I have encountered the Twelve Tribes several times over the years, usually at the booth they would set up at public events like Ciclovia, or the annual Peace and Justice Festival. On one occasion I visited their restaurant on Sherbrook Street and had an enjoyable meal there. I had always had it in the back of my mind to visit their Friday gatherings at their homes in the East Gate area, but never quite got around to it.
In the spring of 2013, I happened to cross paths with an old acquaintance, a young mother of two. I remember her being very active with the environmental community. We had collaborated on some actions together about six or seven years ago. Shortly afterwards she volunteered with us for a time as a reporter and host at the campus-based radio station CKUW. On one occasion, the two of us managed to gain admittance to a public talk in Winnipeg and managed to level some pretty tough questions at then US Ambassador to Canada David Wilkins.
This woman, who I’ll refer to as Stephanie, was now ardently involved with the Twelve Tribes of Israel. She had embraced a Hebrew name, embraced their lifestyle and religious views, and lived in the community.
While I was surprised, I accepted her decision to live her life as she saw fit.
A little later, I received an email from a friend who started referring to the Twelve Tribes as a child-abusing cult. He had been a regular visitor to the community’s get-togethers. As a health practitioner, he treated a few of them on site. Moreover, his partner, the mother of his child, had chosen to join the community.
He filled me in on the details, and sent me a list of links detailing the nature of the abuse as he saw it.
I took some time to study up on what was available on the internet about this group. The links I received from my friend spoke of the repeated spanking of children with wooden sticks, as well as a practice called 'scourging,' in which children would be hit repeatedly with a stick to the point of bruising.
Entering the community
I took a leave of absence from my work at CKUW and prepared to enter the community. If the allegations that my friend was making, based on testimonies from ex-members and a German documentary were true, then I owed it to Stephanie, her children and anyone else who may have entered this arena to ascertain the truth.
By early July this year, I made the decision to reach out to them with a request to live among them. I talked to a 'shepherd' who I had connected with at a Friday gathering. I told one of the shepherds, as they are called, about the recent death of my father and how I was starting to rethink many of my life priorities. We started talking scripture. I was invited to stay with them for as long as I wished.
My very first night at their house on East Gate, I wandered around the premises a little to scope out the place. That very first evening I managed to find five of the rods that were described by ex-members. They are slender wooden sticks roughly 60 centimetres long. I found one above a cabinet in the main floor washroom, one in the classroom they turned into a guest bedroom for me, and three in the basement.
Over the course of the next six weeks I would locate as many as 20 different rods. Usually they were in places you wouldn’t run across them as a casual visitor. It was unsettling to come across these rods and hold one in my hand. I was not anxious to see corroboration of this one unpleasant detail of community life.
On a typical day, community members would get up early, in time for the 6 a.m. 'Minha.' This is a gathering in which the disciples receive teachings, pray together, and in which everyone is encouraged to openly share their thoughts and feelings. After a communal meal in fellowship, everyone would set off for the tasks of the day.
Most of us, males anyway, would work at their five-storey building on Des Meurons Street in St. Boniface. The work was quite labour-intensive. Some of us worked in the deli part of the establishment. Others would work in the back either in the machine shop, the on-site bakery, or the room where they packaged their Yerba mate, a kind of tea. Winnipeg is one of the main distribution sites in North America.
After the first week, I was moved to the farm near Rosser, Man. I took on a number of tasks there from milking goats to extracting honey from the beehives to general household duties.
Members feel outside world has failed them
For some people, the community does have a certain allure. The people are very friendly and hospitable, and seem to put a lot of emphasis on transcendent realities. They strive to be spiritual. During my time there, I got to meet members who seemed to be lost in the outside world. Some had come from damaged places. One man, as a twelve year old, learned of his father having an affair with a friend’s mother. Another had a history of drug abuse. Still another struggled with sexual addiction. A common theme was that they felt that the outside world, including and especially orthodox religion, had failed them.
During my time in community I frequently felt conflicted about what I was doing. It was hard for me to see these sweet people as villains, and it felt wrong being not completely up front with them. It was most assuredly the most deceitful thing I’d ever done.
I believe there were positive aspects to the community that deserve recognition. Parents spend more time with their children on average than a lot of parents on the outside. There are no iPods, televisions or other electronic gadgets interfering with relations between and among community members. As well, I for one see the merit in involving young people in all aspects of community life. I have a particularly fond memory of participating in a volleyball game where young and old got physically active together.
The Tribes' views on corporal punishment do not sit well with me, however, and I would not recommend it as a place to raise my young nieces and nephew.
Moreover, the Tribes subscribe to a very fundamentalist view of biblical teachings. Based on passages from the gospel, new disciples are expected to sell their possessions and contribute to the common purse. I am aware of at least one individual in the Winnipeg community who contributed thousands of dollars to the community when he agreed to join. The community, for whatever reason, felt compelled to expel him, leaving him angry at the loss of his funds.
It goes without saying that they consider homosexuality a sin.
The community is very insular, and seems to view outside authorities with suspicion. Every single day they would pray for the community in Germany which had their children taken away by the child welfare authorities based on a documentary depicting the spankings. They anticipate the same kind of persecution descending upon their community here.
The community has control of what members have access to. No television, radio or newspapers. There is limited access to the internet as it is necessary for running their business. Likewise, certain members have access to cell phones, though their use is for the most part discouraged.
Children are trained to be absolutely obedient to their parents.
But they were in an environment that does not promote independent or critical thinking. It is an insular community that allows strangers to walk and work among them. High elders are rarely questioned.
People giving over their life savings to their common purse cannot expect to be compensated if they choose to leave the community years later.
They subscribe to a fatalistic view that the apocalyptic events of the Revelations and the book of Daniel will take place in the near future. According to prophecy, as they see it, the Tribes’ children are expected to do battle with the forces of the 'Evil One.'
Members admit spanking takes place
I entered the community in the spirit of a private citizen attempting to ascertain whether the people I knew and their children were in good hands. I left the community feeling remorseful about my deception, even though I reasoned, such deceit was a necessary evil.
I am of the view that the people I knew and liked were decent for the most part. There is an allure to the place that I felt.
However, Tribe members have admitted to me that spanking takes place. I came close on two occasions to catching them in the act, both times at the shop.
But the insular nature of the community, the fundamentalist religious beliefs, the suspicion of outside authorities, the fact that strangers with checkered backgrounds are frequently invited in their midst, and the stories from ex-members in other communities around the world about physical and sexual abuse leave me concerned that this is not a place I would wish for children to be raised.
Michael Welch is a Winnipegger, the News Director at CKUW 95.9FM and a long time community activist. He spent six weeks living within in the Winnipeg Twelve Tribes Community.