As the harp started to hymn, the violin danced, and the flute sang, women in primitive long dresses and men in checkered shirts moved in a circle. Holding hands, they swirled, twisted and sprang their limbs in dazzling but unanimous steps.
It was a type of dance I have never seen, and the tallest among all dancers, Yitav (all names used in the article are changed to protect their privacy), was a lanky white-bearded man. Slightly out of breath, he was grinning as he leaned down and picked up the hand of the giggling girl outside the circle.
And I, swayed by the feisty atmosphere, followed suit. My faltering steps did not matter. Along with the melody, we went round and round like a merry-go-round.
I haven’t danced for years. After a year in college in the U.S., I felt increasingly uneasy and unsafe about dancing parties. I have always preferred deep interaction with people, so I drew further away, but I was aware that there was an empty hole growing in my heart, waiting and yearning to be filled by something substantial.
That was a Friday in May. After my last exam in college, I arrived the Twelve Tribes (TT) Community in Oneonta, a small town in Upstate New York, for a 9-day stay.
The TT is not a mystical Christian tribe. Rather, it is the people who believe that they are recreating the twelve tribes of ancient Israel in the Old Testament of the Bible, which is the Commonwealth of Israel. Founded by Elbert Spriggs and his wife during the Jesus Movement in the early 1970s, it is one of the few communal groups that are not just surviving, but thriving amidst the growing cynicism and atheism resulted from the advancement of science and technology. With about two to three thousand members across the world, its members adopt the same lifestyle, share their property, and prepare for Yahshua’s (the name of Jesus pronounced in Hebrew) return.
I found them on the Workaway website, which is a platform for opportunities of working in exchange for free stay. Their description of “living in community” roused my interest, for community is something I associate with communist ideals that seem incongruent to the environment here. And after a simple call to the number left there, I was all set for my adventure.
When I opened the door of the community-run restaurant located in the middle of the town, the Yellow Deli, I was wondering if I opened the Anywhere Door in the cartoon Doraemon and time-travelled to the 18th century.
The smiling people who greeted me were all dressed in simple and peasant-style clothes. Decorated in organic and natural style, the whole restaurant was like an art studio, filled with hand-painted pigments, handmade fireplaces, and even a hand-pulled trolley-bucket system.
They were closing to celebrate Sabbath, which starts on Fridays at sundown and ends on Saturdays at sundown.
On arriving at the community’s house in “tribal” clothes for the celebration before sundown, I was drowned by love and care. Despite of knowing nothing but my name and country of origin, everyone smiled at me, hugged me, eagerly practiced my name, and inquired about how I felt. It seemed too good to be true. And I felt confused by such unconditional outpouring of love.
What was more a struggle to me was how quickly my previous identity dissolved: with solid science background and as a college-sophomore-to-be, I thought I was too rational for such religious and unorthodox things, but as much as I didn’t want to admit, I was starting to feel like part of them.
However, my worries were quickly brushed aside in the angelic cantata and the peppermint-scented summer breeze on the candlelit porch. I had the best meal for the year: the ingredients were all fresh and organic, the cooking – hearty and hale.
My workday in the Deli kitchen started at nine in the morning and ended around five in the afternoon every weekday. For the members, many worked until nine in the evening, and some took midnight shifts. Usually I was assigned with basic chores like washing vegetables, spreading butter, cutting fruits by Marketa, who assumed a managerial role in the kitchen for sisters (how they call female members). Despite of her greater authority, she prepared lunch for all workers, made salad dressing and cut vegetables like any other.
Like any other separatist religious groups, there have been a lot of controversies circling around the Twelve Tribes. Children’s welfare is a huge concern, as group members admit that they use corporeal punishment, and children are homeschooled while participating in labor work.
Another concern is about their unorthodox beliefs. Everyday in the morning and evening, I went to the community house for their religious gatherings, which comprises of worshiping, sharing and praying, followed by a delicious meal. The content to me is nothing more radical than any other religions.
Before I went to the TT, I was not very aware about the controversies and their beliefs. I am also not religious.
In TT, there is no class of leadership who lives by a different standard. More experienced or senior members usually have more authority, but everyone works together, with own share of daily responsibilities and simple chores (housecleaning, gardening, groceries, bartending, serving, kitchen, teaching etc.). Such equality is probably the reason for their harmony. There was not a single incident of yelling or quarrelling, bickering or complaining at least during my entire stay.
As an Asian-born and Asian-bred, I thought that I should be the epitome of resilience and discipline, but I was left ashamed as no member around me showed a single sign of unhappiness about what they have been doing for hours, days, months, and even years.
During one sharing session for the gathering, Hebron, a young lad who had a life full of crisis but now passionately baking bread and playing wonderful guitar, reflected about what makes the TT people different.
A respected elderly member first shared his thought: “I think it is love.”
Many people nodded.
To me, I usually take the need of being loved as a sign of weakness, for that means reliance and being vulnerable. Moreover, the way most Asians express love is very reserved, so I have been used to denying myself the need and desire to be loved.
During dinner on the previous night, Shana started to share with me how she joined the TT a year ago. She was a first-year college student then but became tired of it. She had always enjoyed taking care of homeless children so she dropped out of college after meeting her boyfriend at a homeless hangout.
“We sang, we danced with the kids. Sometimes we ran away from the police, we went everywhere. I was so sick of this world.” Her eyes were sparkling like an innocent child and her young face belied all she had gone through.
As she recounted, tears streamed down and muffled her voice: “But I never felt secure… Sometimes I felt so helpless, so afraid of this… disappointing world. I wanted to run away. I then started to take drugs, but it fed on me.” It was at that pit of her life did she encounter the TT, who sometimes went on the street and distributed their pamphlets.
“It saved me. Here I found love, and purpose. I feel safe.” She smiled so happily with tears at me, and it suddenly became clear to me why some accused the TT as “brainwashing”.
People are most vulnerable when they are lost, desperate and needy.
Over time, I’ve learned that to love others is to let go of our boundaries and to shed away the small baggage of self we carry along. Like how my own insecurity was broken down like a receding tide, bit-by-bit. I was becoming more comfortable and secure about sharing my feelings, surrendering my weaknesses with other members.
But at times, I could not shake away a growing sense of alarm.
I could not help wondering the meaning behind such way of life. Sometimes it didn’t make sense to me, for I was not realizing my potential – I felt like an Industrial Age factory worker in a commune — there was no creativity, no room for personal input that I valued greatly. Most of the time, I was simply too tired to think about anything because of the long period of standing for work. And when I finished my menial chores, I had to wash up, go to the gathering, have community dinner. By the time I got back to my room, all I wanted to do was to collapse in my bed.
It has been two months since I left the TT. Sometimes I still think about them — those good-hearted people, that simple and loving community. While it is like a safe haven against this complicated and sometimes troubled world, I know that I still love the real world more, with all its ugliness and beauty, sorrows and joys.
I want to remain open-minded to new cultures and new experience, and to quote Thoreau, I will “live deep and suck out all the marrow of life”.
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Quanzhi Quo is a sophomore at Colgate University. You can contact Quanzhi Guo at email@example.com.