Latest uncomfortable experience: visit with a cult. This is one of these uncomfortable experiences where I think it will be bad to horrible but this one turned out to be mild and just slightly unnerving. That’s the meta part of this practice: you have to get comfortable knowing the experience itself can have an entire range of uncomfortably depth. The other thing about this particular uncomfortable experience is that you go down a rabbit hole of questioning what is real and what the f is actually going on, which is probably the first step of getting sucked into a cult of any kind.
First, I had to wonder, “what is a cult?” Aren’t we all in some cult of some sort whether it be Soul Cycle or Game of Thrones or being “a New Yorker” or even a company I created called BAM? Possibly, but not likely as the Oxford definition is ,“a relatively small group of people having religious beliefs or practices regarded by others as strange or sinister,” emphasis on sinister.
The particular cult I visited is one of the Twelve Tribes, a group formed in the 70s that now has groups spread all over America, Europe, Australia, and South America, so dubbed “the commonwealth of Israel.” Apparently, if you join, you give up all of your possessions and work on the land and with one another in order to live. I found one such faction of the Twelve Tribes in Southern California with a quick Google search, and this community of about 50 or so people openly welcome volunteers to their organic farm, according to their website. (Out of respect and my promise to this faction, I am not mentioning which particular group this is.) According to lots of media outlets, blogs, and the internet in general, the Twelve Tribes upholds beliefs in child labor, child abuse (to “secure a place in heaven”), slavery, no birth control, and producing “an army of 144,000 male virgins, who would prepare the way for Christ's second coming,” among other things. They also operate a chain of delis called “the Yellow Deli,” an often locally beloved little cafe that most guests don’t realize are operated by such cult. I called up the number listed on the website of this faction and asked if I could come by for a tour since I did these uncomfortable experiences and like to garden in general (I always disclose my practice.) A gruff man said I could show up, but to give them a heads up say 1 hour before I was planning to arrive.
As one would imagine, the location of the cult is indeed down a long windy dirt path, deep off any highways or roads. As I pulled onto the dirt road mid-morning last weekend, it did strike me that there wasn’t a soul in sight. It was well past 10am, a bright and brilliant day, yet nothing was stirring. I thought I was in that damn preview of that movie Midsommar and started to think this wasn’t a great idea. I was rather in the middle of nowhere, on someone’s private property. I parked in some dirt plot of land and sat there for a minute, the moment when you say to yourself in these uncomfortable experiences, “you know-we don’t HAVE to do this right now.” That’s the moment to seize, though. I got out of the car, locked it, and started walking up a small paved driveway of sorts, past a large sign of the cult’s ranch name. I knew I was absolutely in the right spot.
For about 15 minutes, I was just strolling around. There were some cows, some geese, several fields, and just the sound of “shhht shhht shhht” as sprinklers sprayed the strips of grassy landscape. I eventually spotted a tall man by a barn as well as two little boys. I waved, like I knew them, thinking that's the friendliness gesture I could show. The man inside the barn greeted me warmly and told me he was happy to show me the farm. Another man came by inside the barn, also with two little ones, and gave me a similar warm greeting. We walked the fields, admiring the greenhouse, the peach trees, the dirt where carrots would be planted soon, and the irrigation system. We chatted easily, about how a lot of farming is about failure, much like the startups I work with, and how dealing with people is always hard, even if you love all 50 of them.
The typical day looks like this: The whole group gets up at around 6am daily, has an hour of reading together (the Bible), and then gets to work for rest of the day. I turned to the little boy and said, “and what do you do every day?” He immediately said, “Anything he says,” pointing to his dad. That’s probably a typical response for any 6 year old, but I caught myself wondering about it because of my obvious bias. People come and go from the group-some stay for years, like the man giving me the tour, and some stay for weeks or just a couple of months. I asked how one gets accepted to be part of the group, careful to never say "cult," and he said that once you were baptized, the group decides on whether you can be a part of the group or not, in some form or another. This was a bit unclear. I met a few other guys during the tour, all of whom were kind and welcoming, asking where I was from and how I liked the farm. I was perplexed by how handsome every guy was. Perhaps that’s my own bias thinking most people would look weathered and a tad worn working the land everyday. Instead, all of them had a glow to them, a brilliant, broad smile, chiseled bodies, and a radiance of happiness. WTF, I thought. I started to make up a story that these where the “models” put out to pasture when volunteers came by. But that’s ridiculous, I told myself. Maybe that's the power of organic greens and a life removed from domestic terrorism, mortgages, and gridlock.
We visited the dozen baby goats, the 7 new kittens, and the great house which was the central meeting point for the group. This is where I finally saw some women surrounded by slews of other children. Like a number of the photos you’ll see if you google the Twelve Tribes, the attire the women wore was straight out of Little House on the Prairie. None of the women spoke or addressed me unlike the men, so I couldn’t get any details about their days. However, the Twelve Tribes website says the following about the role of women: “Our ‘characteristic social behavior’ is that we help the men, because woman was originally created to be the helper of man,” and that, “Our woman on the flag is weak. She chooses to live by the strength of her God, not with her own strength as her god.” I did note that my guide abruptly ended his questions about what I do in the world when I said I own my own business, have sold one before, have dozens of employees, and so on. That was “interesting,” he said.
At the end of the tour over a few hours, my tour guide said to wait for a moment because he had something to give me. “Oh shit,” I thought, but he simply handed me a giant crate of fresh vegetables and three giant bottles of the green juice they sell at farmers’ markets. They encouraged me to come back any time, to stay the night or a week, if I wanted. I get the allure of the invite: here’s a place, so removed and simple and safe compared to the bat shit one “we” otherwise exist in, where one can work on the land, where the only bleating you hear is from an actual baby goat instead of some pundit or politician on the news. I can get it, I really can.
I dropped a postcard in the mail the next day, thanking the group for their hospitality, their openness, and kindness. There's a lot more I could say, but I'm saving it for the book.