PLYMOUTH (CBS) – “My name is Carolyn and I was a former disciple of the Twelve Tribes.” Carolyn Figuera wants the world to know about the religious sect she broke away from. This is a group that has long struggled against accusations of being a cult.
“It feels a lot like a toxic, abusive relationship, the way people are trained,” she said. “It’s so similar to an emotionally abusive relationship.”
She lived in a township in Savannah, Georgia. In Massachusetts, Twelve Tribes has properties in Milton, Raynham, Hyannis and Plymouth, where the group runs a popular cafe called the Yellow Deli. It’s a Twelve Tribes channel where Figuera used to work in his town. She says there’s a lot audiences don’t see behind the quaint exterior. “They control your logic and your thinking, and they control your money,” she said.
When the I-Team visited the Yellow Deli, there were recruiting materials strewn everywhere, including a book called “A Brand New Culture”. Inside it is written: “we do not make decisions separately”. Figuera said it was the cornerstone of the Twelve Tribes philosophy. “An idea that you came up with on your own, so that’s a sign that it comes from the devil. It’s from the devil,” she said.
FBI documents show townships in all twelve tribes across the country have been the target of federal child abuse investigations, but none have resulted in charges. Several years ago, OSHA investigated a child labor complaint at a Twelve Tribes construction site in Plymouth, but again no fines were issued.
Figuera said hitting children with sticks was a common practice in his commune: “They are placed everywhere, so parents can just grab them whenever a child needs discipline.”
When we asked the community about the charges, a spokesperson responded. “We are no strangers to controversy and many of these allegations are quite old and tired,” said Zahar Racine.
Figuera, who is of Dominican descent, also said that the teachings of the Twelve Tribes were racist. “Black people must live a life of slavery or servitude to the white man in order to redeem themselves from their curse,” she said.
Racine denied the allegations. “We continue every day to try to create a home for lonely people and to show God’s love to people of all backgrounds and races.”
Figuera left Twelve Tribes with the help of Lakeville, Mass.-based counselors who specialize in helping people break away from religious groups.
“You just want them to have other information so they can make an informed decision,” Bob Pardon said. He and his wife Judy Pardon founded the New England Institute for Religious Research. These are reviews from Twelve Tribes, who say they’ve helped at least 30 members break loose, most recently in 2017.
“These have a lasting impact that you have to be intentional about if you leave this group in order to heal,” Bob Pardon said.
Pardons fear the instability caused by the pandemic will make people more vulnerable now to being lured into destructive religious groups. Twelve Tribes is one of several groups the I-Team recently examined as part of a series on religious sects with local ties.