Jesus, Marx, and Spiritual Economics
Thousands of people poured through the exit gates of Flushing Meadows. I kept staring through the fence at those 70,000 fold-out chairs glistening under the massive house lights and flanked by two enormous video screens. Why had I come here? I wondered, looking out at all those seats. What did I think I could possibly find at Billy Graham’s Last Crusade? The ailing preacher had been diagnosed with prostate cancer and he had come to New York City, media capital of the world, to kick off his last evangelical tour.
I had recently undergone some unexpected mystical openings of my own, ones that surprisingly involved Jesus. So I wanted to see if these Christians knew something that I didn’t, and also what might be behind America’s rising fundamentalism that was now preventing gays from getting married in various states. Billy spoke in a weak, but graceful baritone voice, giving a brief sermon on the well-known tale of Nicodemus and the need to be “born again.” The speech lacked a certain depth and passion and glancing at the massive infrastructure in front of me, it just didn’t seem worth the $6.8 million needed to put the whole thing on. As uniformed men packed up the evening’s offerings into armored trucks, I wondered what would have happened if those funds had been spent on issues Jesus actually cared about, like feeding the poor and healing the sick.
I eventually turned my back on the scene and walked over to the Queens’ Unisphere, where kids were splashing away under the140-foot statue of the globe. A twenty-piece band of accordions, drums, trombones, and other instruments played swanky, modernized versions of Israeli classics not too far away. I walked over to find bearded men, many in fishing type hats, dancing with attractive women. The women wore light, comfortable clothes, somehow looking funky, contemporary and traditional with their beads, satchels and bonnets. One of the men came over with his wife to talk.
“What did you think of the sermon?” I asked them.
“Well, Billy understood part of being born again,” said the bearded man. “But I think it’s also about coming out of the womb of selfishness, coming out of darkness and into the light. It’s when you stop only caring for yourself and shed Christ-like compassion on the rest of the world.”
“Who are you guys?” I asked, and the man handed me a brochure explaining that they were The Twelve Tribes.”
“We have communities across the globe,” he said. “We think Karl Marx had it right, except he forgot about spirit. Our communities work together for a common goal. We resemble the early Christian church, before it got greedy with money and power.”
The two of them introduced themselves. They had taken on unpronounceable Hebrew names that I unsuccessfully tried to remember.
“We live on a farm in Vermont,” the woman explained. “There’s a whole community of us trying to grow organic food and live sustainably."
“What’s a typical day like for you up there?” I asked, as I’d been dreaming of living in an intentional community for several years.
“We get up each morning and have a prayer with our breakfast and then we dance,” he said. “We work hard on the farm, but it’s also fun. At night, there’s dinner and more dancing. Sometimes we have skits, music or performances, or just talk about how we’re feeling or questions we might have."
“We try to live like Yahshua,” his wife added. “We hold our brothers and sisters’ hands with love in our hearts.”
Yahshua, as I learned, was Jesus’ Hebrew name, literally meaning “Yahweh’s Salvation.” They had each taken on Hebrew names to be more like Yahshua.
They saw me eyeing the dancing. The music was hot and lively, decadently surreal and bawdy for a group of Marxist Christians. I wanted to jump in but felt shy about it until one of the brothers in the circle grabbed my hand and pulled me in. He showed me the moves. “Step, step, snap, snap, snap.” He kept holding my hand and we stepped and snapped our way through that song and the next and the next. When the band called it a night, I picked up a conversation with him. He told me of his Twelve Tribes community in California -- his relationship to the land, the crops, the goats, the living spirit of his world. He mentioned how this reverence was the exact opposite of Monsanto and other agribusiness giants who’d sue farmers if their genetically modified seeds blew into their fields. Mystical and political, I was already infatuated with their tribe.
I walked back with the musicians to their bus. One of them, a black man, told me how he had been a Mormon in southern Missouri, but the Mormon Church just wasn’t doing it for him. He’d been a drinker, philanderer, gambler, and after a serious drunk-driving accident, he was ready to devote his life to God but wasn’t sure how. He came upon one of the Twelve Tribes’ flyers and came to a meeting. “They treated each other like equals with real love and respect. I couldn’t believe that reality could be like this. You know, Christians talk about living like Jesus, but it’s always after he’s come back. These guys are actually doing it right now.”
