Are the Yellow Deli folks a cult?

by Dean Arnold  5/22/08

Chattanooga has an electric shuttle that allows you to navigate downtown at no charge and with no yukky emissions.

I have an office at one end of the route where I eat breakfast every morning at the Bluegrass Grill around the corner. Joan Marie, the vivacious waitress, chats with everyone while her husband Jonas cooks the eggs and biscuits or the tofu and hash, if that’s your thing.

At the other end of the shuttle route is a coffee shop and a bookstore I frequent, along with my apartment. Most importantly, the Yellow Deli is nearby, a block from the local university, where 50 some people in a local commune with long hair, beards, and women in flowery dresses serve strange teas and sandwiches and talk a lot about their religion. It’s open 24/7 and the young people flock to the place.

They’re a cult. Or so say a bunch of the locals.

No they’re not, insist a bunch of other locals. They are lovely people who take their faith seriously, live out their beliefs of following Christ with all their heart, and have simply continued the ideals of the hippie and Jesus movement of the 60s.

Mural at the Yellow Deli

Au contraire, argue the others, who are familiar with the Yellow Deli people from when they rocked Chattanooga’s Bible Belt world back in the early 70s. A number of families had to kidnap their children and then have them deprogrammed. All the fuss caused the Deli leaders to move the commune to Vermont. But last year they resolved to return to Chattanooga, the city where they once shook the dust off their sandals.

The Yellow Deli people have written a book about all the controversy entitled “Cult Scare.”  The parents were the kidnappers, they say, mainstreamers simply scared by people enthusiastic about their love for Jesus. One lady in the group was captured twice by her parents, once in Chattanooga, another time in France, but returned to the commune both times and serves sandwiches to this day in the Choo Choo city whose trains stopped running in 1973 but now boasts an electric shuttle.

To me, the world seems to revolve around Chattanooga. I wrote a book about the enigmatic place a few years ago. My theory was cemented during a visit to the offices of the United States Senate in D.C. There on the wall was a picture of Andrew Jackson, Pocahontas, and some folks in the 1890s heading up Lookout Mountain, the eminence that overlooks Chattanooga. I have no idea why it hangs there.

Neither can I figure out how a small Yellow Deli group, after moving to Vermont, then grew into over 30 communes across the world and now boasts perhaps the world’s largest movement of intentional communities.

The last couple of weeks I’ve asked all kinds of people about the Yellow Deli folks. The answers are very polarized, from “you’re an intolerant buffoon to ask such questions” to “they are a dangerous cult. Beware.”

So I checked them out myself. Unlike most, I love to interact with these types. If the subject is not politics, religion or sex, I’m probably not interested.

It was midnight when I got there after a busy day and I was hungry as heck. Lots of literature was laying around and I glanced at some of it as I headed to the counter to order something. Out of the corner of my eye I could see a grey-haired guy with a pony tail inching nearer. I knew he wanted to talk, but I wanted to order.

“Are you interested in the literature,” he asked enthusiastically.

“Sure,” I said, walking away from him toward the counter. He kept following me, thinking I was another wary visitor.

Fortunately, I made it to my destination and got my sandwich order processed and sat down. There he stood.

“What’s your name” I asked.


“A what?”

“Ayal. It means Ram in Hebrew.”

He introduced me to the head guy who goes by “Yoenig.” I don’t know what it means, but I did know that he is originally from Chattanooga’s uninteresting neighborhood of East Ridge and was known then as Gene Spriggs. Now he’s the “apostle” for the “Twelve Tribes,” as the Yellow Deli people now call themselves.

Apostle Gene "Yoenig" Spriggs and wife Martha.

Whatever. I can deal with this. These folks are trying to love each other, live in community, and worship God. Sure, they are kind of weird, but it sure beats suburbia and prozac. Young people are energized and are living for something greater than themselves and greater than materialism. Lots of people call themselves bishop and apostle. So what? Robert Duvall was a pretty harmless apostle. There could be a lot of worse things.

