Aug 3, 2016

Controversial community defends beliefs

The Kingston Whig-Standard

By Victoria Gibson

If you drive down Abbey Dawn road, you’ll pass a small farm. It has black paint on the shutters and red brick on the walls. It would be unlikely for a passerby to bat an eye, let alone raise an alarm.

Inside, however, approximately 15 people and counting have renounced their individual lives, from their personal bank accounts to their homes, and devoted their lives to a passage in the biblical Book of Acts.

“All the believers were together and had everything in common.”

This is the mandate of the Twelve Tribes, a community who believe themselves to be the Commonwealth of Israel, and one that has attracted serious national and international allegations over the past two decades. Unsettling stories have emerged, grappling issues of severe cult behaviour, death threats, child abuse and exploitation of vulnerable populations.

Since news arose of the group coming to Kingston, concern and alarms about Twelve Tribes have been raised across social media outlets. However, to Isaac and Joy Dawson, who came from British Columbia to Kingston to lead the community here, the allegations are unsubstantiated and there have been no allegations of cultish behaviour, child abuse or denial of schooling made about the Kingston colony.

They only want to fix what they see as broken.

“We’re believers,” Isaac said, tucked in a corner booth of their Yellow Deli, which recently opened across from the student apartments on Princess and Victoria streets. “Believers in Jesus Christ.”

Twelve Tribes believers take biblical literature, including the passage from Acts, and act upon them in their most literal state. “We live together, we work together,” Isaac said. “We have a common purse, you might say.”

The deli, to him, embodies that communal ethic. It serves alongside the farm as a workplace for Twelve Tribes believers and residents. Everything is made by hand, Joy added — from homemade bread to self-roasted meats and desserts of spelt and honey.

Across the globe, Yellow Delis have emerged wherever Twelve Tribes communities have set up base. As of eight months ago, these bases hadn’t yet reached Ontario. However, the group did have a pre-established presence in Eastern Canada, via a 23-year old community in Winnipeg.

The Twelve Tribes community there raised concern in the media last year, when a former leader spoke to CBC and warned Winnipeg authorities to keep a closer eye on the group and its practices.

The group held a public meeting to discuss the child beating claims, where they admitted to hitting the children with “balloon sticks." The instances were subsequently set to be investigated by the Winnipeg’s child welfare authorities. Although the instances in question occurred several years ago, there was not yet any information on the investigation.

Isaac, in addressing the allegations of child abuse, directed attention to an ongoing legal case in Bavaria, Germany. There, in 2013, 42 children were seized from two communities via police raids and taken into state custody.

Footage had been taken in Bavaria by journalist Wolfram Kuhnigk, which showed Twelve Tribes children being beaten with willow canes: a total of 83 times. The footage ends with a police raid on the location.

To Isaac, the instance isn’t an example of the Twelve Tribes doing anything wrong.

“We’ve had some exchanges with the German government where they seized some of our children,” he said. “It’s been going on now, the adjudication of it through the German courts, and now we’re before the European court, and the European court has got Germany on the judgment seat.”

The European courts were asking for an account of “what they did to our people and our children,” he said. Many children were starting to be returned to the Twelve Tribes in the aftermath. Of the 42 children originally removed, 15 remained in the custody of state authorities last September.

Isaac also pointed to a case in Vermont, where, by his count, approximately 100 children were seized.

“Fortunately, there was a judge on the bench that respected the U.S. Constitution that returned the children that same day,” he said. “And, in his 63-page decision, he said: ‘This is the worst state-sanctioned action against children since Herod the Great.’”

He conceded that there had been “a lot of controversy” about the group. However, according to Joy, they have nothing to hide. “Our lives are totally open,” she said. “What you believe is what you see.”

For the Dawsons, their original roots were in one of the three Twelve Tribes communities in British Columbia, located in the Selkirk Mountains in the city of Nelson. Years ago, an individual from Ontario stumbled across the religious community there.

According to Isaac, most people who find a place in the Twelve Tribes weren’t looking for one.

“They didn’t come out there to meet us,” he said. “They went out there because they were probably searching for something. Maybe taking some time to consider their future … when they met us, it sort of lined up with something that was already working in them.”

Wherever he went, he said, he witnessed brokenness that could be restored by the Twelve Tribes. “That means relationships, that means parents and children, that means husbands and wives, it means brothers and sisters,” he said.

“At every level, there’s gotta be this restoration, and that’s what this is about.”

After visiting the individual’s family in Kingston, Isaac and Joy decided to expand the Twelve Tribes out to Ontario. When they arrived, they brought families and individuals with them, including several children between the ages of 10 and 17.

“We don’t have any little ones yet,” Isaac said.

Joy quietly interjected, noting that wasn’t entirely true. A woman in the Kingston community was currently expecting a baby. “We have some coming,” she said.

With the grand opening of the deli approaching, with Isaac speculating it would fall in early September, the couple were adamant about their nutritional and affordable offerings, as well as it being a peaceful place for students from the neighbouring apartments to come study.

If visitors want, they said, they could come to the farm themselves on a Friday night, to eat with the members of the Twelve Tribes community, to dance Israeli folk dances and to discuss their way of life.

“If I was a parent in Kingston,” Isaac said, “I’d be more concerned about what goes on in that street out there than what goes on in this building.”


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