In the parking lot, we came across the most amazing double-decker bus I’d ever seen. It was red with white racing stripes, multiple sunroof windows and a retro fifties look that Buddy Holly might have cruised in. This belonged to the Twelve Tribes and they asked me if I wanted to hop on board. The inside had varnished wood paneling with cushions and lamps. The folks in the bus immediately served us cups of mate tea. The captain of the ship, Sholom, noticed me admiring its fortitude and how expensive it all must’ve been.
“We own a café upstate in Ithaca,” Sholom explained. “We work like capitalists, but divide the money like communists. It’s like a vow of poverty. None of us have money, but we have an abundance of everything.”
Sholom spoke in a raspy captain’s voice. He had long, pulled-back black hair, a matching wiry beard, and looked ready to end his stint on shore leave. He read us some poetry he’d written and then talked of all the shows and festivals they’d been to – Phish, the Dead, the Rainbow Gathering, and now Billy Graham. Two Hispanic guitarists were aboard. They had just met the Twelve Tribes that night and were eager to join the community. I was impressed to see how easygoing the members were about converting others. They didn't push or force any dogma. They simply acted through example, inviting you to join along if you wished. This magnetized people to them. The bus had all the races, ages, and genders and they all got along so lovingly. Sholom invited me to visit their community upstate in Ithaca, and as strange as it was, I knew that I would pay them a visit. Was this the intentional community I’d been searching for?
A few months later I found myself on a Greyhound bus heading up to the Twelve Tribe’s enclave in Ithaca, New York. Stemming from the Jesus Movement in the 70’s, the Twelve Tribes had built a couple of dozen communities around the globe to reconnect with spirit, each other, and the earth. But I had serous doubts that they could actually pull this off. I had lived in former Eastern Block countries and had seen the tragic toll of what happens when Marxist ideology gets tweaked and twisted by human nature. And I had to admit I felt a great deal of trepidation regarding my weekend stay with the followers of “Yahshua.”
Sholom, the captain of the Buddy Holly bus, picked me up at the bus station in his car. He quickly allayed my worries of receiving “Yahshua lectures” by talking about all the sites in Ithaca, the café the Tribes owned, and how lots of the townsfolk thought them radicals, communists, whackos, or rich bastards as they owned a big house, a couple businesses and several cars.
“Think about it,” he said in a melodious, whiskey-sounding voice. “We all share our resources. There are fifty of us, but we only need one lawnmower, one dishwasher and a few cars. We save money on everything and that lets us invest in our community. Some people are jealous. They’re stuck in this work/survival rut, suffering from the isolation that our society imposes.”
Sholom directed our conversation from consumerism to oil consumption and all the unnecessary wars that it fosters.
“If you think about it, war fulfills a spiritual need. It gives people’s lives meaning. They can look down the barrel of an enemy and don’t have to fight the war inside themselves. But as Jesus said, “Blessed be the peacemakers for they shall be called the children of God.”
I had never been to Ithaca before and was delighted to find it a quaint little college town, not so presumptuous as its Ivy League jewel, Cornell University, perched on the hill. Sholom pulled into a beautiful German-looking mansion with white paint, brown trimming and dozens of triangular gables poking up. He explained that this “mansion” had actually been a fitness center they’d bought a few years ago with their shared resources. He led me to a dorm room where the single men slept. The two Hispanic musicians I’d met from the bus at the Billy Graham Crusade had already joined the community and appeared to be having the time of their lives. They proudly introduced themselves by their newly acquired Hebrew names, Derush Zachar and Chetz Bara. Chetz Bara was especially excited today. All of his worldly possessions had arrived at the house and I got to witness the amazing alchemical process of an object transforming from a “mine” to an “ours.” The kids paraded in Chetz’s remote control airplanes, happy that they could all now share in the fun. I asked Chetz if he didn’t mind losing his bank account and his home furnishings, but he cheerily said this was the rich life he’d always been looking for.
At six o’clock, the shofar blew loudly through the hallways and I joined the community’s fifty brothers and sisters for the Shabbat’s opening ceremonies. They gathered in a large circle, wooden chairs all around, in a revamped gymnasium. Members of “the Body,” as they called themselves, had stripped off the gym mirrors, put in wood paneling and hung up Middle Eastern tapestries to make the communal room complete. In accordance with their traditions, the men wore khakis, sandals, and comfortable hemp shirts. They all had beards and long hair, which was held back by headbands, representing the kingdom awaiting them. The women donned loose flowing skirts, similar shirts, and scarves over their heads. In the circle, one person would spontaneously start singing a song that he or she liked. The pianist, drummers and guitar players would kick in as various members jumped up for Israeli folk dancing with the entire community singing and clapping along. Partners constantly switched, small circles formed, rotated, then broke and reassembled, as everybody joyously danced with everybody else.
