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Culture Investigations

Twelve Tribes Group Denies Starting Devastating Colorado Fire

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The 2,000-3,000 members of the Twelve Tribes, one of the few groups surviving from the Jesus movement of the 1960s and 1970s, pattern their mission after the Old and New Testaments, with an emphasis on modeling their communal lifestyle on the first century church from the book of Acts. They take Hebrew names, share everything in common, live together in homes and on farms, home school their children, and try to keep to themselves.

But privacy may be hard to find now that Colorado officials are investigating claims that a small December 30 fire on the group’s rural property jump-started two major fires south of Boulder, Colorado, which, fanned by 100-mile-per-hour winds, destroyed more than 900 homes and forced the evacuation of 35,000 people.

One local resident posted videos showing a fire he said started on the Twelve Tribes property that day.

As one news headline put it, “Shed fire on land of ‘cult’ eyed as cause of devastating Colorado blaze.”

Some 30 Twelve Tribes members lived on the property before evacuating, with many working at their Yellow Deli café in Boulder. Three dozen additional members live communally in Manitou Springs, near Colorado Springs, where they operate The Maté Factor Café.

A man who answered one of the Colorado Springs member’s phones said the group had no comment, but was working with the Boulder County Sheriff’s Department. The group’s website was disabled Tuesday morning.

Federal officials are helping in the investigation, which could take months. Early claims that the fire was caused by downed power lines were not confirmed.

Twelve Tribes members trace their origins to the New Testament book of Acts, where “All the believers were together and had everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need” (2:44-45). Also, where “All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of their possessions was their own, but they shared everything they had” (4:32).

They believe they are gathering together the 12 biblical tribes described in the book of Revelation in preparation for Christ’s return. They don’t proselytize, but are more than willing to talk about their faith. They spread their message through their Freepaper, distributed through their cafes and restaurants, which are their primary means of both financial support and community outreach.

Members receive no pay, working instead as volunteers. And because of their common treasury, the IRS classifies the group as a 501 (d) “religious and apostolic association or corporation,” similar to monasteries.

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There are more than two dozen communities in the U.S.,  as well as Canada, Argentina, Australia, England, France, Japan, Brazil (where they harvest the mate used for drinks) and Spain (where they make olive oil). They look like Amish or Mennonite believers, with males wearing simple beards and bound hair, and women dressed in simple, homespun clothing.

At the Manitou Springs community, led by three male “shepherds,” members gather for worship every morning and evening, and welcome guests to their Friday evening services. During the day, some work at the café while others home school the children or do other tasks. They don’t watch TV or read the news. “Sensationalism,” said one member.

They follow a strict morality that some see as family values on steroids, and practice corporal punishment on disobedient children. Twelve Tribes communities have frequently been accused of—and occasionally found guilty of—child abuse and labor violations, and have faced penalties for requiring children to perform adult work by farming and doing crafts.

Twelve Tribes members deny they are part of a cult, and say members are free to communicate with family members and other outsiders.

They teach that communal living is essential for salvation. A disciple’s life is “a tribal life,” said one Freepaper article, “families, clans, and tribes, in stark contrast to the suburban loneliness of the world.” But they say members are free to leave the group if they wish.

When asked about the spiritual status of the millions of Christians who don’t live communally, one shepherd quoted 1 John 5:19: “We know that we are children of God, and that the whole world is under the control of the evil one.”

“We believe very sincere people” are part of the flawed mainstream “religious system,” said the shepherd, named Hushai. “We hope we can learn to love one another, obey his commandments, and recognize the leaven of unrighteousness that comes in to separate us.”

At times, their beliefs and behaviors have raised criticism, with one Vice story labeling them a “homophobic, racist, child-beating cult.”

Members largely turn their backs on the world, but exhibit no hatred for worldly sinners. And they say the criticism they receive is part of the persecution they must face for faithfully following Christ. “You can’t fit us into a box,” said a shepherd named Zaccai.

But such criticism may only grow if investigators determine that the devastation of the Marshall Fire can be traced back to the group’s property.

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Steve Rabey

Steve Rabey is a veteran author and journalist who has published more than 50 books and 2,000 articles about religion, spirituality, and culture. He was an instructor at Fuller and Denver seminaries and the U.S. Air Force Academy. He and his wife Lois live in Colorado.