Cults interest the hell out of me. I’m fascinated that people can believe so strongly in a faith or lifestyle that they devote all of their time and money to the cause. The images of the mass suicide at Jonestown are forever engrained in my brain. So are the pictures of the Heaven’s Gate members and their odd, matching Nike sneakers.
I know not all cults are as extreme as those examples and some groups are mostly harmless but the idea of group thought in general is still frightening to me. It’s an intriguing concept to study, but not something I need to experience in person. And then my friend joined one and that’s exactly what happened.
A couple weeks ago it was my birthday and I decided to take a road trip to visit a friend, Rob*, whom I met my freshman year in college. He dropped out our sophomore year but I visited him over the years and we stayed in touch mainly through text messaging. I hadn't seen him in about a year and was looking forward to celebrating my birthday over some drinks and catching up with him about his current relationships, music, and traveling.
Rob had attended a prep school before college and was a quarterback for the football team there. He also loved playing music and even had brief stint with modeling after he dropped out. He was an outgoing, attractive, interesting guy and (unlike some of his friends) he was a serial monogamist, constantly following his girlfriends to live in different states and finding jobs along the way. Whether it was a new diet, career, or home it seemed like he was always looking for different ways to find himself. It also felt like he was trying pretty hard to get away from the expectations his family had for him.
I asked if he had to work at all that weekend and he mentioned that he was helping out at a certain café, which happens to be run by a group known as Twelve Tribes. This group had the reputation of being a cult and some locals avoided their café altogether because they didn't want to support their lifestyle. The members compare their practices to any other religion. Their views are mixture of Christian fundamentalism and Messianic Judaism.
I wondered if Rob was actually in the Twelve Tribes but quickly dismissed the possibility. He had never been religious in the past, loved sex, enjoyed smoking weed and drinking, and most importantly hated to be told how to think. He told me I could stay with him and that I would even have a queen bed to myself where he lived. He said he wouldn't have a phone when I was visiting, but gave me the number of a friend to get in touch with him.
When I arrived in town, I called his friend to get his address. I pulled up to the street and found parking right next to a huge house dominating half the block. It was the home of the Twelve Tribes community. And then I saw Rob waving me down and walking towards my car with a big smile. My body was kindly telling me to “DRIVE. NOW. GET FAR AWAY FROM ALL OF THIS!” but I knew I wasn’t going to do that -- I had come all this way to see him.
The Rob that greeted me had a full bead, long hair tied back, and a braided head wrap. I hugged him and listened as he began to list all the new changes in his life. He led me inside and explained that I had arrived just in time for their Sabbath celebration, which would involve a whole lot of dancing, singing, prayer, and food.
Part of me was thankful that I would have a distraction from the thoughts racing in my mind. I was alarmed by his physical transformation. I was happy that he was happy and had found something that worked for him. I was confused that this trip had taken such a weird turn. I was worried for his family and friends. I asked what his parents thought about his choice to join Twelve Tribes and he laughed and said, “They think it’s pretty crazy!”
The women had no makeup on and wore headscarves to cover their hair. They were dressed very modestly in loose-fitting skirts or dresses down to their ankles. The men were wearing button-up shirts, mostly flannels, and khakis or jeans. And they all had long tied-back hair, full beards, and braided head wraps like Rob.
The children dancing around the room seemed very excited to be celebrating the Sabbath and that made me feel better about the situation -- they were adorable, curious, and very outgoing. Rob explained that the children in Twelve Tribes are home schooled and that getting your GED or going to college is forbidden. TVs are not generally approved of and kids are encouraged to explore their imagination through books, games, or puzzles.
Rob told me that drinking, drugs, and premarital sex are not allowed. Using substances was filthy and not only was having sex a sin of the flesh, but it was also a sure way to ruin a loving relationship. I asked what he thought about homosexuality and he said it was unnatural and didn’t want to talk much more about it.
I sat there in shock but kept nodding away. This was all coming from someone who I met during a sociology class. I thought of him as a person who was open-minded, carefree and a hopeless romantic. Someone who celebrated the weekends with bong rips, clove cigarettes, and cheap beer. The dude was there to make me laugh when I got my first tattoo.
He explained how Yashua (Jesus pronounced in Hebrew) was the reason for working so hard during the week and that he was going to do all he could to serve him. He warned me of a prophecy that our world was heading toward tyranny and destruction. He told me that I would realize this was the truth once judgment day came and I had to answer for my sins. I asked what would happen to me since I am not a religious person, but he reassured me that I would be safe. He said I was righteous in my everyday activities and not unjust or filthy like many others were.
I felt the tears coming on and told Rob I needed to go to the bathroom. A couple of the women asked if I was okay and I reassured them I was fine but admitted it was a lot to take in. Rob was sweet and told me not to worry about him and said that he was very content with his simple lifestyle. Having to sell his car and guitar didn’t even seem to bother him at all.
Once the praying and dancing was over for the night, I was finally alone with Rob in the great room and I told him that I was going to spend the night with a friend. I didn’t actually have a place to crash but the idea of sleeping at the house was making me feel uneasy. He walked me to my car and joked with me that I was going to drive right back to Pennsylvania and never call him again. I ended up paying 60 bucks to stay at a motel straight out of a CSI episode but I didn’t mind one bit. I couldn’t fall asleep anyway because my mind was all over the place.
I’m still feeling undecided about the whole ordeal but I know that I want to support him in some way. The sad truth is that the "joke" turned out to be true -- and I’m still not ready to make that phone call.