Afterward, various members would stand up and say what they were thankful for, lessons they had learned that week, anecdotes from the Bible, and greetings for the guests they’d invited to join them in the Shabbat. Nobody gave sermons or lectured. Each member of the community was considered a priest, including the women. They were all a studious bunch, taking copious notes on comments made by their fellow brothers and sisters.
One of the most ear-catching comments was when a member talked about the Lords’ prayer. “Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done, on Earth as it is in heaven.’ I was thinking how nations are like kingdoms, kingdoms that we co-create. Now how do we go about creating a kingdom on Earth as it is in heaven?” he asked us. “What’s the most important thing in a kingdom?”
I didn’t know but the Tribe members instantly had a response.
“The children,” was the chorus.
“The children,” he repeated. “It’s important that they give and share freely, that we bring them up to truly love one another without fear, anger and hate.”
When everyone had finished talking, we hopped on our feet and came together in a tight little circle. As their custom, the men held their hands in the air. It didn't seem fair but the women were expected to keep their hands at their sides while various members called out elated, rapid-fire thanks, praising Abba (“Father” in Hebrew) before serving the evening meal.
We ate in the back courtyard under a large circus-like tent. Candles had been lit on all small round tables. The meal was very hearty and healthy -- homemade spelt bread, a garden salad, and a vegetarian pasta dish. The Twelve Tribes had invited various guests and people in need to join in the communal meal. I talked to several members and learned how they had tried it all -- transcendental meditation, psychedelics, shamanism -- searching for answers when they finally came upon the Twelve Tribes and their path to God. While these stories were inspiring, I was also disappointed to hear the community's general condescension to the other spiritual traditions. Just because these roads didn't work out for them didn't mean that they weren't valid for someone else.
The best part of the evening was spent helping the kids clean up. There were no whimpers or complaints as they happily pitched in to help. They were giving, loving, friendly, funny, whip smart, and very natural in themselves. And they loved to tell great stories. As a former teacher who’d instructed kids from many different countries, I immediately found them to be the most well-adapted kids I’d ever met. And it made sense. They were loved, supported, and cared for by the nice little kingdom that had been created for them. As Sholom put it, “We parents have to work on it. After all, we were brought up in that system of competition. But for these kids, it’s just their natural way. They already know how to love, give, and share.”
After cleaning up, there was more music and dancing and storytelling before we all hit the hay. When I arrived at the men’s dormitory, I found a wicker basket of fruit on my mattress with a note welcoming me to the community. A warm, loving feeling swept throughout my being and I considered that this might one day be my home.
The next morning, I ate breakfast with the rest of “the Body” and then Sholom offered to walk me to the café. It was a sunny day and he took me by the Cascadilla Creek towards downtown. Sholom was a poet by trade and we talked about the Beats, Naropa University in Boulder, and our connections with both. He knew most of the Beats, had performed with many of them, but in the end none of that really satisfied his longings. He talked about his quest into Daoism, his wife’s query into religion and how none of that provided the answers they were looking for. Sholom had written a couple of books and he wanted to start another on the Israeli Essenes, who had grown weary of the corruption at the Temple in Jerusalem and headed to the rocky hills overlooking the Dead Sea to experience a truer, purer communion with God. Sholom was studying them when his wife found the Twelve Tribes. At first, there was no way Sholom was going to follow her example and join the Body. However, seeing the essence in their practice, he decided to write a book about them instead of the Essenes. Then it happened. He began to experience God through their path. It was an authentic, ecstatic, satisfying experience that kept with him all the time. It even saw him through the most trying time of his life, watching his wife succumb to cancer. Much like her teacher Yahshua, she didn’t “see death when it came.” She was beyond it mentally, spiritually, accepting this natural transition with composure and grace.
