Uncorrupted Christians?

Descended from the Jesus Movement of the 60s and 70s, The Twelve Tribes strives to restore true Christianity

Where has the love gone?

A 17-year-old member of Twelve Tribes community in Savannah, Georgia
A 17-year-old member of Twelve Tribes community in Savannah, Georgia

But Cheryl Lewczyk, 47, says she was treated with anything but love by Twelve Tribes members in Lakeview, New York. Lewczyk, who was a member of Twelve Tribes for 2 1/2 years in the mid-’90s and now runs an informational website about Twelve Tribes, says she was expected to work 16 to 18 hours a day, despite having a herniated back.

Lewczyk, who eventually was asked to leave Twelve Tribes, says that many times she would go to bed at 9 p.m. because the pain was so excruciating and sleep was the only relief available, even though many people thought she was a slacker. Lewczyk adds that one Twelve Tribes leader even said her tolerance for physical pain needed to be radically increased. Lewczyk says she felt like punching him in the nose.

But Gebar O’Rear, 49, a member of Twelve Tribes for 30 years, says that there are always individuals in any organization who don’t live up to the expectations of the community. For example, the fact that there are Catholic priests implicated in the sexual abuse crisis doesn’t mean all Catholic priests are bad. “That would be oversimplifying,” O’Rear says.

Short History of the Jesus Movement

Born out of the counterculture movement of the late 1960s, the Jesus movement mixed the hippie mantra of brotherly love and communal living with Christian ideas of salvation through Christ and Bible reading. Similar to Twelve Tribes today, many in the Jesus movement advocated simple living and a greater connection to nature through living in the country and growing one’s own food.

The movement was also heavily evangelistic, celebratory and affected by the popular rock music of its era, which was quickly incorporated into worship services—its legacy survives in the form of contemporary Christian rock.

The movement also redefined popular counterculture slogans: “free love” came to mean “God’s free love” and “dropping acid” became “Just Drop Jesus.” Due to fragmented leadership and an emerging anti-hippie sentiment in the early 1980s, the Jesus movement faded away, much of it absorbed into mainstream churches.

O’Rear adds that it’s possible someone in Twelve Tribes acted in error and was insensitive to Cheryl’s problems. “People are not perfect,” he says. “And it’s unfortunate that it had to happen.”

Full Circle

Today, Jones says, Twelve Tribes has come full circle, with couples meeting in the community, getting married, having children and seeing those children start families in the commune. “And I’m one of those children,” he says.

During a festive Friday night communal dinner, Jones says that seeing whether the group could pass its way of life on to the next generation was a huge test for Twelve Tribes. Patting the head of his six-year-old son, who nestles close to him, Jones smiles and adds, “We passed the test.”

Teenage Words of Wisdom

Sixteen-year-old Amad Penderass, a Twelve Tribes member since birth, says he doesn’t watch TV, listen to secular music, play video games or go to the movies. He says there are a lot of better things that he can do, such as reading, socializing or learning to do something new.

Penderass says that he often wonders what would happen if people outside Twelve Tribes were to stop watching TV. “Would they spend more time with their children, learn to master a musical instrument or maybe invent a cure for cancer?” he asks

Penderass, who is home-schooled, says that he is curious about the lifestyle of teenagers outside Twelve Tribes. “It’s only nature,” he confesses while sipping a glass of green herbal tea in the cozy family room of his Victorian community home in Savannah. “Aren’t we all curious about how others live? But it’s up to me if I want to leave or stay,” he says. “And I want to stay. This is my home, my family, my community.”

[Some readers may wonder why Busted Halo®—which is sponsored by a Catholic organization—addresses various approaches to belief (or non-belief) and spirituality like the one above. Busted Halo® is an online magazine for the millions of spiritual seekers who already live in a competitive marketplace of ideas, philosophies and beliefs; our mission is to empower them to explore their own faith journeys through an open, honest discussion of their fellow seekers’ experiences. -Editor]