The early '70s would not have been such a special time in the Chattanooga area without The Yellow Deli. Remember those luscious fruit salads, great sandwiches, fresh salads, and homemade desserts? There was something about the warm and rustic atmosphere that drew people like a magnet. It became an important part of the lives of so, so many Chattanoogans back in those days. Fond memories linger on...
And who can forget that catchy little slogan at the bottom of the hand-drawn Yellow Deli menu that proudly announced, "We serve the fruit of the Spirit... Why not ask?" It was not so much a boast as a matter of fact. Somehow God's love had been communicated to our hearts in such a way that all we wanted to do was pass on that love, joy, and peace spoken of in the New Testament. Though at the time, a good restaurant and spiritual concepts seemed to have little in common, but for "the Yellow Deli people" it was the perfect combination. For us, it was somehow like the "treasure hidden in a field," and the "pearl of great value"... it was a salvation that had a practical outworking and not just a Sunday-go-to-meeting mentality. Our Savior meant everything to us, so working together to serve the best food in the best atmosphere, with all of our hearts, seemed a normal response. The fruit of the Spirit was produced naturally from the good tree of happy believers working together.
That was the motive in the hearts of Gene and Marsha Spriggs when they opened the first Yellow Deli on Brainerd Road in May of 1973. They wanted to have a place where people from all walks of life could come into the deli and touch a living demonstration of God's love in those who served them. They created a warm, informal atmosphere in this 24-hours-a-day cafe where the people of Chattanooga could come anytime and feel welcome and enjoy good food and friendship. Many still carry fond memories of their times at the Yellow Deli, because it was more than just food... it was an experience of the heart that they enjoyed there, and times like that are not easily forgotten.
It all started in East Ridge in a simple little house on Ringgold Road. We hung a sign above the front door saying, "The Light House." We had the hope that in the darkness of our troubled society, we could reach out with the pure love of God we had found like a beacon of light to lost people in the midst of a storm. We understood little more than this in the early '70s when we began. We were young and small and not so powerful, but our love and zeal for our Savior was strong. We wanted to share this love with everyone we saw. We sought out other Christians with whom to fellowship. We visited many local churches, and when we moved our home from East Ridge to a neighborhood near the UTC campus, we ended up going to First Presbyterian Church, which was just down the street. We called our new home the "Vine House."
We were convinced that the love of Jesus could change the world if people could just see it being lived out in reality on a daily basis. We had a burning desire to see that love even heal the strife and division we were seeing between the Christian churches we grew up in. In our midst at the Vine House, we continued to try to be obedient to the commands of Christ in reality. Sadly, it felt as if our uncompromising stand began to drive a wedge between us and those who preferred a life of compromise. Many people who encountered us at the Yellow Deli commented that they saw us like a breath of fresh air, something new and genuine, and many were being saved.
At that time, we were still attending First Presbyterian Church every Sunday and went to "727" (their potluck fellowship) every Wednesday night. Though we recognized the obvious distinction between our simple zeal and the more elaborate religious structure of the established church, we continued trying to reach out to the sincere in that church and hoped that healing could spread to the Body of Christ throughout Chattanooga. We could sense that God wanted to stir up His people and restore something that had been lost in the first church in Jerusalem long ago.
But as time went on, we sensed that there was something holding people back from having the same "sold-out" zeal we had found. We knew from our Savior's own words that the greatest hindrance to giving a hundred percent to God comes when we love the world or the things of this world. We groped and struggled to understand whether this was somehow the cause for so many who profess faith to be so very lukewarm. But then, on January 12, 1975, came a turning point for us. When we arrived at the church we had been attending for the evening service, the door was locked and there was a sign saying: "There will be no evening service this Sunday because of the Super Bowl."
Shocked and confused, we sadly returned home. What could this mean? What could be more important than worshiping our God? We had thought that everyone in the church really loved our heavenly Father, but the Apostle John wrote, "Do not love the world or the things of the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him."1 Additionally, James wrote that friendship with the world is hostility toward God.2 Wasn't the Super Bowl a thing of the world? Could it be a prime example of what the Apostle John warned about at the end of his letter? "Little children, keep yourselves from idols."3
It wasn't just a matter of a one-day event. Church being canceled for the Super Bowl revealed to us that the affairs of the world were more important than the fellowship of the saints, than building the church to be the witness of Christ that Paul had in his heart when he wrote Ephesians 4:11-16. At that point, we quit going to church and started being the church. Like a baby eagle set free to fly, we found it liberating to just be "simple believers" who could daily live out our faith, rather than trying to spend our time trying to justify the religious system with its many contradictions. Intellectuals can quickly disqualify the faith proclaimed by the Son of God by merely pointing out the half-hearted lifestyle of those who claim to be His followers. We wanted nothing to do with that kind of belief, and hoped to live a daily life of faith that would prove to the world that God really did send His Son.4
From that point on, our road was not clearly marked for us. We began to feel a bit like pioneers forging a path that had long been overgrown since the early church days. We didn't want to be just one more division in an already hopelessly divided system of Christianity. We trusted in God's love and we knew that He would lead us and reveal Himself to us as we walked this way.
