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Neighborliness Grows on Them
"I was a farmer's wife for 50 years, but it was so funny to see that," said Virts, who is glad the group's land is being preserved. "I thought, 'What in the world?' "
Over the years, the Twelve Tribes, which according to its Web site has a membership of 2,000 to 3,000 worldwide, has not always been so well received.
In 1984, one of its communes in Island Pond, Vt., was raided by state police amid reports of alleged child abuse. Authorities removed 112 children to examine them, but a judge ordered the children returned home after refusing the state's request for emergency detention orders. The case was dropped.
In 2001, the New York State Department of Labor fined the group $2,000 for violations of child labor laws after the agency found teenagers working in the group's candle and furniture shops. The group appealed the fines twice to the state Industrial Board of Appeals but lost, said Leo Rosales, spokesman for the Labor Department.
Luke Wiseman, one of the commune's leaders in Hillsboro who was at Island Pond during the raid, denies all the accusations. Wiseman said that the group's discipline techniques never amount to abuse and that charges of child labor and cult-like behavior stem from ignorance of their lifestyle.
"We have nothing to hide, and our life is open for anybody to come and observe any time they want," said Wiseman, 32, who was born and reared in the Twelve Tribes.
On a recent afternoon, those who took Wiseman up on his offer entered the lush Hillsboro property to find members young and old preparing crops and fertilizer, while giggling children just let out of school dashed to a nearby pond and took turns launching off a rope swing. Nonmembers were greeted with smiles and warm hellos.
Every Friday, the commune hosts a musical open house, welcoming town residents for food and song.
While the group is always looking for new members, and has been known to recruit at Grateful Dead concerts and at music festivals on the Mall in Washington, Wiseman said the decision to join should not be made lightly, because it requires people to contribute all their possessions to the common pool and to dedicate their life to Yahshua.
"Faith is voluntary," he said.
As for the locals who were nervous when the Tribe first came to town, they say it's been more than just land preservation that has since won them over.
"We had an ice storm here this winter," recalled Claire Cutshall, a Hillsboro jewelry store owner. "I hired a fellow to come plow for $60, and he only did one car length. Then Luke [Wiseman] drove up with his plow and said, 'Want me to move your ice?' I said, 'How much?' He said, 'Oh, nothin,' [plowed it] and just kept on going."
"If they're a cult," she said, "they're pretty nice."