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Just over an hour's drive from Sydney, is the home of a dark, Australian cult.

If you drive an hour and a half west from Sydney, you’ll find a cosy cafe marked by a faded yellow and mahogany sign. The words ‘Yellow Deli’ are written in a cursive, Bohemian-inspired script.

The corner-side establishment resides at the beginning of Katoomba’s main street. Katoomba is a small but bustling town, flanked by the Blue Mountains.

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Out of 892 Google reviews, Yellow Deli has amassed an average score of 4.6 stars, with hundreds of patrons commenting on the cafe’s tree-house like ambience and Middle-Earth exterior, worthy of a local tavern in a Grimms’ Brothers fable.

“The food came quickly and was mouth-wateringly delicious. Served in baskets with the coffee in yellow mugs. I had the tofu burger and I just admit it was sublime,” writes one guest.

“Love the decor and feel of the deli, food was wonderful and the drinks (green juice and proper chai tea) were excellent and the staff are 10/10 definitely a must do in Katoomba,” shares another.

But beyond the rave-worthy Reuben sandwiches, the cafe is run by an international cult, the Twelve Tribes, and the allegations lauded against the organisation quickly derail the fairy tale.

 

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Who are the Twelve Tribes?

The Twelve Tribes originated in 1972 Chattanooga, Tennessee and was founded by Elbert Eugene Spriggs off the back of the Jesus People Movement. According to the Apologetics Index, they have roughly 2000 – 3000 members in 50 communities over nine countries including Australia, the US, Canada, Japan, Germany and France.

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They devoutly follow the teachings of the Bible and refer to Jesus by his assumed Hebrew name, Yahshua. Their name is a reference to the book of Acts and is based on their belief that the Twelve Tribes must “earnestly serve God day and night” (Acts 26:7) and live in accordance with the values established in Acts in order to bring about the return of the Messiah. This includes living in a communal environment and observing the Sabbath (the day of rest from Friday to Saturday evening).

As reported by an in-depth investigation by the Sydney Morning Herald, some of the practices followed by members include a strictly regulated diet free from sugar, chocolate, coffee or tea, finishing their showers with a cold rinse for one to two minutes (to boost the production of white blood cells) and ‘renewing your mind’ through a process of confessing and sharing your sins. The men are also required to keep beards (as it was the Romans who introduced shaving).

“It was thought that if God doesn’t control your teeth, hair and eyeballs, he doesn’t have you,” said ex-member Michael Painter, who spent 18 years with a US sect of the tribe.

From their website, the Twelve Tribes portray a Utopian and community-driven way of life and target those who feel displaced by mainstream society. They emphasise in several of their posts that visitors are welcome to “show up” and stay at any of their properties for undisclosed periods of time.

“Many have hoped and even dreamed of living a life of peace, where love and care for others was supreme. But is this really possible today? And if it were, how would it come about?” reads the ‘Why Yellow Deli?’ page of their website.

“In our beginnings back in the early 70’s, all we wanted was to be together, but we needed to find a way to support ourselves. So, we found a very small, humble little building and using a lot of resourcefulness and creativity, we transformed it into a warm and inviting place we called, ‘The Yellow Deli’.

“It was a unique cafe, built with discarded materials that, to us, were still quite useful – much like our own lives.”

Yellow Deli Cult
The menu. Image: Yellow Deli.
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Internationally, their sects tend to be self-sufficient communes, with independent businesses whose revenue feed back into their communities. Although their 10 global 'Yellow Deli' cafes are the most widely recognised, they also run other businesses including other cafes, bakeries, and house painting and demolition crews, reports the Sydney Morning Herald.

In Australia, the Twelve Tribes operates in five locations in NSW, with their main base at the Peppercorn Creek Farm in Picton - a town an hour and 40 minutes drive from Sydney. They also have two smaller communities in Katoomba and Coledale, and operate a Common Ground Bakery in Picton.