We had reached the Cascadilla Gorge with its first little waterfall. Sholom looked at his watch and saw that we needed to quicken our pace. He put his arm around me and talked of the intelligence and beauty of nature, the Big Bang, quantum physics, and the complicated poetry of DNA. His arm kept around me and I suddenly realized that this was becoming a father-son type thing. I was now in my thirties and perhaps too old for that, but growing up with a loving, but somewhat absent father, I was moved by this gesture and truly loving it. I could see myself hanging out with Sholom and having these fantastic conversations for a long time to come.
When we reached The Commons, Ithaca’s main pedestrian mall, I felt a little uncomfortable walking in public with a man dressed in traditional Hebrew regalia. It was a little like hanging out with an Italian who insisted on wearing a Roman toga, just to commemorate the good old days. But Sholom was a popular figure in these parts and several vagrants greeted him as if he were a local celebrity. Sholom invited them all to dinner and then whispered to me.
“There needs to be a home for the lonely. That’s the problem with America. We don’t have that in our society.”
Several of the Tribes members were waiting outside their café, The Mate Factor, when Sholom and I arrived. The cafe was closed for the Sabbath, which meant the community took a huge financial hit by missing the most trafficked day of the week. I wondered why they just didn’t hire someone else to run the show on Saturdays but there seemed to be a deeper spiritual intention going on. The kids were excited to get inside and grab juices and other cold drinks. Sholom opened the door for me, saying, “This is eternity. Welcome home.” He made me a tasty iced “mate late” while explaining how time wasn’t what we thought it to be. “Yahshua was there in the beginning, at the Garden of Eden, on the cross, and here with us today. The eternal is always here. And The Bible is just a guidebook. Living the life of Yahshua is the important thing. We’re disciples ourselves. People could write testaments about what we’re saying right now.”
One of the more prodigious kids gave me a tour of the café. It was an intricate affair of plants, vines, and beautifully varnished wood taken from a nearby barn. This was definitely a café built by carpenters. The place had an organic, jungly feel and I imagined we were right back in Eden. The kid explained that the Twelve Tribes had a community in Brazil that harvested mate. In Ithaca, they ran the café, packaged and sold mate to distributors, managed a construction company, as well as manufactured and sold shoes. This allowed them to support all their members, build the “Buddy Holly bus” as well as take trips to the various festivals and other outings. The community had a “needs committee” that bought all clothes, toiletries, and other necessities for its members. An older woman, Shoshona, interjected saying, “Can you imagine a world where all your needs are met, a world where you can solely focus on what you were divinely created to do?”
Her words stopped me in my tracks. It’s not often someone says something you’ve been seeking your whole life. Ever since I could remember, I’d always had my back against the wall financially. My parents constantly struggled with making the mortgage and paying the electric bills. I’d been working undesirable jobs since I was eleven and even throughout my twenties, it was a real challenge after long commutes from uninspiring jobs just to squeeze in a few hours of joy and magic into life. I’d always felt there was a better world out there; one where you got to spend time exploring who you are and what this great mystery of a universe is really about. And here the Twelve Tribes were already doing it -- creating time to share stories, play music, connect, and enjoy the richness of life. My impossible dream was being lived out right in front of me.
We all arrived back at the house in time for the six o’clock shofar call. The members fell back in their circle, singing and dancing Israeli songs. This was the big night of Shabbat and they hosted an extended go around, sharing thoughts, praises, and anecdotes before bringing out a large stemmed glass filled to the rim with wine. Chetz Baru had just been baptized and he was ecstatic as this was his first week sharing in “the breaking of the bread.” It was his honor to pass around “the victory cup.” Every member of the community had to consider if they’d served Christ well that week, shedding universal love to their brothers and sisters in the world. It was a profound moment watching these strong-minded adults humbly accept the cup to their lips or honestly admit they hadn’t lived up to their Christ-like potential.
Many members took this opportunity to apologize for trespasses they’d made against other members in the Body and the community lovingly forgave them. It was such an honest, open, and forthcoming way of handling personal issues, which explained how fifty people managed to live so cooperatively under one roof. They truly were a “Body” and needed all its various parts to function well. Half the cup was full when they had finished and Sholom commented that there was much grace not utilized this week, but that they could make up for it over the next one. This little ceremony shattered my ideas on money as I suddenly realized this was how they measured wealth within their community.
