He was looking to serve God with like-minded people.
He thought communal living could be spiritually lifting, a way of life rare enough to spark his interest in his quest to serve God.
And members of the Twelve Tribes, with their smiles and façades of happy living, convinced him to give it a try.
But for Robert Roberg, there was nothing heavenly about his experience with the cult 29 years ago.
Roberg, 63, is a married man with five children. He first met members of the Twelve Tribes in Island Pond, Vt. He was with his wife and then-baby daughter, spending time with his wife’s family before heading to Washington, DC, to work with a Christian mission group.
“We came down into Island Pond to buy groceries or something, and somebody stopped us in a grocery parking lot and said ‘You’d probably be interested in these Christians that meet in a ski lodge in Island Pond,’” he said.
Roberg and his wife decided to check the place out. For the next six Sundays, they visited members of the Tribe.
“They were just the nicest, sweetest, most-loving people we’d ever met,” he said.
But that quickly changed when Eugene Spriggs, the leader, appeared at the lodge. Roberg said they called Spriggs “The Prophet.”
“When he arrived, there was this huge, cold, dark shadow that fell upon the whole group,” Roberg said. “He was fierce, and harsh. There was nothing gentle or kind about him. I thought he was this really mean guy. He berated the people about their children, that they weren’t disciplining their children enough. I was totally turned off by him.”
The Robergs left for D.C., but continued to send letters to the people they met in the Twelve Tribes. While with the mission group, Roberg said they were asked to pay for the training. The Robergs didn’t have cash to spend, or at least they didn’t save any to give to the mission group.
“So, were in Washington, D.C., practically broke. But somehow we knew we wanted to serve God,” he said.
They decided to return to their native state of California. En route, they stopped in Chattanooga, Tenn., and found a restaurant called the Yellow Deli. The Twelve Tribes operate this establishment. Members invited them to stay at a big house they owned. The Robergs agreed and for six weeks they stayed with the Twelve Tribes in Chattanooga.
Every morning at 6:00, they’d pray. But it wasn’t your normal prayer.
“They were praying for nails, shingles and hammers,” he said. “It was weird. They were praying for all these weird things. They were running all of these little businesses. They put me on a crew to go build a wall in one of these restaurants.”
Roberg worked from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m., every day. He compared the work to slave labor. “They worked me like that day and night, and it was just like free labor for them.”
Early on during the Robergs’ stay, his wife expressed concern about the happenings in the nursery house, where all the children stayed.
“All the people in the nursery carried these switches from trees,” he said. “They were extremely, extremely severe about any child who looked crooked. You didn’t just switch them once, you switch them until, they call it ‘breaking the spirit’. She saw some babies just being switched and switched and switched. She started saying ‘We’ve got to get out of here; this is not healthy.”
But Roberg wanted to know more about the Twelve Tribes. He convinced her to stay.
The bizarre environment continued, when Roberg spent his first Friday with this Tribe. Every Friday night was “Agape Fest,” when members would drink bottles of wine and feast. It was love time.
“They would sort of make up for lost time and get kind of rowdy, dance a little bit. Some of them, I thought, got a little too much agape in them,” he said.
One Tribe member commented to him that “we are the only true church on Earth.”
“I said ‘Come on, there are churches all over the earth and Christians are everywhere,’” Roberg said.
“He said ‘No, we are the only Christians.’”
At that point, it all became clear to Roberg: “This is a cult. Every cult says ‘we are the only ones.’ After six weeks, we decided we were going to move on.”
Since the Robergs left the Tribe, he has had several run ins with other groups. Some members even arrived on his door step to convince him to be a member.
“I can’t fault them on their teaching of the gospel of Jesus as they understand it, but there were some cultish things that turned me off. The strict discipline of the children was very disturbing,” Roberg said.
Every cult is spirit controlled, Roberg said.
“There is some kind of demonic seducing spirit that takes control of these people and they seem happy and nice,” he continued. “I think it it’s a seducing spirit that is leading them astray, a demonic spirit. When you think you’re the only group of Christians on Earth, and the only right ones, it’s a subtle pride thing, it’s arrogance. Pride is the sin of Satan. So the minute you start thinking you have all the answers, and you are the only ones, you are really taking away from the humility we all live. God only accepts the humble into his kingdom. A scripture says we will one day rule over angels. God would never take a proud human being and put him over his angels. He would only take humble people. I am sure in the Twelve Tribes, there are humble people. But the leadership is leading them astray.”
Roberg said he admires the Tribe’s openness--a door is always open for new recruits. He believes the cult has been able to grow because members don’t deny anyone from entering their world. So many people leave, but so many enter. Hippy festivals, often where troubled people can be found in packs, are big a draw for their membership drives.
Although his experience was more than a quarter century ago, Roberg said he doesn’t think the group has changed. Newspaper clippings of the child abuse and the unusual doctrines tells him they may have gotten worse, possibly even stronger.
“They are taking in desperate people from all over the streets who need a place to go,” he said. “They can keep renewing themselves even though maybe none of the original people are still there. It keeps the machinery going.”