The Twelve Tribes

Lay Catholics rarely experience close-knit community in parishes



My brother and his wife, a cousin and I ate at the Yellow Deli in Vista, California, on Monday evening, just before their departure back to New Hampshire. We had spent the day touring the restored Mission San Luis Rey and the nearby Prince of Peace Abbey.

After eating, we chatted with a young man who belonged to the Vista “Tribe.” He gave us pamphlets that described his Tribe’s philosophy. It prides itself on actually living the early Christian lifestyle of sharing all in common. On reflection, after listening to him, I was annoyed that Catholics have dropped the ball by not replicating early Christian communities. Why can’t the Church establish its own “cities on a hill?”

I was impressed by the Tribe. It was much like the Bruderhof community I visited back in the 1960s. After I spent a weekend sharing in the labors and meals of the Bruderhof, I was asked if I wanted to join. At the time I was about 26 years old, a healthy, single candidate. Any new member would have had to give up all possessions and live totally dependent on the group. That didn’t matter to me because all my possessions were in a backpack. I had no money. It would have been easy back then since I owned very little. Aimless young people without money were always prime targets for such religious cults. Food, shelter, clothing, medical care, and social fulfillment were provided, in exchange for 12 hours of exhausting labor each day, except on their Saturday Sabbath.

I was sorely tempted because of the Bruderhof’s close-knit community. The Church cannot deliver that degree of social intimacy except maybe in its religious monasteries. But when I told an interviewing Elder that I wanted to join but was still Catholic, he said that would disqualify me unless I left the Church. I could not, so I continued on my cross-country ministry. “Everyone is equal but some are more equal than others” seemed to apply here.

The deli mentioned above is part of the Twelve Tribes system. At first attractive glance, Twelve Tribes seems like heaven on earth. It is a well-organized system with scores of thriving communities, farms, and deli-cafés around the world. They come under the IRS code 501(d) to avoid expensive Workers’ Compensation insurance. You can see their public face at and do further research at other websites. Some former members have called it “disguised slavery,” with horror stories similar to other cults. Their food is good, their philosophy intriguing, but do beware.

Richard M. DellOrfano spent ten years on a cross-country pilgrimage following Christ’s instruction to minister without possessions. He is completing his autobiography: Path Perilous, My Search for God and the Miraculous.

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