We knew that the love of God we had found compelled us to love one another with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength. We began to see and experience that love producing a life that was beginning to look like the pattern we saw in the Book of Acts, chapters 2 and 4. In the simplicity of this faith, we started meeting in the Rose Garden at Warner Park on McCallie Avenue in Chattanooga every Sunday.
We called our gatherings "Critical Mass," not because of anything to do with "Sunday Mass," but rather because of the scientific definition describing the chain reaction effect that happens within an atom. Our informal gatherings were not led by one man, but were free for each person to spontaneously speak whatever was on his or her heart. Though we had not planned it that way, we found that our meetings resembled what was written about by the Apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 14:24-26,
If all prophesy, and an unbeliever or outsider enters, he is convicted by all, he is called to account by all, the secrets of his heart are disclosed, and so, falling on his face, he will worship God and declare that God is really among you. What then, brothers? When you come together, each one has a hymn, a lesson, a revelation, another language, or an interpretation. Let all things be done for building up.
No longer was everything scheduled as it had been in the established church -- when and what to sing or say, and only the preacher being allowed to bring a teaching from the Word. The freedom of "Critical Mass" was exhilarating.
Almost overnight, some of the church leaders began to accuse Gene Spriggs of "turning inward" once we began having Critical Mass. They started spreading rumors that he was on an authority trip and that that was why he and the Vine House people stopped going to First Presbyterian Church. These rumors escalated to the accusation that the people of the Yellow Deli were "brainwashed" and under "mind control"! This unfounded accusation spread fear among some of the parents who had previously been so happy that their rebellious, immoral teenagers had been forgiven and found a life of love and friendship with the Yellow Deli people. Those fears led some parents to hire "deprogrammers."
"Deprogramming" had been introduced to the public in the early '70s as a supposedly harmless way to change the mind of someone. It was a technique that had been used by the military in warfare to combat the physically torturous techniques of brainwashing used by the Chinese on American soldiers. The people using this technique charged high fees and would forcefully kidnap people, hold them captive against their will, and try to take their beliefs out of their minds and put into their minds what they wanted them to believe. All manner of fear and intimidation were used by these people to reach this goal. It was used by Catholics to deprogram Baptist family members, by Baptists to deprogram Mormon family members, but used more so to get young people out of new religious or spiritual groups that sprang up in the '60s and '70s outside the mainstream. The list of victims went on and on until brainwashing was finally proven in court not to be valid. Many deprogrammers were jailed for their practices, and many have had huge lawsuits against them. Now, in 2006, deprogramming is viewed as a despised practice of uneducated fanatics rather than the "excellent liberating technique" that it was first advertised to be. Many good citizens were robbed of thousands of dollars by these hucksters.
Misinformed parents here in Chattanooga hired these men to kidnap their adult children to have them deprogrammed, urging them to go back to the empty lives they had left behind.5
One parent, who was a detective, had a false charge filed against his daughter so that he could have her arrested. He then whisked her away to a remote place in Alabama to have her deprogrammed by Ted Patrick. He paid Patrick $30,000! The deprogramming was unsuccessful, and the father ruined his relationship with his daughter for the rest of his life. The daughter's account of all this is eye-opening.6
Though most of these attempts at deprogramming were ultimately unsuccessful, the general public never heard the whole story. All they got from the press was propaganda put out by a newly formed anti-cult movement, designed to rob people of their freedom of religion and create an atmosphere of "moral panic" in the general public.
The deprogrammings made front-page headlines in the Chattanooga Times. Fear and suspicion spread like wildfire to the point that even the Christian colleges made the Yellow Deli off-limits for their students. The love and hospitality that had once been our trademark of serving the fruit of the Spirit was being viewed as an indication of something evil.
Sadly, it was mainly the religious leaders who promoted this type of fear and accusation, even speaking openly in the press about it, becoming mouthpieces for the anti-cult agenda, and attempting to alienate their congregations and student bodies from the loving people of the Yellow Deli. In a scene similar to the Salem Witch Trials, the accused were not given freedom to defend themselves. We went to a local church to listen to a young woman who had been invited to speak about her "deprogramming" from this dangerous "cult" by Ted Patrick. She began giving a very tainted and horrible-sounding account of our life in the Community. She tried to make the care we had for one another in our daily lives sound like something strange, something to be afraid of.
