Before visiting Gladheart Farm, I had never heard about the Twelve Tribes community, which has been around since 1972. It goes to show how big and diverse the community movement is. Twelve Tribes has locations all over the world, and is essentially an attempt at recreating the first century Christian church, as described in the book of Acts. It was founded in Chattanooga, TN by a man named Gene (or Albert) Sprigs. (The Wikipedia article about Twelve Tribes names the founder as Gene Sprigs, but Albert was the name I was given when I talked to members of Asheville chapter of Twelve Tribes, Gladheart Farm.)
The history of the group is interesting to read about, and it’s incredible how popular the idea of living communally in an old fashioned Christian way has proven to be. I saw first hand how much the folks at Gladheart Farm were enjoying themselves. We were invited along by our friend Jonah for a weekly gathering they hold at their East Asheville farm. Jonah runs Fortunity, the community where we currently reside, and like me, he is interested in the community process, taking every chance he gets to visit other intentional communities. Travis, who also stays on the land where we live, also came along for the night, as did another guy named Seth, whom I didn’t know very well.
We parked on the street next to Gladheart Farm, which is an eight acre spread in a rural suburban area. The grounds were bucolic and beautiful. We got there before Jonah, so we weren’t sure how to proceed, but we soon ran into some residents, who welcomed us and invited us to walk about. We were eventually met by a man who offered to take us on a tour.
What an awesome place! Three main houses sat at the top of the property, along with the industry center, a large building with a commercial kitchen where they make maté, as well as a few other health food products. They have a thriving business from a fairly simple product line, and they also root cellar a large amount of vegetables to feed the community, consisting of some forty people.
The girls very much enjoyed the part of the tour that took us through the barn, where there were chickens and goats. They also enjoyed feeding the dairy cow some apples, which we picked off a thriving tree, dropping apples somewhat early in the year, by my reckoning. They were ripe and delicious though, and the cow thought so too.
I was impressed by their innovative combination of two yurts with a small cabin between them to create another living structure. I was also impressed by their extensive gardens, which grew farm scale crops as well as many beds of colorfully blooming flowers.
Before dinner, the group gathered in one of the houses, which looked like an old fashioned cabin, though it was a large two story modern building. They circled around for song and dance, led by nobody, enjoyed by all. Several people pulled out instruments, and others went to the middle of the floor to do circling dances that reminded me of old European folk dances. The community members were young and old with families and children of all ages. They all wore small pieces of cloth around their head called diadems, and many of the women covered their hair with shawls.
The music sounded great, and they all seemed to know the words to the songs. At one point, all the musicians joined in at once, giving us a fascinating ensemble consisting of two guitars, two fiddles, several djembes, a trombone, a trumpet, and a flute.
We were all very hungry by the time the music came to a close, and the smells of dinner invited us to the main house, where we would dine. Aside from the kitchen, the whole ground floor was filled with dining tables, giving the place a very restaurant-like feel. We all sat at tables and were served by members of the community who had volunteered for the task. They had both meat and vegetarian options, and there were pitchers of water and baskets of bread on the table.
I enjoyed some fascinating conversation with several different members, who told me about the history of the community and the details of how they functioned at their particular branch. Everything is shared, though people have their own rooms and take on jobs that suit them. Their income came from thematé business, and many of them were employed at either making or manning the retail outlet, which was in town. They also had garden and farm work, cooking, cleaning, and grounds keeping. I did not get a sense of how many hours a week they all worked, but it seemed like they have plenty of free time, and I could certainly feel their contentment. Most of them had joined for the reason that they wanted a simple, fulfilling life, free from the stress and vices of mainstream society.
It’s an idea that has fascinated me for years, and I too long for such a village life. I would join such a group as Twelve Tribes in a heartbeat if it weren’t for the religious orientation of it. It’s so ironic, how much of what I admire about them comes out of that religious tradition, yet the very basis of the ideology (the authority of the Bible and the philosophy of salvation via Christ) I find irreconcilable with my own passions, beliefs, and understandings. I too want to live like the early Christians, without all the obsession over the death, crucifixion, and resurrection of Christ, and without the proclamation that only a specific set of beliefs will grant us salvation from an otherwise wrathful and soul-damning God.
But the power of organized religion runs deep, and some of the most successful, long-lasting communities are centered around some sort of religious faith. And as long as people are doing the good work of growing food, building local community, and living in peace, I don’t care how or to whom they pray. To each his or her own. We were all very impressed with how welcoming the members of Gladheart Farm were to us, and the food they served us, free of charge, was healthy, organic, and good tasting. They have a good thing going, and I hope for a chance to visit them again sometime.