Let me repeat: We did not publish the words that Ms. Thornton says hurt her so deeply. If she is afraid of the effect that words could have, what they could incite others to do, then she should not have published those words, herself. And maybe she should have followed the golden rule and not published inflammatory words about our families. [A clarification about the origin of the quotations appears on page 17.]
Ms. Thornton derides some of our customs that offend her, calling us a notorious cult. Well, who else in our towns will her criticisms arouse suspicion about? Even worse, does she want to generate fear, and force conformity so that people actually suppress and deny their own religious beliefs or culture to avoid persecution? I thought she would have been a supporter of multiculturalism.
If she feels threatened, fearing that the present government cannot maintain protection and rights for her people, then I assure her that the history of persecution for our particular beliefs and way of life is appalling to the extreme. We are not into publishing that which would promote violence toward anyone.
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Following are some of the most obvious things she wrote that are simply untrue. There are more, but so many that we will leave allowance for errors in perspective.
"Basin Farm, in fact, was not a member of [Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms]; I’d been lied to.”
She was not lied to. My friend who spoke to her was simply uninformed about WWOOF, whatever the official process may be. He was offering hospitality from a good heart, as we often do. You see, we don’t live in compounds, and we like to make friends with different kinds of people.
"It was disconcerting how everyone looked exactly the same. All of the males, young and old, had a full beard and a ponytail of the exact same length, chopped to mid-nape. The women all had very long ponytails and wore either baggy dresses, a baggy skirt with a tunic and vest, or bulky pantaloons that gathered at the ankles.”
These statements are full of prejudice, meant to give a very negative impression. Maybe a “cultural critic,” as Ms. Thornton calls herself, is simply one who criticizes other cultures.
Some other cultures tend to dress very similarly among themselves. Some other religions have very particular ways of eating. Does she really want to generate more suspicion and alienation among neighbors?
“There is an office with a computer, although only two men deemed in charge of administrative and business activities…were allowed to use it, lest the Internet unleash its evil.”
This is simply untrue, whether a misunderstanding or a deliberate misrepresentation. But Ms. Thornton was in our home. We are not an institution — it is our home that we opened to her in hospitality. Ms. Thornton implies that two men are oppressing the other people at the Basin Farm. But the people there are members of an extended family, who have agreed about what they are doing in their own home. We establish whatever ground rules we wish to establish. Whoever does not want to follow those rules can go elsewhere. It’s a free country.
“There is no private space. No library (the women and children are not allowed to read anything from the outside world). No play room for toddlers. No recreational areas for activity outside of sunup-to-sundown work.”
My 15-year-old son (in the middle of reading her article) says, “Why is she lying?”
He was born at the Basin Farm, and the whole place was his front yard, with a huge lawn for Frisbee and volleyball games, farm animals in the back yard, and a great swimming hole in the side yard. Farms are incredible places to learn, where work and play are a continuum. The work/play dichotomy, with one seeming more desirable than the other, tends to promote money-consciousness rather than people-consciousness.
We are not going to have play rooms where toddlers spend hours sampling artificial activities and manipulating colored plastic. This is one reason we love our life together.
If Ms. Thornton had pursued friendships at the Basin Farm, she might have noticed little children caring for goats with their older sister, taking a swim with a group of families, practicing dances, making sourdough bread with a friend…the list goes on. Go to the Common Loaf Bakery in Brattleboro and see the photos of the Basin Farm that have been in the window for several months.
“It became clear that the community had no previous exposure to women working in the fields or anywhere outside of the kitchen.”
I think Ms. Thornton knows this is not true, because she spent time in our café in Rutland, talking to our young women who grew up in the Twelve Tribes.
For anyone truly interested in what our women have to say about their chosen life, please personally visit one of our communities or cafés and talk with our women, or see our Web site at www.twelvetribes.com — type “women” in the Search. At the Common Loaf in Brattleboro, you can talk with Nifla’ah, who manages the bakery with her husband.
A question with a much shorter answer would be, “What do your women not do?”
If Ms.Thornton was dismayed about someone offering to carry her buckets of vegetables, she could have politely said, “No, thank you.” My 9-year-old daughter happened to read that portion of the article, and she asked with concern, “If she was working out in the field carrying something too heavy, and someone else offered to carry it for her, even if they offered it in a kind of funny way, why would that woman twist it all around as if the person was being critical of her?”
My daughter also was disturbed at how her people were portrayed — friends who love her, friends who have taught her, danced with her, worked on the farm with her, told stories to her, played outside, and gone swimming with her. She asked, “Why did the woman say we just stared at her, and our faces were vacant?” Good question. I think my daughter gets an A+ for reading comprehension.
“Members of the Twelve Tribes have an intricate network of beliefs handed down exclusively from their leader, a man named Elbert Eugene Spriggs, who purports to be the second coming of the biblical prophet Elijah.”
This strange comment is not simply a mistaken impression. It is a lie that Ms. Thornton boldly states as fact. We have heard a lot of outrageous things about ourselves in 35 years, but we have not heard this one before. It is sad that in her time with us, Ms. Thornton learned practically nothing about our culture.
For those who are sincerely interested, I will add that many, many of our people have written documents that are used as teachings. One of the foundations of our culture is being able to hear God speak through any of us, even the children.
“Yoneq [the founder of the Twelve Tribes] is a textbook definition of a cult leader who lives in luxury on his several private properties while his minions slave away in the cramped communities without pay, offering all of their worldly assets to the Tribes upon joining.”
None of our leaders have private residences where they live in luxury. We don’t do that. Mark Twain said, “A lie gets halfway around the world before the truth puts its boots on.” This particular lie is a weary world-traveler many times over. It has fueled persecution toward our families on at least three continents.
Our farm is ours, locally, and our homes are ours, wherever we live. So are our businesses. Actually, so are our leaders. Our Messiah said, “The greatest among you shall be the servant of all. Whoever wants to be the greatest shall be the least.” He really knew how to deal with the fallen human desire for recognition and power.
We do work hard, for the benefit of the people we actually live with. We manage our own income, locally. It is not utopia, but it is the most wonderful life on the face of the earth. Shouldn’t eternal life start now, if there is such a thing? Our life of loving and caring for each other, and opening our homes to whomever we wish, is fully worthy of being the beginnings of eternal life.
My friends and I are doing what we want to do. Sometimes people have lived with us who are not really authentic, and they get frustrated and bitter over the demands of loving others. Isn’t it clear yet that selfishness is the root of every kind of hatred and evil?
"We drove down a lonesome country road on the outskirts of town. A turn down another even-more-remote road marked the descent to a sprawling farm."
Our people have lived on the Basin Farm for more than 20 years and participated in many local events. The farm is very well known, sitting just under the local clinic, right at the junction of the two main roads through town.
My mother-in-law remembers coming down as a little girl with her older sisters to get milk from the dairy farmer there. It is highly visible, almost like a fishbowl, with the houses of many neighbors perched around the rim.
We often work for our neighbors, and local people frequent our farm. Several neighbors could watch us all day long by sitting on their back porches. For two decades, local people have been welcomed to take walks through our property and swim in the river.
Even Ms. Thornton is still welcome.
—Sharon Brosseau, Westminster