* May 1973 — First Yellow Deli, owned by Gene and Marsha Spriggs, opens on Brainerd Road.
* January 1975 — Group decides to leave First Presbyterian Church and starts having its own service.
* February 1975 — Community members began to speak out against the group.
* June 1976 — The Yellow Deli group opens Areopagus as a Christian center for people to discuss the future of the church.
* Summer 1976 — Melinda Horton is the first member of the group to be taken by anti-cult deprogrammer Ted Patrick.
* October 1979 — The group decides to leave Chattanooga and moved to Island Pond, Vt.
* December 1979 — Two members of the group, Kirsten and Johanna Neilsen, are taken by Mr. Patrick.
* January 1980 — Rebecca Westbooks is taken by Mr. Patrick.
* 1980 — The group leaves for Vermont and members later decide to call themselves the Twelve Tribes.
* June 1984 — Law enforcement raids the Island Pond community based on accusations of child abuse. The children are released the same day when a judge rules in their favor.
* 2001 — Some families start to move back to Chattanooga.
* 2006 — A community is founded again in Chattanooga and two reunions are held.
* April 2008 — The Yellow Deli opens on McCallie Avenue.
Cal Hollister and Aiyelet Smith want to get married, but they’ve never held hands, talked alone or allowed themselves to stare too long or too deeply into one another’s eyes. They never have said, “I love you,” not once.
On Sunday, the young members of the communal Christian sect the Twelve Tribes will be betrothed.
“I couldn’t imagine anything better,” said Ms. Smith.
Sunday is a highly anticipated day for the Twelve Tribes, the group that owns and runs the Yellow Deli on McCallie Avenue in downtown Chattanooga. Along with preparing two followers to be married, the group will be celebrating its return to the city after leaving 30 years ago.
At its 35th anniversary reunion, the group hopes to reunite with former customers of the Yellow Deli and introduce new people to the restaurant and their beliefs, members say.
Since 1973, with its genesis in downtown Chattanooga and the founding of its first Yellow Deli on Brainerd Road, the Twelve Tribes has been a catalyst for public controversy locally and abroad.
The group formed as a resistance to both the hippie culture and corporate Christianity, which Twelve Tribes leaders believed was inconsistent with biblical messages of love and sacrifice, said Ed Wiseman, an elder and original Chattanooga member.
Leaders, primarily Gene Spriggs, the group’s founding father, asked followers to give up their possessions and live and work together. Families adopted the traditional ideas of a nuclear family — women cared for the home and children and men worked outside the home — and men led the church.
The group looked different from other Christian groups and their behavior was perceived as radical, Mr. Wiseman said. Many Chattanoogans believed the group was a cult and that its followers were under mind control. A wave of anti-cult action and bad publicity drove the group out of Tennessee and to Vermont, he said.
But the Twelve Tribes survived and now has communities in the Midwest and the West Coast as well as overseas in Germany, France, Spain, Argentina and England, he said.
Regardless of its bumpy history with Chattanooga, members of the group have returned to be closer to family and because they see the city as a changing community.
“We love Chattanooga,” said Mr. Wiseman. “We are from here. We believe Chattanooga was taken by the cult scare. We have always felt in our heart an obligation to come back.”
A large number of Twelve Tribes members moved to Chattanooga in 2006 when the 40-person group bought an old fraternity house in the Fort Wood neighborhood. The group began building the new Yellow Deli last July.
Twelve Tribes members who work in the Yellow Deli are not paid individually, Mr. Wiseman said. Their work is voluntary, he said. Legally, they are members of a nonprofit entity that is allowed to operate a for-profit business because they share their money, he said.
Children are homeschooled in the group’s home near downtown, and older children and teenagers sometimes come to work in the deli after school hours, he said.
Mr. Hollister, 32, joined the Twelve Tribes 10 years ago in Missouri, and Ms. Smith, 24, was born in the group’s community in northern Vermont.
The two met when they worked at the group’s community in Asheville, N.C. They never flirted or had long discussions, but Mr. Hollister said he grew to respect the way Ms. Smith quietly and respectfully went about her daily chores.
ON THE WEB
“We weren’t looking to get married,” said Ms. Smith. “There is a problem with building sandcastles. I didn’t know what the future held, so I didn’t give in (to falling for someone).”
Since the Yellow Deli opened, the couple has been in a waiting period, a time given by the Twelve Tribes when a couple decides whether or not to pursue marriage, Ms. Smith said.
Ms. Smith’s parents, Ada and Kharash Smith, arrived in Chattanooga last week for this weekend’s betrothal. They said they believe their daughter has embarked on her relationship the right way.
IF YOU GO
* Who? The Twelve Tribes
* What? A 35-year anniversary reunion of the Yellow Deli
* When? Sunday, 2 p.m. to 10 p.m.
* Where? The Yellow Deli, 737 McCallie Ave.
“It seems like she is very happy,” said Mr. Smith. “She is not getting her ideas from books or television. She is not following a romantic bubble.”
After the betrothal, the couple plans to be married in the fall.
“Our weddings are a big deal,” said Mr. Hollister. “We stage a pre-enactment of what we believe will happen at the end of time when Christ returns to Earth.”
Joan Garrett McClane has been a staff writer for the Times Free Press since August 2007. Before becoming a general assignment writer for the paper, she wrote about business, higher education and the court systems. She grew up the oldest of five sisters near Birmingham, Ala., and graduated with a master's and bachelor's degrees in journalism from the University of Alabama. Before landing her first full-time job as a reporter at the Times Free Press, ...