When we stood up to ask her about the confusing and untrue things she was saying, the deacons of the church literally dragged us out of the church and pushed us down the ten or so front steps of the church. Yes, we were thrown down the steps of the local church! We were stunned! Why were we being so violently rejected by our fellow Christians? Why were all these preachers listening to rumors and anti-cult propaganda and spreading this fear from the pulpit? Didn't they know that Proverbs 17:4 says, "An evildoer listens to wicked lips; and a liar gives heed to a destructive tongue"?
In spite of all this negative publicity the concept of the Areopagus began to form. Gene and Marsha had it in their hearts to provide a place for Christians, both clergy and laity, to come and address the problems in the church, and to find the remedy for the divisions that have been a stain and a plague to Christianity for centuries. They wanted to provide a place similar to the one spoken of in the Bible7 where they allowed so-called "vain babblers" like the Apostle Paul to come and share their latest new philosophy. In the Bible the place was called the Areopagus. Paul used this place of old to reveal to all the wise men and philosophers of his day the true God.
An old building just across from the Rose Garden in Warner Park became available, and so we set ourselves to a massive restoration project to make it into a unique place where everyone would feel welcome. We cherished the hope that this Areopagus on McCallie Avenue would be a catalyst to unite the Body of Christ in Chattanooga.
Unfortunately, this vision for unity was for the most part not embraced by the churches in Chattanooga. However, university students from Christian and non-Christian schools alike and many other citizens from around the area flocked to the Areopagus, in spite of the "off-limits" policies of some of the schools. The students and the general public loved the spirit there and wanted to find real answers to the real problems they saw in the church and in society. To most of them, the Areopagus was a wonderful place, and a handful of them joined with us at that time. But it was not so with the leadership. The lack of interest we encountered from the local churches as a whole was a sad blow to us.
Prejudice and fear spread to the point that some workers at Provident hung a sign in the top floor windows that read "Cult Go Home!" When we saw this sign as we walked past their building on our way downtown, we understood our Savior's words in Luke 6:20 in the Phillips translation which reads, "How happy you are when men hate you and turn you out of their company, when they slander you and detest all that you stand for because you are loyal to the Son of Man. Be glad when that happens and jump for joy. Your reward in heaven is magnificent, for that is exactly how their fathers treated the prophets." After the Times published a series of articles casting Gene Spriggs as a dangerous man, and the rest of the little band of Yellow Deli people as brainwashed abusers of children who were under the mind control of a dangerous cult leader, several of our leaders went to the newspaper to confront the reporter who wrote the article. The reporter made it clear that he was not interested in what we had to say! We were astonished to begin to realize that the press, the churches, and most of the administrations of the Christian colleges had been taken in by the "cult scare" of the '70s led by Ted Patrick, whose claims of "brainwashing" and "mind control" are now widely discredited.
At about the same time, our communal lifestyle began to solidify into a wonderful new little culture of sorts. No longer just a band of zealous single people working together with Gene and Marsha to help people, now we started having marriages and young families. Children were born and the young parents sought to "train them up in the way they should go"8 as the Scriptures commanded. This included the clear biblical advice on spanking and good parenting practices. We were astonished to find that local social services did not agree with these biblical child-rearing practices, even calling it "child abuse."
Contrary to the U.S. Constitution that prohibits the state getting involved with church matters, it appears that the local government offices were somehow alerted that we were evil-doers. So, here began our first conflict with the local authorities, and our discomfort with being scrutinized by governmental workers who considered good citizens to be guilty without being given a proper hearing. They began to launch investigations into how we were raising our children, coming to our homes and demanding to examine them. The presses cranked out their unfounded accusations, trying to vilify our good life with their character assassinations and slander. Simple old-fashioned child discipline was portrayed as horrendous child abuse.
Such inflammatory words caused many in Chattanooga to question their once-trusted friends from the Yellow Deli. "Had those nice people really gone mad and turned into religious cultists who hurt children?" Well, the accusations did not match with the daily life they had witnessed among us for the past several years, so many refused to listen to the slander. And all the negative publicity left us undaunted in our pursuit of that good biblical life we hoped to restore to this planet. We knew that the biblical pattern of child raising would vindicate itself. And 20 years later, an article in Time Magazine revealed that most pediatricians approve of parents spanking their children in certain situations.9 "Time will tell," the old saying goes. A decades-long decrease in spanking corresponds to a proportionate increase (not a decrease) in child abuse and antisocial behavior among children. (Gene Spriggs' upcoming book, When the Spanking Stopped, All Hell Broke Loose, will tell the tale.)
