Inside an American white supremacist cult.
From the “God Hates F---” vitriol of the Westboro Baptist Church to the white supremacist and homophobic totalitarianism of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints to the violent neo-Nazi advocates of “racial holy war” in the Creativity Movement, examples of hate metastasizing via religious dogma abound.
The Twelve Tribes, a Christian fundamentalist cult born in the American South in the 1970s, is little-known to much of the country, and on first impression its communes and hippie-vibed restaurants and cafes can seem quaint and bucolic. But beneath the surface lies a tangle of doctrine that teaches its followers that slavery was “a marvelous opportunity” for black people, who are deemed by the Bible to be servants of whites, and that homosexuals deserve no less than death.
While homosexuals are shunned by the Twelve Tribes (though ex-members say the group brags about unnamed members who are “formerly” gay), the group actively proselytizes to African Americans, yet one of its black leaders glorifies the early Ku Klux Klan.
The Twelve Tribes tries to keep its extremist teachings on race from novice members and outsiders, but former members and experts on fringe religious movements who’ve helped its followers escape paint a dark picture of life in the group’s monastic communities — especially for black members, who must reconcile the appalling teachings on race with their own heritage and skin color.
Sinasta Colucci was born in Detroit in 1984 to a white “free-spirited hippie” woman and a dreadlocked black man of Cherokee ancestry. Colucci’s parents split when he was an infant, and he was raised by his mom, who moved him and his older sister to Northern California when he was three months old.
As a mixed-race kid growing up in the conservative town of Redding, California, where barely more than one percent of the population is black, Colucci was both aware of and confused by his skin color. He remembers an incident where he tried scraping his arms with tree bark to make his skin whiter. His mom responded by telling him he should be proud of his Native American heritage.
When Colucci was 10, he was at a park with his friends and witnessed two drunk men fighting, one white and one Native American. When police arrived, he remembers that the Native American man was handcuffed, beaten and pepper sprayed, while the white man walked away. He admits he didn’t know the context of what he saw — “I could have gotten the facts wrong,” he says — but the incident made a lasting impact. “From that time on I had been deathly afraid of being beaten or killed because of how I look,” Colucci writes in the memoir he self-published in early 2018.
In Redding, Colucci was called a panoply of racial slurs by people who weren’t sure of his ethnicity: sand nigger, wetback and beaner, nigger, dirty half-breed …. But when he moved to Detroit for a brief stint in college after graduating high school in Redding, and was working at a Church’s Chicken, he was called “white boy” by some black customers. “I was too white for Detroit and too black for Redding, California,” he says.
A few years later, at age 21, Colucci first encountered the community of the Twelve Tribes at their farm in Weaubleau, Missouri, where he had traveled hoping to find a simpler, idealistic communal lifestyle. He was heartened that the first person he met was an older black man working on the farm who called himself Joshua.
“It was relieving,” Colucci recalls. “They all lived together, they didn’t seem separate in [a racial] way.”
Just a couple of years later, at another Twelve Tribes community in North Carolina, Colucci would find himself with a black leader of the fringe religious movement who goes by Yohannan Abraham (real name John Stringer). Abraham extolled the virtues of Nathan Bedford Forrest, an early member of the original post-Civil War Ku Klux Klan, and tried to impress on Colucci the inherent biblical subservience of the black race to white men, slavery being a prime example of that holy dictum.
As he recounts in his memoir of his seven years with the Twelve Tribes, Better Than a Turkish Prison: What I Learned from Life in a Religious Cult, the cult’s teachings about race are revealed slowly to converts as they’re indoctrinated into a lifestyle of microscopic control dictated by its leaders.
The Twelve Tribes grew out of an early 1970s youth Bible study group led by Elbert Eugene Spriggs and his wife Marsha in Chattanooga, Tennessee. It is now an international network of several dozen religious communes that consider Spriggs, who is known as Yoneq, a modern-day apostle, and follow his teachings explicitly lest they risk being ostracized by the cult and damned to an apocalyptic lake of fire.
Followers who belong to “The Community,” as members refer to the Twelve Tribes, surrender their earthly possessions to the group and live communally, often working at the Tribes’ restaurants or tea shops — called The Yellow Deli and Mate Factor, respectively — or simply laboring on the communes or for one of the other cult-owned businesses. The internet is highly restricted, and secular music, books and other “worldly” influences are verboten.
Spriggs and the other leaders of the Twelve Tribes kept the bulk of the cult’s “teachings” private, and largely succeeded until Bob and Judy Pardon encountered the group in the mid-1990s.
Bob Pardon holds a Master of Divinity degree and a Master of Theology with a concentration on ethics, and with his wife Judy founded the New England Institute of Religious Research. Together they run MeadowHaven in Lakeville, Massachusetts, which Pardon says is the only long-term transitional facility in the world for former members of destructive cults and fringe religious movements.
