In a pocket of rural Devon, tucked away beneath the velvety folds of the Mole Valley, is a faintly unassuming café called The Yellow Deli. It is found on the high street in Honiton, a market town replete with gift shops and tea rooms. Today, it is best known for its ‘Hot Pennies’ ceremony, where, in mid-July, the town crier and the mayor raise a garlanded pole topped with a gloved hand before proclaiming: ‘The glove is up. No man may be arrested until the glove is taken down.’ Hot pennies are then thrown from balconies toward crowds of eager locals.
But on this midsummer’s day, there are no pennies thrown from The Yellow Deli. This might be because the building doesn’t have balconies, but it’s likelier due to the fact that it is owned and operated by a controversial religious community called The Twelve Tribes, founded by a bearded man called Gene Spriggs (later known as Yoneq) in 1972 in Chattanooga, Tennessee. Over the years, the group – some say cult, others say sect – has been accused of racism, misogyny, child labour and homophobia by numerous publications, organisations and local governance.
There are also former members who have spoken out. One, Kayam Mathais, says that he was beaten up to 30 times a day. A training manual used by The Twelve Tribes includes the line: ‘The rod must be used to correct wrong thoughts, wrong words, and wrong deeds.’
Regardless of these unsettling stories, customers continue to frequent The Yellow Deli. But why would a Tennessean cult own a quaint Devon café, adorned with hanging baskets? It looks much like any other West Country stop-off. Any unwitting tourist would think it a suitable place to refuel after a day out at Seaton Tramway or Crealy Theme Park and Resort.
I made my visit on a drizzly Sunday. The menu, prepossessing as it is, leans into the Deep South, featuring hearty soups and jalapeno cornbread, cheese melts and cups of chilli.
I am pleased to say that I was not inducted into The Twelve Tribes. That’s not to say attempts weren’t made to garner my attention. Inside the cavernous, dim-lit rooms are a host of members of the religious community, each one smiling, who have a worrying proclivity for handing out free bags of homemade granola. There is a conceit at play, I then suppose, but it would be fair to say the welcoming is warm.
As I walk in, I’m greeted in a League of Gentlemen-esque way and invited to climb a winding staircase, then given a book showing the development work that went into building the café – it took five years to renovate what was once a traditional Devon pub – and served a highly agreeable mug of tea and a generous, if sloppy, sandwich. It’s a Reuben, and it comes with crisps.
After my visit, I rung up to find out more about how The Twelve Tribes came to this part of secluded southern England. A staff member with an Irish accent tells me, cryptically, that they ‘opened here because somebody welcomed us with open arms. It’s a community and a door was opened to us. That’s why we open around the world. We’re growing and people are interested. I suppose people are interested because we live in a different way. It’s about love, loving each other and taking care of one another.’
He declines to tell me his name and explains he would rather not talk about his religious beliefs. But he does invite me to visit to ‘find out more’ and mentions Stentwood Farm, where members in Devon stay, live and work, and which hosts a meeting every Friday night. I’m told the vicar of a local church attends from time to time.
A browse of the pamphlets available at the deli preach a mixture of Christian fundamentalism and Messianic Judaism. There is talk of ‘toxic air’ in one and the evils of the modern world are denounced in another. Online, further literature reads: ‘Our desire is to see this life spread so that all who are seeking to find their “ultimate purpose” can have the opportunity to be joined to His people, where love loves, healing happens, and relationships grow deeper.’ Other parts of the website suggest children will ‘catch Aids’ by attending school.
I find all of this increasingly terrifying and so I might call myself courageous to have popped in for a sandwich. Many people in the area, including my mum, who moved to Devon eight years ago, refuse to set foot inside. ‘I don’t know about The Yellow Deli,’ she says. ‘And no, I don’t want to go.’
For others, its arrival has proved too intriguing. A family friend, Hennie Marais, has been twice. I should say that he wasn’t aware of the allegations in the US when he visited.
‘I went with a friend who works in Whitehall and is involved in religious work,’ he tells me. ‘He wanted to see what the community is all about. It’s his job and there’s got to be some semblance of an open mind.’
‘I remember the food being nice and the people being friendly. Awkwardly so. The first time, I don’t feel like they pushed an agenda, but they were interested in us to the point that it made us uneasy.
‘The second time brought a lot more questions. I try not to have preconceived ideas, I try not to be judgemental, but I probably am. In Devon, what you see is a hippie community on a farm growing vegetables. Then there’s a very questionable religious ideology and you wonder what’s happening in isolation.’
On the phone to the community member, I ask once more what The Yellow Deli is all about. He tells me it’s about ‘growth’. Will more of these cult-owned businesses be opening around the UK? ‘That’s a big question,’ he says. ‘But we do want to reach more people and we do want to spread the word.’