The Doomsday Prophets on Main Street
Massachusetts has long been fertile ground for religious sects like Twelve Tribes. The group has already settled in Plymouth, Dorchester, Hyannis, and Athol. Newton, Wellesley, and Harvard Square may be next for a group that requires members to give up their possessions, follow the Bible word-for-word, and prepare for the end of the world. They may be coming to your street next - and might just be the friendliest neighbors you've ever had.
Twelve Tribes members, including Lavah Howley (center), dance and dine together on Friday nights in Plymouth. (Photo / Wiqan Ang)
The inside of the former flower shop on Plymouth's Main Street looks hardly promising, with its drop ceiling, walls covered with faux-oak paneling and latticework, and empty walk-in refrigerators that once held lilies and roses. But by spring, 34-year-old twins Craig and Scott Herrick envision the space remodeled into a two-story cafe that will celebrate New England's past, specifically the Plymouth Pilgrims and their leader William Bradford and the importance of the separation of church and state. (Yes, this will be different from themed eateries like Bugaboo Creek Steak House and Hard Rock Cafe.) It will have an atrium, a smoothie bar, and a large fireplace and will connect to the adjacent Common Sense Market, a purveyor of natural foods and handmade wooden furniture. And if plans unfold as hoped, the cafe will be joined a few months later by a bakery just off Main Street. The brothers have been planning all this ambitious development, as well as similar projects around the country, but for their efforts they won't receive a penny.
That's because on a bright September morning in 1993, the twins emerged from the waters of Dorchester Bay as freshly baptized members of Twelve Tribes, a worldwide communal religious group with a growing presence in Greater Boston. They'd first encountered the group at a Grateful Dead concert a year earlier in Chicago, where Twelve Tribes had parked its large "Peacemaker" bus, offering tea and cookies and understanding to parking-lot revelers wandering around in various stages of intoxication. A sign on the bus offered "We know the way. We'll bring you home."
The encounter intrigued them. Scott Herrick had just graduated with an economics degree from Boston College and Craig Herrick had finished his fourth year of architecture school at Syracuse University, yet both were seeking a life with greater purpose. So with their baptismal dip, the Herricks renounced individualism and self-determination, pledged to live and work communally, and dedicated their lives to serve Yahshua, as they call Jesus, and to prepare for his return and the end of the world. They expected family and friends to hail their decision, but that wasn't quite the case. "We used to be these pot-smoking Deadheads," says Craig Herrick, "and then we changed to these clean-living spiritual people, and everyone thought we'd either lost our minds or that the group had taken control of our thinking."
Six months after joining, Craig and Scott Herrick took the Hebrew names Yochanan and Yacob, after the apostles John and James. The twins soon found themselves doing demolition work and nailing baseboard on the community's commercial construction projects in Massachusetts, but within a few years Twelve Tribes elders realized the two educated brothers who'd come in "from the world" could better serve the group in other capacities. Today, Craig Herrick oversees the day-to-day logistics of BOJ Construction, a Twelve Tribes Plymouth-based construction company and its largest business, and Scott Herrick serves as the tax and financial adviser for the dozens of businesses Twelve Tribes operates in 12 states, from stores selling natural foods or handmade soap to cafes to farms. Craig Herrick, who says there is no official membership count, estimates that there are between 100 and 150 members in Massachusetts. The group's businesses have been thriving over the last five years - grossing millions of dollars and enabling the community to purchase houses and storefronts all over the United States.
But if this sounds like a religious Horatio Alger story, critics say the group is a destructive, controlling cult and decry some of its practices, such as disciplining children with switches. Since its founding 30 years ago, Twelve Tribes has seen high-profile child custody cases when estranged spouses tried to leave the group and fines for child labor violations. Allegations of child abuse led to a 1984 raid of a Twelve Tribes community in Island Pond, Vermont, with 90 state troopers and 50 social workers taking 112 children from the community. But the children were returned later that day and the case was dismissed, with the judge calling the raid a "grossly negligent misuse of state power." The ruling galvanized the group, which believed its divine mandate had been affirmed. Eddie Wiseman of Plymouth, who goes by the name Hakam, had his four children taken in the raid. He now says, "Getting our children back was a Red Sea moment for us. It showed us that God favored us and what we were doing."
Today, despite occasional confrontations - like one this past June when a 14-year-old girl, recognized as a Twelve Tribes member because of her plain, modest dress, was attacked by a Plymouth woman who, police say, punched the girl and called her "a disgrace to God" - the Massachusetts members mostly blend in peacefully in the towns where they settle. Charles Purro, who owns a shop near the community's Plymouth businesses, remembers how members dug out his driveway during one of last winter's storms and says, "They're the best neighbors I've ever had."