Internationally, they also operate Yellow Deli cafes in their home city of Chattanooga, Tennessee, as well as locations in New York, Southern California and Colorado. They also have two ventures in Canada, one in Kyoto, Japan and one in San Sebastian, Spain.

What have the Twelve Tribes been accused of?

Apart from the founder's controversial views - which the Daily Beast reports include sermons that state "black people are destined for slavery," and "homosexuals should be put to death" - the main violations held against the Twelve Tribes are based on their controversial treatment of children.

Most notably, in 2013 the Twelve Tribes German sect was the subject of a documentary produced for German TV station RTL, which showed footage of six children being struck with a cane 83 times. Altogether, there were 50 instances of children being beaten on camera.

“It’s normal to be beaten every day,” said former member Christian.

“I was told I would die if I tried to escape,” remembered Sven, another former member who was beaten for wetting his bed.

“They said I had lost control of myself."

Although he would escape at age 14, it left an irreversible mark on his psyche.

“I was a child who was not allowed to be a child,” he said.

Yellow Deli Cult
The documentary uncovered proof of the child abuse that occurs in the Twelve Tribes community. Image: RTL.
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In 2018, US publication Times Union also reported the state Labour Department found multiple violations of state child labour laws at the Common Sense Farm in Washington County, after secret cameras showed multiple under-aged children packaging cosmetics in a factory owned by the Twelve Tribes.

When it comes to issues of 'child discipline,' however, the Twelve Tribes maintains their hard-line approach, which prohibits children from owning toys, playing games or creating imaginary scenarios.

"We recognise the God-given right of parents to raise their children according to the voice of God in their conscience... We believe parental authority is the highest authority given among men," they write.

Instead, they encourage parents to use the "wisdom of the rod" in "correcting" their children.

"The Word of God never teaches or condones striking another human being, including a child, with one's hand. Every sensible person knows that it is unwise to hit even an animal with one's hand," they write.

"You can see the wisdom of God in prescribing a reed-like rod for discipline, since both parents can use it equally well. It does not require physical strength to deliver its sting. A thin, reed-like rod merely causes pain to the layer of skin closest to the surface of their little bottom, delivering a message right to the child's heart.

"The memory of loving correction stays with the child into his adult life, as he experiences the benefit of the good character that was formed in him. It is vitally important to us that our children would grow up with a clear understanding of and respect for authority and the consequences of their actions."

 

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What about the Twelve Tribes sect in Australia?

Similar to its international counterparts, former Australian members have also shared the poor treatment of children that has occurred within the Twelve Tribes.

Speaking to the Sydney Morning Herald in 2008, father-of-two Matthew Klein said he realised there was something was "majorly wrong" with the "community" after his two-year-old son was "spanked" around 60 times in a day.

"One day I left my two-year-old boy with an elder while I went and worked. When I came back, I asked how it went and he said, 'We had a few problems but we got over them,'" he recalled.

"He said that my boy wouldn't come to him so he'd spanked him. When he still wouldn't come, he spanked him again. I asked him how many times that happened and he said, 'About 10 or 12'. So he'd hit my boy about 60 times in the course of the day."

Similarly, a former child member Tessa Klein shared with Now to Love her memories of growing up on the Twelve Tribe's Picton community.

"It's like they just beat children into submission at an early age so they don't question things when they get older," she said, remembering the time her two-year-old brother was taken into a room by "two or three guys" and beaten almost daily.

She sat next to the closed door and listened to his screams.

"[I remember] thinking: 'What can I do?' But as a kid you can't do anything to make it stop."

Walking into the amber-drenched den of the Yellow Deli cafe, the multiple allegations of child abuse seem so far removed from the homemade sauerkraut, vegan carob-chip cookies and warming cups of 'hot apple cider' offered on the menu.

But with the testimonies of dozens of former members and international investigations, the sheen on their intricately-constructed fantasy has been tarnished.

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