The Pardons first came across the Twelve Tribes when a former member contacted them about what she perceived as child abuse — a young child whipped with a long, thin rod like those used to hold balloons, which left ugly marks and bruises. Though she had brought child abuse charges that were eventually dropped for lack of evidence, the Pardons were intrigued by the group, which Bob Pardon says he initially thought was being unfairly maligned. “They had a pretty low profile, and we had never heard of them before,” he says.
Because of their initial skepticism about whether Twelve Tribes was a destructive group, the Pardons were granted access to many of the communities in the Northeast, and conducted extensive research with leaders, members and ex-members. They also studied their printed materials — the “Freepapers” members distribute in order to proselytize — and any teachings they could get their hands on.
But even with access to Spriggs and other leaders, the official teachings weren’t shared with the Pardons. “They said that we wouldn’t understand,” Pardon says, “that we were not under ‘the anointed,’ which means underneath Spriggs. I have two theological degrees and I have extensive training in biblical languages and Christian history, so I was always a bit dumbfounded by that.”
Eventually, though, the Pardons met ex-members who had been at the highest levels, right underneath Spriggs, and they took all of the teachings and shared them with the Pardons.
“Once we got those teachings, we knew there was a very seedy underbelly to the group,” Pardon says. “We began to realize that this was a really heavy thought reform environment; there was a lot of behavior control over the members’ lives.”
Indeed, as Colucci recounts in his book, the group exerted control over everything from when single men should masturbate (“usually about every other day or every few days,” Colucci writes, “and you’re supposed to try not to think about anything as you’re doing it. It’s to be a ‘mechanical release.’”) to how to wipe one’s ass (“there really is a teaching about taking three to four squares of toilet paper, folding it to the size of one square, then wipe, fold, wipe, fold, and repeat until you have this tiny, poop-stained square that you flush”).
Among the teachings, the Pardons discovered the rationale behind the extensive accusations of child abuse in the Twelve Tribes. “It’s part and parcel of the theology that the child has to obey authority and if the child doesn’t obey authority, then the child needs to have that [physical discipline],” Pardon says. “It used to be that only parents did that, but early on it began to shift over so that anybody that came into the group who thought your child was disrespectful could discipline them, and that would normally happen.”
Also revealed were Spriggs’ teachings on homosexuality. “They must be put to death,” the teaching reads. “Homosexuality is a capital offense.”
Colucci would encounter these teachings during his seven years as a member of the Twelve Tribes (though he says he personally never witnessed child discipline that he considered abusive). But the teaching that would cause him the most confusion and internal struggle regarded the role of the black race, known as the Cham teaching.
The Cham teaching, or the “curse of Ham,” as it’s more commonly known, stems from Genesis 9:20-25. In the story, Noah’s son Ham (or Cham, in the Twelve Tribes’ Hebraic vernacular), sees Noah naked and drunk in his tent and tells his brothers, Shem and Japheth. The brothers respond by walking backward so as not to gaze on Noah’s nudity and covering him with a blanket. When Noah awakens and discovers what happened, he curses Ham’s son Canaan for Ham’s impertinence, damning him to be a “servant of servants” to his brothers.
Though the Bible does not ascribe ethnicity or race to any of the characters in this story, over history Ham/Cham has been portrayed as black by many in the furtherance of white supremacy, hence black servitude to Shem (posited as white by racists) has been biblically justified by prejudiced individuals and religious denominations over the past few centuries.
Hate group ideologies like Christian Identity and those of the Ku Klux Klan have incorporated the “curse of Ham” biblical misinterpretation into their racist theology (Christian Identity sometimes asserting that Jews are actually the descendants of Ham and Canaan). In the 19th century, Southern Christians in America used the belief to justify slavery.
The Twelve Tribes’ teachings regarding Ham/Cham both excuse slavery and perpetuate its bigotry, going so far as to attack Martin Luther King, Jr. “Martin Luther King was filled with every evil spirit there is to say Cham doesn’t have to serve Shem. All manner of evil filled that man,” the teaching reads. “It is horrible that someone would rise up to abolish slavery. What a marvelous opportunity that blacks could be brought over here to be slaves so that they could be found worthy of the nations.”
The Twelve Tribes insist these teachings are not racist. Yohannan Abraham, the black leader who praised the early KKK to Colucci, wrote an article on the group’s website titled “Are the Twelve Tribes Racist?” under his given name, John Stringer. (Multiple requests by the Intelligence Report to interview Abraham/Stringer and other Twelve Tribes leaders were denied or ignored.) Addressing a New York Post article that quotes from the group’s Cham teaching (“Submission to [white people] is the only provision by which [blacks] will be saved”), Stringer wrote that the quote “is taken totally out of context and has no application within the Twelve Tribes, where blacks are saved like anyone else — by the blood of the Son of God.” He concludes, “The conclusion of the quote and teaching that the New York Post took out of context says this: ‘Slavery is over for those who believe and come into Messiah, but it is not over for those outside Messiah.’”
