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A religious commune's ship lands at Mystic Seaport

I first heard about the current visit to eastern Connecticut by the imposing 150-foot, three-masted Peacemaker from someone who watched from home a little over a week ago as the ship took a turn into the Mystic River, off Noank.

It ended up at Mystic Seaport, where it is expected to stay at least another week and then maybe leave for a short time and return to spend the winter.

The person who spotted it called me because he said he was troubled that a tall ship well known as the seagoing arm of an international religious commune — a group he said is known for homophobia, misogyny, promoting slavery and abuse of children — was making a port call here.

I did indeed find a lot of published accounts over the years of such accusations against the organization that calls itself Twelve Tribes.

The most thorough and damning was a long piece by Luke O'Neil in 2016 in the Daily Beast, with the headline "Twelve Tribes: The Church preached child abuse and slavery."

An article by John Clarke in the New Yorker magazine in 2013 described a double decker bus the group calls the Peacemaker, which visit concerts and, according critics, is used to recruit stoned and inebriated kids.

The Peacemaker had taken to visiting Bob Dylan concerts, what Clarke called the group's "latest hunting grounds," where concertgoers are older and have more money, making them better potential recruits for a commune in which members share work and wealth.

I mentioned the Peacemaker bus when I spoke to Larry Clinton, captain of the Peacemaker ship, because my tipster seemed concerned about the potential for recruitment attempts in Mystic.

Clinton, who was very pleasant, bristled a bit at the term recruitment, which he said applies better to efforts by the U.S. military, but he did say Twelve Tribes certainly welcomes a chance to expose potential new members to its community.

"We live like the early church did. We live together, work together, share all of our assets. As far as offering that to other people, the offer is there," he said. "Recruitment has the connotation of devious means, misrepresentation."

I walked Clinton through some of the broader allegations against Twelve Tribes. He largely dismissed them, saying the group doesn't promote slavery and gay people are free to live their lives the way they want, although he added the group looks at "how people are made, and in order for a species to replicate itself, it requires different parts."

There have been two prominent raids on Twelve Tribes communities over alleged child abuse. In one, in Vermont in 1984, all of the children taken in the raid were promptly released by a judge, who ruled the action had been unconstitutional.

In a more recent raid, in Germany in 2013, authorities were successful in taking some of the children from parents accused of abuse.

The organization acknowledges promoting physical discipline of children but says it is not abuse.

Clinton told me the difference in the outcomes of the two raids is because the United States has a constitution and Germany is "practically socialist" and they "do anything they want."

On an excursion Sunday afternoon for a dockside gander at the Peacemaker, I ran into the Seaport's retiring president, Steve White, who was walking his dog. I had a chance to compliment White on his successful run at the helm of the Seaport.

I also asked about the visit by the Peacemaker and all the baggage it brings.

He suggested, and I paraphrase here, that the ship is paying for dockage and an innkeeper doesn't always get to choose its lodgers.

The ship offered to open to visitors while at the Seaport, an offer the museum declined, Clinton told me.

Indeed, while I understand the worries of the person who tipped me off to the visit by the commune's ship, I'm also glad for the scenic value. The three masts of the Peacemaker, along with those of two large schooners now hauled for repairs at the Seaport shipyard, sure make Mystic look like a thriving port town.

And one of the pleasures of living in a port town is that you never know what the next tide might bring in.

This is the opinion of David Collins.


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