It’s 3:30 on a Monday morning and I’m upside down in a dumpster.
My legs dangle in the air. I can’t see anything. What am I doing here? Is this really journalistic research or just a bizarre waste of time? Do otherwise outstanding members of society really score food from the garbage? And what’s that awful stench?
“A tomato!” my roommate Leif exclaims. “And celery! Oh, wow, lots of celery!”
I’ve dug too deep. A freshly discarded box of produce sits directly on top of the dumpster. There’s too much to sort thorough here, so, with some effort, we carry the heavy box home and rummage through it. Within 30 minutes, we’ve cleaned and separated a mountain of celery, endless parsley bundles, and more lettuce than our four-person household could eat in a week. A few nights later, we go back to the uptown grocery store dumpster and make off with several pounds of pristine bell peppers, limes, oranges, a few stray strawberries, and zucchini.
“Sweet mercy,” we realize as we fire up the wok, “we’ll never pay for food again.”
On our third visit, we find an excess of sweet potatoes, more peppers, packaged crimini mushrooms, assorted fruits, and — ye gods! — about 30 organic avocados, plus every ingredient necessary for guacamole. With the impish glee of children discovering eggs on Easter, we marvel at each new find and theorize about the meal we will soon prepare.
“Stuffed peppers! Potato fries! Omelets! A pie!”
The produce again sits on the top of the heap, either intentionally or as a happy coincidence of closing duties. As our cloth shopping bags reach capacity, a car pulls up, and we poise ourselves to be chased off by security. Instead, two guys who appear to be about our age exit the vehicle, give a casual greeting, one you might expect from a fellow golfer on the green, activate their headlamps, and dive without hesitation waist-deep in garbage. Out fly cantaloupes, mangoes, greens.
“We never used to see anyone out here,” one says, after we offer some of our sweet-potato bounty, “but after the recession hit, the dumpsters got busy. Travelers, kids, couples.”
They describe their progression through midtown, uptown, and onward. It’s obvious they have a mental map of most if not all of the accessible dumpsters in town. They don’t look homeless, or even especially broke. In fact, they’re the reason I started hitting dumpsters in the first place: to experience firsthand a practice not uncommon among some local cooperative-living houses.
According to a November 2009 article by researchers from the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases in Bethesda, Maryland, nearly 40 percent of food produced in the United States ends up in the garbage. Some cooperative houses forge a common bond in political and environmental activism. They dumpster-dive in addition to growing their own food, sharing bulk food, and drawing up comprehensive chore charts, all intended to create a communal, cooperative living space, much like the one my dumpster acquaintances are associated with (though, ultimately, they declined to have their household participate in this story).
Cooperative-living arrangements are found in most college towns, a product of ideological, financial, and practical motivations. In addition to communal food and chore routines, staple features of co-ops can include political activism, cultivation of arts and music, bicycle culture, regular house meetings, a strong do-it-yourself/anticonsumerism ethic, and hints of anarchy. University towns such as Berkeley, Portland, Eugene, Seattle, and Arcata are well known for their co-ops, which may be either university sponsored or independently run. Lesser known, however, is San Diego’s independent co-op community.
According to 2005–2009 projections by the American Community Survey, 27.3 percent of United States households are occupied by one person, nearly half by married couples with or without other roommates, 17 percent by two or more residents related by blood but not marriage, and only 6 percent by two or more people not related by blood or marriage. What separates a co-op from your average house of roommates? To find out, I visited five co-ops around San Diego.
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The Roost is well known in the co-op community and reflects most closely the image I had of a cooperative house, based on experiences in cities up the West Coast. In addition to living together in their North Park house, the four housemates share bulk-food costs, cleaning and garden responsibilities, and complementary ideologies. Owing its name to the chickens which once inhabited the back yard (they’ve since been moved to another location, due to neighbor complaints), the Roost had been established for about two years when Kaya and Dillon moved in. I visit on a lazy Sunday evening to hear the Roosters’ stories, which they share while lounging on blue-and-white striped couches in their second-floor living room.
“It’s kind of a scary moment,” says Kaya, a cognitive-science graduate student at the University of California, San Diego, who specializes in mother-infant interactions. “Just being like…okay, I don’t know who I’m going to live with. I don’t know how I’m going to pay for a house that costs $2000 dollars a month, or whatever. We just have to go out on a limb and hope it works. Just rent a place. So that’s what we did, and it was magical.”