The telling detail Stringer/Abraham dodges is that the Twelve Tribes believe only those baptized into their cult have “come into Messiah,” leaving every other black person “outside Messiah,” where Stringer/Abraham admits he believes slavery “is not over.”
“First of all,” Colucci says of Abraham/Stringer’s article, “any time a group has to have ‘Are We Racist?’ as a frequently asked question, something’s going on there .… They’re saying you have to join their group to be saved by their messiah, and you have to accept that you have certain iniquities based just on your skin color alone. You only find this out after living there a long time; this is not something they’re going to tell outsiders.”
Carolyn Figueroa, who spent a year with the Twelve Tribes and left in 2011, wasn’t exposed to the cult’s teachings about black people until she left the group. Juan Figueroa, her father, enlisted Bob and Judy Pardon as well as cult expert Steven Hassan, author of Combating Cult Mind Control, to help extract Carolyn from the group, at which time former members of the Twelve Tribes explained to her the controversial teachings she had yet to learn.
Colucci was baptized into the Twelve Tribes after a mere three weeks living at the Stepping Stone Farm but didn’t encounter the Cham teaching — which dictated that he, as a man with black lineage on his father’s side, was cursed to be subservient to whites — for nearly a year with the cult.
It was a younger man, also mixed race, who introduced Colucci to the Cham teaching — “something to the effect that black people are cursed and their only hope of righteousness is to submit to the white man. I was like, ‘What? Are you kidding me?’” Colucci approached one of his community’s leaders and asked about what he’d heard, and the leader reasserted the teaching “in a more graceful way,” Colucci says.
“I was offended at first, and looking back, I’m not sure why I eventually accepted it. I was focused on the positive. I was listening to the teachings, and part of me really wanted everything else they said to be true.”
Two years after he’d first heard the teaching, Colucci was sent to the Twelve Tribes community in Hiddenite, North Carolina, where many of the cult’s leaders were living, including Yoneq, the founder, and Yohannan Abraham/John Stringer, the African American leader who penned the “Are the Twelve Tribes Racist?” article.
Abraham/Stringer picked Colucci up at the airport in Charlotte when he arrived. “At that time, I was fully inundated, I was brainwashed,” Colucci says. “It was like meeting a hero. I kind of idolized him. Here’s this strong, powerful black man who’s going to bring in more black people, because we need more diversity. That’s the way I thought about it.”
But as he spoke to Abraham/Stringer, and heard him speak about how Nathan Bedford Forrest and the early KKK were righteous because they’d brought order to the out-of-control Northern blacks raping women in the South after the Civil War, another image from his pre-cult past came to mind. “He was like the black white supremacist from “The David Chappelle Show,” Colucci says. “I was kind of double-minded the whole time I was there, because I really wanted [the Twelve Tribes’ theology] to be true.”
Colucci left the Twelve Tribes in 2012, getting on a bus with his future wife the day after President Obama’s reelection. He didn’t leave because of the cult’s teachings about black people, but rather had become disillusioned with their theology.
Former Twelve Tribes member David Pike, who was part of the Twelve Tribes from 1997 to 2004, was offended by some of the cult’s teachings as well — he says he witnessed young children beaten extensively with thin balloon sticks. “I saw some kids gettin’ switched till they bled,” he says, but he finally escaped (and spent time at Bob and Judy Pardon’s MeadowHaven facility, which helps people recover from abusive cults) when he couldn’t reconcile their theology with his own studies any longer.
Jenny Lynn Fiore, a member of the Twelve Tribes in the early 2000s, took issue with the cult’s racism and authoritarian discipline of children and its treatment of women. “I saw very controlling, overbearing husbands treating their wives pretty badly, and there was no real recourse… they were basically kitchen slaves,” she says, but she spent years in and out of the group before finally cutting ties.
It’s remarkable that people of conscience like Colucci, Figueroa, Pike and Fiore become indoctrinated to the Twelve Tribes’ abhorrent teachings on homosexuality, black people’s subservience to whites and extensive corporal punishment of small children.
“They really begin to control your internal reality, how you process things, how you see reality,” says Bob Pardon, who has helped many former members of the Twelve Tribes transition out of the cult over the last twenty-plus years. “There’s a lot of emotion control — you feel guilty about things you shouldn’t feel guilty about, and not guilty about things you should, and the same with fear, you fear things you shouldn’t and you don’t fear things that you probably should.”
“We were immigrants,” Colucci writes in his memoir of his and his future wife’s bus ride away from the Twelve Tribes. “We were leaving one nation — the nation of New Israel, the Twelve Tribes Communities, a nation in which women must be submissive to men, blacks and whites are not equal, homosexuality is a sin which gays must repent of if they want to be accepted, where even differing beliefs and opinions are not allowed, where your daily activities are strictly dictated—and we were entering what is arguably the freest nation on the planet.”