The members will need that neighborly love. In addition to the commercial and residential properties owned by the group in Plymouth, Dorchester's Lower Mills, Hyannis, and Athol - and holdings in other states and countries - Twelve Tribes hopes to buy property in Harvard Square and maybe Wellesley and Newton. This acquisitive strategy, while it smacks of shrewd entrepreneurship, is part of the religious community's grand preparation. Because until Yahshua does return, there are Gospels to preach and businesses to run.
This nation trusts in God, and it shows. Evangelical Protestants have mobilized as a significant political force; the culture is engaged in noisy debate about evolution and intelligent design; our president cites Jesus Christ as his favorite philosopher. And across the country, the number of new religious groups continues to increase, according to David Bromley, a sociology professor at Virginia Commonwealth University. "People flock to alternative religions during times of great sectarian schisms, especially as American society becomes more modern and postmodern," he says. "You have conservative and evangelical churches splitting off from the main churches regularly, and there are always schisms and new groups popping up, and now there are more groups being created than die out."
In particular, Massachusetts is and has been a hotbed of religious activity, despite our image as a haven of secular liberalism. Plymouth, where Twelve Tribes now owns five properties, is where a group of true believers from England attempted one of the most novel social and religious experiments in history. The historical resonance isn't lost on Twelve Tribes, whose members consider themselves the "new Pilgrims." "It's a really important place," Scott Herrick says. "This town was established for the sake of religious freedom." The state has given birth to religious groups large and small, including the First Church of Christ, Scientist, founded by Mary Baker Eddy in 1879 in Boston, and The Body, the tiny Attleboro sect started in the 1970s that made headlines in 1999 when the malnourished infant of a member died.
Today, the state's tolerant atmosphere and abundance of students make it fertile soil for new religious groups. "After people turn 30, they don't really change. They get set in their ways," says Jason LaBerge, now Hosah, who went to architecture school with Craig Herrick and joined Twelve Tribes a few months before the twins in 1993, when they were all in their early 20s. "But at that age their minds are open, they're more receptive to new ideas, they're more likely to hear the word of God."
The ambitious plans of Twelve Tribes have Robert Pardon worried. The Reformed Episcopal minister is the founder of the Lakeville-based New England Institute of Religious Research, a two-person operation that fights what he calls "high-control" Bible-based groups and new-age groups. He is also the director of MeadowHaven, a residential treatment center for former members of these groups, also in Lakeville. Pardon says that New England is a top area for new religious movements. "This area is the genesis of democracy in our country, and you have many educational institutions that encourage a lot of free thinking. It's allowed and encouraged a diversity of thought, which has resulted in an explosion of religious expressions." Pardon, who's been especially critical of Twelve Tribes over the past decade, says six former members of the group have stayed at MeadowHaven, and he claims he's helped more than a hundred other former members move back into society. Several former members, who declined to be named, spoke of being disillusioned with the group. One, a New York woman, runs a website for former members, www .twelvetribes-ex.org.
Bromley describes Twelve Tribes as "trying to resist secular trends by banding together and living a distinctive lifestyle. They have a much stronger sense of community and much different definition of individual person, which makes them much more likely to run afoul with regulatory agencies. Right now, the leading-edge thinkers believe that spanking is child abuse. So . . . you're going to get a lot of run-ins with social workers."
Started in the early 1970s by a man named Elbert Eugene Spriggs in Chattanooga, Tennessee, Twelve Tribes was one of many communal groups that sprouted during the Jesus Movement that mixed hippie ethos with Christianity in the 1960s and 1970s. It's one of the few still around and thriving. Members eschew alcohol and recreational drugs, maintain a homegrown organic diet, and await the end of the world in the spirit of Thessalonians: "He will come to rescue His people and inflict vengeance on those who refuse to obey the good news." To them, every word in the Bible comes from God, and literal obedience to his commands is required. "Our Father wasn't handing out a multiple-choice exam," says Scott Herrick. "You can't pick and choose which parts you want to follow and which parts you don't."
Members believe they are re-creating the Twelve Tribes of Israel, the descendants of the 12 sons of the Biblical patriarch Jacob. One of the prophesies in the book of the Revelation says Yahshua will not return until the Twelve Tribes re-form and produce 144,000 pure and virginal young males to send out and warn the populace about his impending return. So the lives of current-day Twelve Tribes members are about preparing for that future - preparing devout and obedient children to have the children who will have the children who will have the children who will produce the virgin men.