I had read their mission statement. Trinitarian. Christ both God and man. The infallible Bible. All the things my father the evangelical pastor who got his doctorate in theology from Dallas Seminary would nod approvingly over. Why quibble over Jewish names and pony tails?

“We believe slavery was biblical” said Ayal.

“Come again?”

“Our black brothers need to know this to be free,” he continued helpfully. “They are under the curse of Ham, Noah’s son.”

I scratched my head.

“Ayal, can I ask you a question?”


“Why are you bringing this up to me so quickly? I mean, isn’t this a bad PR move on your part? Why not leave this subject for another time?”

“Well, people need to be free of deception.”

Further questioning convinced me that if I had a question about their PR strategy, ultimately I’d have to ask Gene “Yoenig” Spriggs.

Down at the Bluegrass Grill, I got some interesting insights. Turns out Jonas the cook is “Father Jonas,” a priest for the local Orthodox Church, as in Greek Orthodox or Russian Orthodox. He wears a cute little square black hat when he works in the window behind the counter and I never learned whether that’s just his cool thing or part of his priest thing. He used to be Larry. They take on new names as well.

Joan Marie and Father Jonas outside the office.

Joan Marie, who used to be Jane, told me she and Larry . . .  I mean, Father Jonas . . . actually lived in a commune themselves back in the day. They were trying to act just like the early church, who, we’re told in the Bible, all sold their stuff and lived in a commune for a while. Their early church studies also told them that bishops ran the church, wore robes and hats and stuff, and conducted church in a liturgical, synagogue/temple kind of way. Apparently, the Orthodox Church today still does the same thing, and the folks in Jonas and Joan Marie’s commune eventually all decided to become Orthodox.

“What about communes?” I asked her. “Do the Orthodox still do that?”

“They’re called monasteries,” she said.

She went on to explain that communes get very difficult when children are in the mix. How does a father provide? Who gets the bike? What about college funds? She thinks the Yellow Deli people may be keeping men from being the fathers they ought to be.

Interesting contrast. Gene Spriggs the Apostle got things going a few decades ago. Jonas and Joan Marie follow a tradition that started 2,000 years ago. According to the Orthodox, the line of authority started with Jesus laying hands on the 12 disciples and never stopped. For a thousand years, councils of hundreds of bishops ruled the church and developed key foundational beliefs like which books are in the Bible, one God in three persons, the God-Man Jesus, and the Apostles Creed.

The movement got a major glitch when the bishop of Rome in 1000 A.D. or so decided he was in charge of the other bishops. “We don’t think so,” they responded, and Eastern and Western Christianity excommunicated each other. The Roman Catholic church was born. When the Protestant Reformation emerged 500 years later, it led to thousands of Christian groups today, including the version provided by Gene Sprigg’s Twelve Tribes Yellow Deli.

For the Orthodox, there’s no particular difference between Gene and the Pope: both wandered from the fold. The Orthodox have never corrupted into indulgences, papal infallibility, crusades, or slavery endorsements. They remain “Orthodox.”

The next day at the Yellow Deli, I got to chatting with “Elihav,” a nice enough young guy who served me coffee. He explained to me that the mural on the wall with lots of graffiti and painted words is a history of the entire Jesus movement. You can tell he’s proud that their group stuck with the vision, the Big Chill be damned.

After talking a lot, he asked me some questions, and eventually I shared my concerns, after talking to Joan Marie, that anyone can’t just start a religious movement. There needs to be some history and tradition over time.

He nodded with enthusiasm. “We’ve been around over 38 years.” 



It takes a Bubba to replace a Tiger

A Phil cannot replace a Tiger. Neither can a Luke or a Lee. An imaginative name needs to be matched by something just as interesting.

Like a Bubba.

Bubba Watson

Despite Tiger Woods’ collapse the past three years, no golfer has come close to replacing him in the public imagination as golf’s top icon. Because no one else has the right stuff.

