“In the early ’70s life for many of us was in the process of change. Those old enough to remember those days will nod thoughtfully as their mind drifts back to remember the end of the Vietnam War protests and the calming of the revolutionary drumbeat that had throbbed in our young veins. The paths set before us then were polarizing. Would we conform or continue to press on, trying to change the world?”
Gene and Marsha Spriggs opened the Yellow Deli in Chattanooga, Tennessee back in May of 1973. They intended to avoid three piece suits and desk job interviews — the polarization from hippies to “hippie-crits”(1) — so they opened a sandwich and salad shop dedicated to “serving the fruit of the Spirit."
“We speak in love having come through the ’60s and everywhere after that. We’ve been humbled by the realities of our desperate need for life. We want to share what we’ve found with you – in the hope that you are still looking for a life of love.”
Fed up with drugs and living in what they considered immorality, the Spriggs joined the Jesus Movement in 1972 and founded a ministry for teenagers called the Light Brigade, which operated out of The Lighthouse, a small coffee shop. They believed that in order for the messiah to return, the Church needed to be restored to its original form, including observing the sabbath as well as maintaining Mosaic law and Jewish feasts (2).
Following the birth of the Yellow Deli, the Light Brigade began attending the First Presbyterian Church in downtown Chattanooga. However, the church was hostile towards their acceptance and affiliation with different social classes and racial groups, and on January 12, 1975, when the group arrived for service, they found it had been canceled for the Super Bowl. Having little tolerance for this and the hostility of First Presbyterian, they formed the Vine Christian Community Church and began holding services in Warner Park, located on the outskirts of downtown. But due to the lack of denominational authority in their baptisms as well as their strict following, Chattanooga began labeling them as a cult, making allegations of mind control and child abuse.
While ignoring the negative press and continuing the services, Spriggs received an invitation in 1978 from a small church in Island Pond, Vermont. The group slowly moved in stages, eventually closing the Yellow Deli and erecting The Northeast Kingdom Community Church, which was received positively by the rural town.
Over those twenty years, they opened up branches in several different countries, such as Canada, Australia, Brazil, Spain, Germany, Argentina, and the United Kingdom(3). During this time, they changed their name to The Twelve Tribes, and in 2006, the Tribe held a reunion for members and friends, announcing a new community in Chattanooga. This led to opening up a new Yellow Deli in 2008, thirty years after their departure. And while the restaurant is home to fresh food, herbal teas, and art, many Chattanoogans still scoff as they drive past the wooden, rustic structure on Mccallie Avenue, observing the members performing regular Israeli folk dances while fluid stringed music spills from the building’s speakers.
“It’s still just as much of a cult today as it was in the ’70s,” a bartender in his late fifties shakes his head. “I don’t support them and their hippie, ultra religious freak, pony-tail wearing sandwich makin’. Serving the fruit of the Spirit, my ass.”
Others, typically the University of Chattanooga students who frequent the Deli in between classes and in the late hours of the night, are more open to the Twelve Tribes.
“They don’t like being called a cult, I know that,” one student from UTC says. “And besides, even if they were, a sandwich is a sandwich. And they have really awesome sandwiches.”