“I think I chose to join a garden cooperative because my mom has had a garden ever since I was a little kid,” says Dillon, a UCSD alumnus with a degree in urban studies and planning and a minor in biology. He joined Kaya at the house after finding a listing on campus and will be leaving in June for Malawi to teach biology, English, and AIDS prevention to 9th- through 12th-graders with the Peace Corps. “It just makes sense that my food should come from closer to me than the other side of the world.”
Frankie, a student in UCSD’s master’s writing program, says, “I’ve never lived alone, not since moving away from my family when I was 16. Some of that was circumstance, like living in the dorms, but I want to share living space. I lived in an intentional community in Missouri in 2000, and that was a big part of me understanding why I want to share responsibilities and space. When I lived in Portland, we didn’t call them co-ops because everyone I knew lived in shared housing. But in San Diego we need that name, that identity. We need to be visible and find each other.”
“At school and in my professional life, I’m one of those people who says, ‘We can do better than this. We can use consensus. We can change,’” says Rachel, who is working on her master’s in social work and will be taking the bar exam in July. “It’s important for me to practice that at home. If we’re trying to say that the world’s going to be better if we learn how to share, nations and states learn how to share—”
“Rich people and poor people,” Kaya adds. “All kinds of people. Whether it’s class, ethnicity…we’ve got to be able to do it with our friends first. That’s what this is about to me.” Her ebullient manner turns somber. “It’s just not as fun to come home and have no one around. It leads to people feeling lonely and depressed and isolated, putting all their needs on their partner, which makes relationships bad and can lead to abuse. Learning how to live with each other can solve a lot of those problems.”
“You could also think of it in terms of collectivist versus individualist culture,” Rachel says. “We were raised in an individualist culture. Here, we use tools more prevalent in collectivist cultures.”
“Usually there are hierarchies with collectivism,” Kaya says. “There’s an automatic hierarchy, where the older people are in charge and the younger people get squished, and maybe the women also.”
“Right,” says Rachel. “But this is a culture lab for mixing everything and being critical about that.”
“Flattening those hierarchies,” Kaya adds.
“We’re a pretty gender-neutral house,” says Dillon. He’s a canvasser for a solar-power company. “We’re totally supportive and conscious of how we frame our identities, and others’ identities, and what that means in terms of traditional male/female roles or, ideally, the lack thereof. That’s a big discussion a lot of the time. We’re very supportive of just allowing a person to be a person.”
So how does the Roost handle decisions about how the house should be run?
“It’s all consensus,” Dillon says. “We have systems in place for managing the house, like chore charts and lists and whatnot. We have biweekly house meetings. It’s not so difficult.”
The chore chart in the kitchen, an esoteric system of grids and movable task tokens, has been praised as a “power chart” by friends of the house.
“We’ll make an agenda about what to talk about and just sit here and talk about it until we all feel good about some decision,” Kaya says.
“I think it helps that we’re similarly minded on a lot of issues,” Dillon says.
“We also have good relations outside of house business,” says Rachel. “If we didn’t have that connection, it would be a lot harder for us to invest in the discussion.”
“There’s no way to have consensus unless you really respect each other and really care about making everyone else happy,” Kaya says.
Bicycles are the Roost’s preferred mode of transit, but for larger operations, such as transporting bulk food or furniture, the housemates share Rachel’s natural-gas vehicle.
“When I first started living in coops,” Kaya says, “it was all about being excited to live with other people, learn from other people — the randomness of it — to get exposed to crazy stuff I hadn’t been exposed to. But also ecological things, like decreasing our footprint. So that meant figuring out ways we can be comfortable and happy without wreaking havoc on the world and other people. There’s a very ecological but also a human weight to it.”
“We tend to buy most, if not everything, used,” Dillon says. “It’s either from thrift stores or Craigslist. But I’ll buy things new that I’ve done research on, to make sure it’s as close [as possible] to fair wages for the entire manufacturing line.”