Tiger grabbed the public’s fancy in the late 90’s with the longest drive on the PGA Tour. Jack Nicklaus did the same thing 30 years before. Phil Mickelson can drive the ball a long way, but not as long as Tiger. New Master’s champ Bubba Watson, however, is by all accounts the longest driver now on tour and sails his long ball far past Tiger Woods.

Phil can be somewhat interesting. Recent U.S. Open champ Rory McElroy is a nice kid. Padraig Harrington won three majors in a couple of years. But none of them have that touch of glamour and panache needed for a reigning celebrity. Tiger debuted the collarless shirt concept that featured his finely toned muscles, and he always wears a bright red one on Sunday. These little strokes of image consciousness make a big difference.

Bubba doesn’t do little. Like his drives, Bubba sports a large dose of panache. His glowing pink driver makes Tiger’s red shirts look dull. Bubba’s physique is larger and broader than his counterpart. He wears a $500,000 white watch, designed specifically for him by famed designer Richard Mille (only 38 others were made). Bubba drives the actual car used in the Dukes of Hazzard TV show dubbed “The General Lee.” You can’t make this stuff up.

Bubba’s bright pink driver.

Tiger has also bedazzled the crowd for many years with his amazing trick shots down the stretch. Out of the deep rough, over a tall tree, or around the corner, he seems to have the ability to pull it off. Bubba doesn’t have a category called “trick shots.” They’re all extraordinary. He curves every shot he hits 20 to 40 yards, in either direction, mostly for the fun of it, in order to appease his overly active, ADD mind. He calls it “Bubba golf.” The 40 yard hook he hit from the deep woods underneath several trees to win the Masters? “It was a pretty easy shot,” he said. And he meant it.

Until now, no one has threatened Woods’ billion dollar industry as Mr. Golf. No one has been enough like Woods to pull it off.

Bubba surpasses Tiger in all these important qualities. But he may also leap ahead of Woods due to the ways he is unlike the reigning icon.

Tiger makes a perfect swing that has been developed by the greatest teachers in golf. Bubba has never had a lesson. The average guy can relate.

The average guy may also be yearning to return to some old-fashioned values in this age of growing moral chaos. Tiger’s swinging lifestyle, then his attempted recovery via Zen Buddhism, both have a certain avant garde appeal. But the rest of the Billy Bobs in America likely prefer Bubba’s excitement about winning on Easter. A few weeks before, he posted his priorities on Twitter: “1. God. 2. Wife. 3. Family. 4. Friends. 5. Golf.”

No one doubts that Tiger puts golf first. His steely facade down the stretch of tournaments in some ways gains admiration from the fans. But prolonged bouts of non-emotion can wear on people over time. Bubba wept like a baby after sinking his winning putt. He kept doing so during the award ceremonies. It’s definitely different, but it might be a different that the masses are ready to embrace.

The largest contrast between the two golfing greats is championships. Bubba has one. For now. Unlike the other contenders, Bubba actually has more potential than Tiger Woods. And unlike the others, he can steal the limelight from Tiger even if he only wins a few here and there like Phil or Padraig or Rory have done. Because he can capture the public’s imagination, thanks to the complete Bubba package.

The Miracle of Writing requires Guts and Hard Work

Oxford faculty commons.

I have a reoccurring nightmare: I am about to go on stage (I did some acting in high school and college), but I’ve only memorized about 10 percent of my lines.

I suppose this subconscious fear is related to our culture’s pressure for perfection and performance. I felt something eerily similar when the Oxford C.S. Lewis Society agreed to my suggestion that I read to them my movie script about the close relationship—and later falling out—between authors J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis.

Next week would be great, the president told me. I had made it sound like my finished screenplay was ready for prime time. In fact, the three months I’d spent in England were so far mostly about research. I had only written about ten percent of the script.

Dean speaks at his church in Roanoke

I grew up in this house in Roanoke, Virginia, with Grace Church as a constant and watchful presence.

I spoke for a few minutes last Sunday at the church where I grew up, Grace Church in Roanoke, Virginia. You can listen to it here.

Time and distance have made me greatly appreciate those old time saints, the faithful everyday Christians who actually make things happen.

