A decade after its return to Chattanooga, the controversial religious group behind the Yellow Deli restaurant on McCallie Avenue and many other businesses around the world is finding itself back in the spotlight.
A new investigative podcast, "The Twelve," will detail the history and beliefs of the communal Christian group known as the Twelve Tribes and how religious freedom protects a lot of its practices.
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: Chattanooga residents began to speak out against the group.October 1979: The group decides to leave Chattanooga to move to Island Pond, Vermont.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, near UTC.2018: The group is featured on a podcast and television documentary series about cults and becomes the focus of another podcast.
Producers with local media company Good Scout have spent the past year and a half researching and interviewing former members across the U.S. and in Canada, and they themselves have been interviewed by producers for a new A&E documentary series called "Cults and Extreme Belief."
The podcast is set for release later this year, and the TV show is set to premiere May 28, though an A&E spokesperson could not confirm which episode will feature the Twelve Tribes, as it does not yet have an air date.
The Twelve Tribes is "a confederation of twelve self-governing tribes, composed of self-governing communities," according to the group's website.
The framework for its religion is based on the early church described in the biblical book of Acts 2:44 and 4:32, and members follow the teachings written in the old and new covenants of the Bible.
Co-executive producer and podcast host Shelton Brown said "The Twelve" will explore how far the First Amendment's protection of religious liberty extends.
"Twelve Tribes is a good case study for religious freedom," he said, "where it begins and where it ends. What are we really protecting?"
Brown said his interest was spiked after eating at the deli and noticing the restaurant and its workers' peculiar style.
The restaurant feels like a blast from the past upon walking in, with a mashup of woodland fairy and 1970s hippie decor. Women, often dressed in long dresses or plain baggy tops with harem pants, wear no makeup and keep their hair long. The men also wear plain clothes and keep their hair and beards long.
Intrigued, Brown talked to them and slowly gained their trust. They allowed him to take some photos, which he posted to social media, catching the interest of several other people, he said.
Then someone told him to look into the story of a woman whose husband divorced her to join the group. As he learned more, he began asking members about claims of child abuse, racism and homophobia.
The group quit responding to questions soon after, he said.
Brown said he and his team have now interviewed more than 70 former members and expect to have completed close to 100 interviews by the time they're done.
Though he said the most difficult part has been substantiating claims made by ex-members, his team has been able to corroborate many allegations through court documents, police reports and old news reports, including from the Chattanooga Times and Chattanooga News-Free Press.
The newspapers reported extensively on the group, founded by Gene Spriggs and formerly known as the Vine Christian Community Church, in the 1970s and early 1980s when the first Yellow Deli opened on Brainerd Road. The group's involvement in various controversies over its practices eventually lead to it leaving the area in 1980 after cult deprogrammers "rescued" some members.
Back in 1979 Chattanooga, the deli was labeled as "off limits" to students attending the now-closed Tennessee Temple University, Covenant College in Lookout Mountain, Georgia, and Bryan College in Dayton, Tennessee.
Administrators at the private institutions said the church "engaged in brainwashing and exploitation of the individual," according to Times Free Press records.
At the time, church elder Eddie Wiseman, who is still a local leader, said after a prayer session for the students at all three schools, "the judgment of God" is upon Bryan College and he asked God to lead students and teachers away from it.
The group now has communes around the world, including in Germany, Spain and Argentina.
Wiseman was out of town and unreachable for comment, Yellow Deli workers said last week. His return date was not known.
Scott, a Yellow Deli manager who declined to give his last name, said that while he wasn't speaking on behalf of the group, the Twelve Tribes is simply exercising its right to religious freedom.
A few months after the group returned to Chattanooga in 2008, Wiseman told the Times Free Press the group does not use emotional manipulation to bypass people's will.
"There is no agenda," he said. "It is not us promoting what we believe. We want to start a free speech movement. The status quo is built around, 'Shut your mouth and get in line.'"
Producers for "The Twelve" have made several unsuccessful attempts to reach current members.
"We've continued to email them asking questions about things that we're finding, but they haven't responded to us in probably a year," said Hamilton Barber, co-executive producer for the podcast.
"We have a whole lot of sympathy for them," he said. "We're not trying to write a slam piece."
Barber said the group has a long history of shutting reporters out when they get too close.
"Maybe even for a good reason," he said, adding that he thinks media coverage hasn't always been fair toward the group.
But things weren't always so hostile. Chattanoogans received the group with open arms when it formed in 1972. Photos in early articles show groups of young people gathered around large communal tables eating and mingling, playing musical instruments.
"It was a burst of energy with it being a new thing, breaking away from the traditional [church]," Brown said.
As time went on, however, several reports raised questions about how the group treats children and women and its views on homosexuality and race.
While no allegations have been made in Chattanooga, several child abuse cases have been reported elsewhere, with many ex-members alleging children being beaten to the point of bruising and bleeding for simply playing.
The most notable instances include German police raiding the group's Germany communes in 2013. Forty children were removed based on suspicions children were beaten with sticks. In 2000, a couple in Connecticut pleaded guilty to third- degree assault and cruelty for disciplining their children with a 30-inch fiberglass rod. And in 1984, authorities raided the group in Vermont, removing 112 children on abuse allegations.
Reports have surfaced over the years of parents claiming an estranged partner kidnapped a child to live in the commune, leading to child custody battles.
The group acknowledges on its website spanking children, but denies wrongdoing. It also heavily contests allegations of kidnapping, racism, sexism and homophobia.
On the surface, the group doesn't raise any red flags. Its rustic, whimsical vibe with eclectic ambient music and soft lighting attracts many college students looking for a quiet nook to study and grab a bite of local food, Barber said.
Historically, the Twelve Tribes lifestyle is something that is attractive to "seekers," people who are hitting rock bottom, Barber said.
"Just those kind of down-and-out people," he said. "The Twelve offers those people an out. They say, 'Here we've got a community for you to belong to. You're looking for answers. We have the answers.'"