Then the members moved towards the back room for the breaking of the bread. This was apparently the highlight of the whole show, as they reenacted the last supper each week. Only baptized members could attend the ceremony. Two of the brothers made the sacrifice to forgo the ritual and drive me back to the café for an amazing glazed chicken dinner with steamed broccoli. The two of them were kind and generous throughout the meal but they pushed a little too desperately in trying to convince me to join the Body. I recalled Sholom's words about the Twelve Tribes providing a home for the lonely. Listening to these two, I realized that this was their last stop, that they had nowhere else to go, which may have been the case with many members of the community. But to be honest, that wasn't too far from where I was at. I had never felt that I really fit in to our agreed- upon capitalist society.
When I arrived back at the dormitories, Chetz Bara was wide awake and his cheeks were all aglow. He excitedly told me how he’d felt the spirit of God in the breaking of the bread, that this ceremony was just like being back there with the original twelve apostles. I was happy for Chetz but also felt a sliver of jealously.
I woke up that Sunday with a touch of melancholy in my heart knowing it would be my last day with the Twelve Tribes for a while. After the Sunday morning teaching, Sholom decided to show me beautiful Ithaca Falls before I caught the bus back home. We rode bikes through the town, discussing string theory and the vibrational healing powers of prayer. These prayers, he said, were more necessary than ever as the whole world was now in very deep trouble. We parked our bikes and walked down to the wide falls and sat near the still water below.
Sholom admired the scene for awhile and then asked, “So, what do you think of the Twelve Tribes? Are you considering joining us?”
This, I knew, was the time to bring up the one thing that had been bothering me the whole weekend.
“Does it just have to be Jesus, or could I embrace other traditions as well?”
“Well…” Sholom thought about it. “As I was telling you before, I’ve tried it all -- Judaism, Daoism, poetry. Think of Emerson, Thoreau, Whitman -- all that transcendental philosophy and where did it get them? Right back where Whitman’s poetry started, 'In the dust of the road.'”
“I understand what you’re saying but I feel love still exists as an essence, even if we call it amour, ahav, or laska. Maybe it’s the same with God. It’s a universal essence we all experience and the different religions are just various translations of it.”
Sholom scratched his beard, pondering my words. “It’s like Yahshua says, ‘Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.’ What I treasure are human beings. There’s so much suffering in the world. What’s helped? Governments? Religions? Economics? You’ve seen what the Twelve Tribes does. We provide a home for the lonely. Who else does that?”
“Other spiritual communities must provide that kind of support.”
“Is Buddha stopping wars in Iraq?” Sholom raised his voice. "Are Shiva and Krishna going to end global oppression and racism?”
“I just think there may be more pieces to this puzzle than you think.”
“But the Twelve Tribes works!” Sholom yelled at me. He caught himself and grew quiet for a few moments.
Sholom sighed out over the river, shaking his head, knowing I'd made my decision. We sat there for half an hour without saying a word. The disappointment was palpable, hanging like a murky cloud between us. I felt awful, like the prodigal son telling his father he would not be coming into the family business. I had truly enjoyed my stay at the Twelve Tribes but I now knew that I could never become a member of the Body. I’d willingly forfeit my worldly possessions, and even lose the jeans and T-shirts to put on their traditional wear, but the one thing I couldn’t give up were my spiritual attachments. Since my recent mystical awakenings, I’d come to love Buddhist philosophy, Sufi dancing, shamanic journeys, kundalini meditations and the rest. Each one was its own poetic adventure to the eternal and I just couldn’t let and surrender myself entirely to Jesus. I wanted a spiritual community more than anything, but not if it meant lying to myself.
Time was running short and we eventually hopped on our bikes and rode back without saying a word. I grabbed my bags and found several of the Tribes members waiting in a car to accompany me to the bus station. Sholom drove us there in silence. He helped me carry my bags to the lower compartment of the bus. As I was about to step inside, he pulled me into his strong belly and gave me a huge captain’s hug. “Goodbye, my friend,” he said. “I’ll miss you.” We nodded our final farewells and the members waved until the bus pulled out of site. The Greyhound rumbled on and I absently gazed out the window, thinking of the events that weekend and how much they’d already enriched my life. This was an early training for my forthcoming intentional community. And I no longer had to imagine futuristic eco-villages and far-off utopias to picture how humans could work together, giving, loving and sharing in a peaceful way. People were already out there doing it and if I ever had my doubts, all I had to do was think of the time I spent with the Twelve Tribes.
Image: "chalice and bread_2554" by hoyasmeg on Flickr, courtesy of Creative Commons Licensing.Tweet