It wasn’t until I was a lot older that I realized how difficult it is to tithe. But a bunch of folks in my home church have been faithfully giving for decades. We can’t take such sacrifice for granted.

Instead of going to church faithfully every week, people can sleep in, go golfing, or any number of other cool things. But the folks in the church I grew up in keep faithfully gathering together as Christ calls us to do.

I guess it’s kind of a tortoise and hare thing. We look for great speakers, bold evangelists, expositors of the Greek and Hebrew. But can you tithe? Can you just show up regularly? Most people can’t. I’m glad I got a chance to give a tribute to those who did.

Click here to listen to the talk.

Where is home? My favorite city after traveling the world

This blog entry was made June 21, 2007, after I lived in the mountains just north of San Francisco for a month, and spent several months before that in England and Europe. The original blog provider got squirrelly, so I am reproducing it here, although the fonts are still a bit weird, but readable. (Blog archiving has become a bit of a conundrum for me, as I’ve used several online solutions over the years. My best attempt at listing archives is here.)

View the online version of the blog entry below here.

June 21, 2007
Where is Home?
Since last summer’s beach trip I have traveled to a bunch of cities: Philadelphia, New York, Baltimore, Washington D.C., San Diego, Los Angeles, Chicago, St. Louis, Houston, Dallas, London, Oxford, Belfast, Derry, Edinburgh, St. Andrews, Frierichshaven Germany, Liechtenstein, Geneva, Zurich, Paris, Amsterdam, Rome and San Francisco.


Of all those cities, the last two are the ones that captured my heart the most. Rome, of course, has the best food in the world, the best coffee, arguably the best wine and bread. The mediterranean climate is lovely and the historical soil ranks as perhaps the richest in the world (though not the oldest). Visiting the Colosseum where Christians were fed to lions, and then visiting the Vatican where Christians dominate Rome and the Western world, is a stunning contrast. From the Vatican they likely planned the engraving of giant crosses on the side of the very complex that once persecuted and violated Christian martyrs.


San Francisco has a different and multilayered attachment to my heart. The bay area is probably the most beautiful piece of geography I have ever observed, which, this year, included the Alps and Eiffel Tower. The contrasts are striking when overlooking the Golden Gate Bridge: ocean waves crashing to your right, golden brown mountains behind you. Giant pine trees straight across the way, a major world city skyline across the blue bay to your slight left, Alcatraz Island just in front of you, beautiful sailboats and giant cruise liners and cargo ships traversing the bay, the Oakland Bay Bridge in the distance, and the quiet villages of Sausalito and Tiberon to your far left. Another layer of romance emerges when the fog rolls in from the ocean through the Golden Gate like a fluffy gray blanket being pulled by a tugboat.



Marin County, what you enter when crossing the giant orange bridge, has a personality and flavor unique to the world. Here you reach ground zero for organic concerns and the sustainability craze. Worldwide anti-war demonstrations probably germinate here. Signs in windows and bumper stickers on cars provide unsolicited maxims on world peace and politics (like complaints of big oil on a suburban).

While most cities hope to find one unique characteristic to promote tourism, the Bay Area has scores of them: Cable cars, Redwood forests, beaches, 17-mile drive, the Point Reyes Seashore, Napa Valley wine country, Chinatown, Haight-Ashbury, the beautiful bay itself . . . and the list goes on and on.

Some of you may wonder how such a culture might be attractive to me, given my heritage of strong morality and conservative politics. However, half of my DNA derives from Howard and Cecil Waite, my grandparents who purchased property an hour north of San Francisco in the 1960s after decades of traveling the globe helping war torn countries restore their infrastructures. Their seven acres on top of Vision Mountain in the village of Inverness on the Point Reyes Peninsula proved to be the nucleus of art and liberal activism that agreed with their sometimes naieve, sometimes sagacious, but always altruistic concerns. (One daughter went to Berkely right down the road, became one of the first beatniks, and helped trigger the 60s revolution. My mother attended UCLA and converted to Christianity in Bill Bright’s first Campus Crusade for Christ group.)