In 1984, the year of the Vermont raid, the group counted 350 members. Today, it claims about 3,000 to 4,000 members worldwide, in 25 communities and in scattered homes throughout the United States and in another 17 communities in eight other countries. Members live together in group homes and share all their earnings. Twelve Tribes' rare nonprofit tax status, designed by the IRS for communal religious groups, stipulates that the community can run for-profit businesses but that no one receives more money or property than anyone else and that new members relinquish their possessions before joining and take nothing if they leave. All Twelve Tribes workers are technically "volunteers"; their earnings go to a treasury overseen by elders and used to support the community. Though members say the group can get exemptions from property taxes in Plymouth and elsewhere, they say they pay them to contribute to the cities and towns.
Members get up for community prayer and traditional Israeli circle dancing at 6 every morning except on the Sabbath, which starts Friday at sundown and ends Saturday at sundown. They don't take vacations and they work six days a week. Some members, usually the women, are assigned to buy groceries and clothes; what clothes aren't purchased at thrift stores are handmade by members. Children are home-schooled. Medical bills are paid out-of-pocket.
On a typical Sabbath in Plymouth, adolescents and adults might play volleyball or pitch horseshoes behind the Twelve Tribes communal house on Warren Avenue, a former nursing home the group has been refurbishing for the past five years. About 30 members live there, including Scott Herrick and his family. Swarms of laughing children dig deep holes or tunnels with shovels and wagons - they're preparing for their future work, after all. Not far away, BOJ backhoes and tractor-trailers are parked. Goats bleat behind a fence.
Parents fiercely shield their children from outside influences. "I'd rather have an open sewer in my living room than a television set," says Scott Herrick, "because at least you can clean up and remove the filth from the sewer afterwards." Though Twelve Tribes continues to demand strict parenting, Craig Herrick admits that the community made mistakes earlier. "The communal aspect wasn't the best model for child rearing," he says. Having children leave their mother's side part of each day and join "baby training" by age 1 turned out to be a problem, and some children born into the community in the 1970s left as they got older. Now mother and child bond until the child is 6, and group education is delayed. Other changes have been implemented to limit children's unsupervised contact with outsiders. Bicycles were once freely used by children but are now closely monitored and generally withheld.
While members don't have televisions or ready access to the Internet (except for those who need it for work), the adults do catch snippets of popular culture. Craig Herrick's wife, Kate, 26, who goes by the name Shalemah, says that while they lived in California she would switch on the radio during trips to the store and catch the broadcast of conservative commentator Dr. Laura Schlessinger's national radio show.
Although Twelve Tribes has been accused of subjugating women, Scott Herrick's wife, Heather, 28, who's taken the name Shifkah, calls that a misperception. "Submission to your husband is because that's the order of things, but that doesn't mean that he doesn't listen to me," she says. "I guarantee I would not be here if it was like that."
Many religious groups amass significant property holdings, and Twelve Tribes has been no different. In the past five years, members say, the group has almost doubled the number of its communities across the country, buying residential and commercial real estate with each new settlement, from a residence in a historic area of Savannah, Georgia, to an avocado farm in Southern California purchased for $1.6 million in 2003. And Twelve Tribes recently started a development company that is helping develop two 32-story waterfront condominium buildings and other properties in Fort Myers, Florida.
In many ways, the rise of BOJ Construction, Twelve Tribes' largest business, mirrored the group's evolution. BOJ began in Dorchester in 1984 as Bill's Odd Jobs - one Twelve Tribes member and an old pickup - and today it's a national operation with around 50 skilled and unskilled workers, from carpenters to master plumbers, all members of the religious group. The construction outfit specializes in finish carpentry for commercial projects and works regularly for companies like Sunrise Nursing Homes and Suffolk Construction. According to Craig Herrick, BOJ Construction has grown steadily over the past five years and will hit the $5 million mark this year. Future BOJ work includes forays into other states, including Texas. "Going to Texas, it gives us an opportunity to move in there and see what happens, test waters," says Craig Herrick. "The construction ends up being a vehicle for development and outreach."
BOJ also builds custom homes. Madeleine and James Mulvihill learned about the company while shopping at the Common Sense Market and had BOJ build their house in Plymouth last year. "The way they conducted themselves was the most unusual thing," she says. "There was no blaring radios, no swearing, no yelling, no disagreements or arguments. They always showed up at 7 a.m., and they were always busy. They were really wonderful people and couldn't do enough for us."
Members say their beliefs help them succeed in the secular world of commerce. "BOJ is only possible because of the community," Craig Herrick says. "How in the world can you get 100 men to volunteer all their time and work nonstop?"