It was at this time of trouble in Chattanooga that we met another great crossroad in our lives, for even though our one little Yellow Deli on Brainerd Road had expanded to seven Yellow Delis in the towns surrounding Chattanooga, our financial success was not what we were seeking. The Areopagus was a success, bringing Christian music groups into town for live concerts, and often having live theatrics on the stage. But this kind of success was also not our goal. We must be free to live the life of the early church, which included training our children.
At this point, we started going downtown at the noon hour and began to lift up our voice in the streets of Chattanooga. On one of these days, we were attacked by a Christian man and one of his friends at the corner of Eighth and Market Street. They were screaming accusations at us as the Christian began hitting one of our brothers in the head with his fists. A large crowd gathered as the police arrived. Was this America, the land of the free? But rather than being gently questioned about his well-being after this brutal attack, our brother was arrested and put into a police car. Oddly, the attacker was being released on his own recognizance, while three other brothers who were with the one who had been attacked got into the police car and off to jail they all went! Our brothers were held in jail overnight with a cold steel slab to sleep on and only an open toilet to share. The next day in court, our brothers told the judge what had happened, and said they wanted to forgive the attacker and drop any charges of assault against him. The wise judge saw the injustice of all that happened to our brothers and closed the case.
The attacker and other inflamed citizens had been hoping to use this courtroom as a platform with the press to get their accusations on the six o'clock news, but forgiveness prevailed and everyone went home before the cameras could even start rolling!
All this negative publicity did not hurt our restaurant business, but it dampened our desire to remain in a society that refused to let its people be free to live according to their conscience.
At this time, a young man from "up north" who had been attending Covenant College, began coming around the Yellow Deli when he heard it was "off-limits." He loved our spirit and became one of us. He told us of a group of believers in Vermont who were seeking to find a life of love like the one Jesus talked about in the gospels. He invited those folks to come to Chattanooga to visit us. They paid us a visit, participating in our life and greatly enjoying our Yellow Deli and Areopagus. They invited Gene and Marsha to come to Island Pond, Vermont, to help them begin the life they had witnessed in Chattanooga.
In May of 1978, the community at the Vine House gathered and laid hands on Gene and Marsha, along with two other couples, and sent them off to this remote village in northern Vermont. Once in New England, it became increasingly clear that there was an open door for us. People were more liberal there, open to new ways of doing things, and still allowed personal freedoms that we were sadly losing at home in Chattanooga. Little by little we sold our properties in Chattanooga, closed all seven of the Yellow Delis, and bought houses in Island Pond, Vermont. We found a famous quote from George Whitefield, an evangelist from the "Great Awakening" in the 19th century: "If you want to take America for Christ, you have to take New England first." So, we would take America, and we would start in New England!
In New England, Gene and Marsha went to Plymouth Rock in Plymouth, Massachusetts, where the Pilgrims first landed. As they gazed at the famous rock, they prayed that whatever was from God in the spirit of the Pilgrims could still be fulfilled. There had to be religious freedom for a true movement of restoration to begin. Like the Pilgrims of old, this hope began to open up a whole new realm of understanding of who we were. For the original Pilgrim Separatists who landed in Plymouth in 1620 desired to restore what they called "the primitive pattern of the Word of God." This pattern is described in Acts 2 and 4. They did not want to remain in the apostasy of the Church of England, but desired to go back to the foundation of what the apostles taught in the beginning.10 We took identity with the Separatists and realized that this was the heart that Gene and Marsha prayed would be preserved in us.
So, as you can see, your old friends, "the Yellow Deli people," did not become just some off-beat Christian cult, but rather took on a much deeper hope. That hope is very similar to the one which burned in the hearts of those brave Pilgrims who we all revere so greatly as "foundation stones" of America. There are many people back in England who even today still consider what those Pilgrim Separatists did to be very wrong -- separating as they did and fleeing to America for freedom of religion. It is God who will ultimately judge that debate.
The foundation that the Pilgrims attempted to lay, but ceased to build on, is the foundation we started building on in New England. It began from a preserved seed11 that germinated here in Chattanooga, but sprouted in Island Pond, Vermont. From there our movement grew until we were sent out all over New England and then on to several countries around the world. Now we are often called the "Twelve Tribes Communities," numbering about 50 communities in nine countries around the world.
Today, those of us from Chattanooga are coming back to bring a greater witness and a greater understanding of the Kingdom of God in these very serious and important times we live in. The beginning ember of what we are now becoming was kindled in the Yellow Deli long ago. We are coming back filled with hope -- hope for those who left us long ago, and for our friends who were drawn to the faint light in us and still hold fond memories of their times with us, and for those who we look forward to meeting for the first time.