Those twists of fate made me a more complex person I suppose, but the Bay Area is in my blood. Also, I visited there every four five years of my life, and driving up the road to my grandfather’s several handmade dwellings at the top of the mountain–where the overwhelming scent of Bishop Pines compounds the nostalgia–always provides me with my own sense of what oasis and paradise might feel like. On this anomalous tract of land with Tomales Bay on one side and the ocean on the other, the temperature, like San Francisco, never exceeds 75 or dips below 40, and fluctuates quickly as the fog rolls in almost daily. A sweater and a burning woodstove are part of the daily lifestyle, perfect for a man who has been at an oceanside condo for the last five days now and has not yet stepped on the beach.

San Fransciso and Marin County does indeed connect with my internal psche and DNA in a poweful way. The town was named Inverness because the area so clearly resembles Scotland: pine forests, daily fogs, purple thistles growing on the sides of windy hills overlooking the stormy Pacific Ocean. My ancestor Stephen Arnold likely traveled to America from similar terrain in Scotland ten generations ago. He and his progeny continued moving West from their first settling in Southwestern Virginia, which also has an uncanny resemblance to the Scottish countryside I observed earlier this year. These frontiersmen were finally stopped by the Pacific Ocean. The friendly, laid back California lifestyle must somehow be related to these restless wanderers finally admitting the journey is over and its time to sit back and relax.

And what about the morality of the Bay Area? I disagree with the Gay agenda, certainly, but you actually see very little of it there unless you drive to certain areas of town where tourists rarely tread. And although the effects of evangelical Christianity are indeed small or fading, the Orthodox Church, now my faith tradition, has a uniquely strong presence in this eclectic city. Only a handful of saints have been canonized in North America, most from centuries ago. But the most recently canonized is named St. John the Wonderworker of Shanghai and San Francisco. Born in Ukraine, he became a bishop in Serbia, established a number of orphanages in China, then moved to San Francisco in his last years and built a major cathedral there before dying in 1965. Known for rarely sleeping, praying all night for his fellow Christians, and working miracles of healing, he was also reputed to scrap his heirachical garb at times and roam the streets of Haight and Ashbury in the early days of the Age of Aquarius, influencing and converting many young leaders in Berkely and San Francisco.

I visited the cathedral when I was there. St. John’s body sits in a coffin to the right of the altar. The top is glass, but John Maxomovich’s face is covered with a veil. His two hands, however, are completely visible, and, though darkened, have not decayed at all. During the service, many people will stop by the coffin, cross themselves, light a candle and say a prayer while observing the great saints’ remains. Weird, but very powerful.

St. John of Shanghai and San Francisco

So the Bay Area even has a spiritual connection to me. In fact, the small village of Inverness saw an Orthodox monastery established there 25 years ago, and several devout monks prayed and worshipped there, and interacted with the local crowd, who found them to be surprisingly godly, loving, and fantastic representatives of Christ and humanity, despite their “female bashing” traditions (I got this straight from the woman who owns the local New Age shop.) However, the monks left a year ago and moved to Redding California. In several months, they say more people have expressed interest in Christ than they saw in their quarter century tenure in West Marin County. Although very spiritual, the people in Marin are in fact quite hostile to Christianity. Political viewpoints don’t necessarily equate to spiritual health, but it is instructive to know that out of 50,000 registered voters in West Marin, only 76 are Republican.

While the Bay Area has a major spot in my heart–and may in fact feel more like home than any geographic area on the globe–I also feel that it could not remain my home for very long. Birth rates are below replacement; children are scant. The stark wilderness of the terrain reflects a lack of economic activity and a future unlikely to prosper. My grandfather’s cabin, sublime and award-winning 30 years ago, now slowly deteroriates at the foundation, with little to no hope of a restoration. I am once again reminded: this world, under its current cosmic regime, is not my ultimate home. But I do love it, just like the One slated to succeed the current ruler.