Mark Starrett, a Winchester-based real estate developer, has used BOJ since 1989 to build 10 Dunkin' Donuts, among other projects. "When I tell other contractors to do something by December 1st, I think they nod and then laugh as they drive away. But BOJ has it done by December 1st. . . . Craig and his brother, they put a lot of time into the office and the computerization and have become more efficient. They've become a very professional organization."
Twelve Tribes uses its building know-how when setting up new communities as well. Members look for white elephants to refurbish, ramshackle houses in residential neighborhoods that they can move into or rundown storefronts on main streets in depressed towns where they can set up one of their cottage industries. In 1998, the group began turning a burned-out brick building in Lancaster, New Hampshire, into a shoe and clothing outlet.
The group's real estate expansion has been opportune: It bought its first Main Street storefront in Plymouth in 1999 for $174,000, and the 2005 property assessment is $646,500. Its five real estate holdings in Plymouth are worth about $3.5 million. To members looking for signs from Yahshua that they're doing good, the rise in property values bodes well.
One day in July, Craig Herrick sat in front of the empty flower shop behind a rickety folding table laden with pamphlets and newspapers. He offered tea and cookies to passing tourists, many of whom paused but continued on after glancing at titles like "In the Shadow of Colossus" and "Got Enlightenment?" The line "Go ye into all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature" has caused more pamphleteering and knocks on doors than perhaps any other injunction. Yet like many religious groups, Twelve Tribes has become smarter over the years about its evangelism. Members won't come to your door and bombard you with biblical quotes, but they'll try other methods to spread the word of Yahshua.
The Peacemaker bus - which first brought the word to the Herrick twins - has logged more than a million miles. The community is working on a second and bigger Peacemaker. Ephrayim Masse, 20, who was born into Twelve Tribes, is one of the first-aid providers who accompanies the Peacemaker. "The point is to go out and talk to and meet people," Masse explains after a recent reggae festival in Vermont. (He says that he's never heard of Bob Marley.)
At another recent outing, this time at a Billy Graham event in Queens, New York, Twelve Tribes sent more than 200 members who handed out literature and talked to people entering. They say their efforts netted at least three new converts: a young pregnant woman (who has since left the group) and two young men, one from Ecuador and one from Mexico. Other outreach approaches, relatively new for the group, include its slick websites and a hostel in Rutland, Vermont, where weary travelers get a hot meal, a bed, and exposure to Twelve Tribes ideology. Last year, the group bought a dilapidated 120-foot schooner in Georgia for about $300,000. Members hope to finish refurbishing it by next summer, when the boat will sail to ports near Twelve Tribes communities. An onboard cafe will be open to visitors. "Someday it'll come into Plymouth," Craig Herrick says, "and that'll be an amazing day."
LaBerge, who still feeds his interest in architecture by scouting properties for the group, has his eye on the areas around Boston where students congregate. He's especially interested in Harvard Square and once made an inquiry about his favorite structure there, the triangular three-story building at the intersection of Mt. Auburn and Bow streets - though it's not likely that the Harvard Lampoon would ever part with its castle.
LaBerge discovered the site during his own pursuit of one of Twelve Tribes' most successful evangelical tactics: sending pairs of walkers out into the world for days at a time, to go wherever they feel directed and perhaps find a lost soul who's looking for God. This summer, LaBerge found himself trekking through the wilds of Wellesley, which seemed particularly friendly and hospitable. With Wellesley College, Babson College, and other nearby schools, it could be the kind of place the group might want to open a restaurant or cafe. On a previous walk, he found himself in Newton, which he also considered a promising site for an eatery.
On a Friday or Saturday night in Plymouth, sometimes people scream "cult" as they speed by the Warren Avenue compound. But the Herrick brothers have other concerns. They are praying for more workers and for people with needed skills, such as dentistry, to join the community.
Eventually, the hope is that each cluster of Twelve Tribes members throughout the country will have its own construction outfit that will earn income and also build the 300-person lodges the brothers anticipate that Twelve Tribes will need as the Apocalypse nears and more apostles join. Craig and Scott Herrick don't think they're likely to live to see Yahshua's return, but they are philosophical about their place in the evolution of the community.
"We're in the foundational stage," says Craig Herrick. "If you consider the community as a building, we're laying the foundation, which is the hardest and most important part. If you don't take time to do soil testing, put in the proper subbasement and draining, the building won't last. . . . It's a lot of work and we probably won't see the results in our lifetime, but we know a great building is going up and that people will see the building from a long way away."
Christopher Dreher is a writer who lives in Plymouth. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.