Zella’s Warm Blanket

When I wrote a devotional book for Zella Dixon, we also produced a documentary video about her extraordinary story. Both of Zella’s sons died early, but she continues to profess her love for the Lord and her gratitude for His care.

I am particularly proud of the soundtrack for this video. I spent a lot of time browsing various versions of hymns and southern gospel recordings, and the result seems to flow really well with the theme.

In hindsight, I would make the introduction and bit shorter. It takes a while to get to the first spoken words, and it takes several more minutes to reach the “inciting incident.” Nevertheless, all in all it’s a good piece. The message is certainly powerful and ageless.

Tab’s Christmas Book

Every Christmas, my daughter and I collaborate on a children’s book about the Three Wise Men. She is the illustrator. I wrote it when she was three years old.

Today she is 16, and the book is 18 pages. So she has illustrated 14 pages so far, one a year since we began the project. The bottom right says “(P)AGE 3” etc., to capture the double meaning of how each page is a year in the process.

This whole thing originated one day when Tabitha’s mother showed me a drawing Tab had made of a bunny. She was two and half, and, to our surprise, it kinda looked a whole lot like a rabbit. That was the beginning of the realization that this kid had some serious artistic talent. (A few years later she grabbed some hot candle wax at church while bored and quickly sculpted a griffin with wings. I was stunned.)

Anyway, years before I saw the bunny, I had a children’s story in me I had always wanted to write about the Wise Men. It emerged after meditating on the bible story and being so intrigued by the fact that the smartest, most literate bible scholars in Jerusalem not only failed to identify the Christ child through their understanding of the Prophets, they actually used their knowledge to help Herod go kill him! (Go to Bethlehem, they told Herod. That’s where the Bible says the Christ child will come from.)

That bit of irony I thought would make a good twist for a story. And I kinda wanted to do the Dr. Seuss rhyming thing. So I wrote the first page of my story to include a bunny and used Tab’s early piece of art on (P)AGE 2. Since then, she’s illustrated a page of the story every year.

I’ve written a number of books and been involved in a number of creative projects, but this one I find extremely interesting and in some ways it is an idea of which I am most proud.

This video gives a glimpse of the book and Tab’s drawings over the years. As usual, Jaime provides the comic relief.

Reagan was something else

I came across this book yesterday on my library shelf. Ronald Reagan wrote and published it in 1983. It remains the only book ever published by a sitting President.

Crazy. I mean, it was on sale in the grocery stores.

I think we sometimes forget the courage and principles Reagan brought to the table. This book may end up being one of his greatest and most courageous efforts, written in the face of a hostile media and a scoffing left wing sophisticate culture. Truly, the man had guts.

Ghostwriting by Dean

I have made my living off and on the past seven years as a ghostwriter. Usually, a client has a great book idea in mind, has a lot of content they can talk about, but don’t have the kind of personality to sit down and write it all out. (One of my favorite quotes is: “The art of writing is the art of putting the seat of the pants to the seat of the chair.”)

I typically spend 10 to 15 hours interviewing them, recording the interviews, getting them transcribed, and taking those transcriptions and further research and turning them into a book.

Several of my book projects are featured in a brochure that was designed for me by my childhood friend, current close friend, and imagery guru, Rob Tipton. I turned the brochure into a website, Since the time the brochure was designed, I also have this project published by McGraw-Hill in the quiver.

Update on Old Money, New South

My book Old Money, New South: The Spirit of Chattanooga continues to sell well in the region. You can find it in Barnes & Noble at Hamilton Place, Winder Binder on the North Shore, and at All Books downtown.

For several weeks, when the book debuted in 2006, it was Barnes & Nobles’ bestselling book for the week—of all books, national and local. Rock Point Books named Old Money, New South its best seller for the entire year of 2007. I have sold out of two printings and the third is dwindling fast.

It’s great to see this book sell so well. (Several thousand were sold on a local level. That’s a big number. If it had a national appeal it might be a seven figure total). But ultimately this colossal project was a labor of love. Between you and me, I feel a great sense of accomplishment when I see it on the shelf.