To reduce cost and waste, each housemate contributes $100 a month for bulk (50-pound bags from People’s Market in Ocean Beach) beans, rice, and lentils, which are kept in large boxes behind the couch. Produce is supplemented by fresh food from the 900-square-foot garden in the back yard, where a painting on the exterior wall reads: “‘Radical simply means grasping things at the root.’ —Angela Davis.” A metallic-blue mannequin guards rows of fava beans, artichokes, cauliflower, lettuce, broccoli, sweet peas, kale, cilantro, parsley, dill, strawberries, collard greens, brussels sprouts, beets, garlic, and potatoes. The residents brew their own beer, ferment a variety of vegetables, and press their own milk from soy, brown rice, and almonds. And then there are the eggs.
“When chickens eat more, they produce less,” Rachel says. “We treat them real well, so we only get six or ten eggs a week [from two chickens].”
Aside from eggs, the housemates prepare almost exclusively vegan meals on a rotational basis. “We eat a lot of beans,” Kaya says. “Many people don’t realize that eating meat uses so many more resources. Cooking from scratch takes each of us two or three hours a week, but we can all eat from that for the rest of the week.”
As for dumpster-diving, which could be considered negative waste, a bright-eyed Kaya says, “I’ve met multiple people over a dumpster. It was the first time I met them, and they became semi-lasting relationships.”
But don’t count on meeting a Rooster in the garbage bin anytime soon. Busy academic schedules mean fewer pillaging adventures, which by their nature often take place late at night. Just for kicks, and probably to brag a little about my dumpster guacamole, I ask what their ultimate garbage find has been. Rachel immediately says, “Crackers and artichoke dip.”
“Four cartons of sun-dried tomatoes,” Kaya says.
“Pineapples,” Dillon says.
“I found a whole dumpster full of pineapples once,” Kaya says.
However, a friend of Frankie’s takes the dumpstered cake. “I found whiskey, weed, a cell phone, and a record player,” she laughs, “all in the Brown University dumpsters in Providence, Rhode Island.”
When they first established the house, the Roosters held weekly potlucks for 50 weeks straight, to share food and ideas with anybody who was interested. In February, they held a dance-party fundraiser at U-31 for Food Not Bombs, a group which prepares reclaimed food and distributes it for free twice a week.
“Sometimes we do skill-shares, too,” Rachel says. “Like, I did Kaya’s hair, and she helps me with data analysis. Really, I’m getting the sweet end of the deal because that kind of knowledge is lucrative on the market.”
“Our interaction with the community has been more social,” Kaya says. “Just having potlucks and getting people out here, saying, ‘Come to our house and see that it’s possible to live this way. It exists in San Diego.’”
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Like the Roost, the members of City Heights Free Skool are held together by ideological bonds. In fact, Kaya and Rachel first met at Free Skool years before living together at the Roost. I arrive at the house around 5:00 p.m. A girl in a tattered Sublime T-shirt, jeans, with her blond dreadlocks tied back by a scarf, is doubled over, working the soil in the garden while chatting with a neighbor. She introduces herself as Kinsey. As we shake hands, I notice the beads in her hair and the seashells dangling from her ears. She shows me to the back yard, where I lock my bike to a compost mixer.
In the kitchen, Cathy, a bespectacled UCSD social-work student cooks vegan macaroni and cheese for a potluck. Cathy is a vegetarian, but others in the house eat meat. Kinsey eats a vegan diet, which means no meat and no dairy, but she does eat honey.
“Some would say I’m not actually vegan because I eat honey,” she says, smiling.
A large chore chart hangs on one wall. Jars of lentils, corn, and beans sit on a shelf over the sink. A sprig of lavender grows in a vase.
“Our house, I consider it a collective, in a way, in that we’re all here for a reason,” Cathy says, as she tends to her dish. “We want to help each other out, but we all have different movements going on, so we coexist with those movements. With Kinsey, it’s food justice. Abel teaches Chicano Studies and goes to a lot of protests. Rachel, who just passed the bar exam, and Ben volunteer full time as advocates for medical marijuana. Frankie does textile design. Not everybody’s vegan. Not everybody has the same issue at the forefront. But we’re all pushing for social change.
“We don’t have typical jobs. We have jobs with meaning, jobs we’re proud of. I work at a domestic-violence shelter. For me, it’s not just a paycheck. I see that in my housemates as well.
“We don’t necessarily have dinner together every night, or every week, because our schedules are so hectic, but we do have meetings to make this a peaceful environment, and we all work together.”
So what distinguishes a cooperative house from the typical house with roommates?
“I’d say having interest in being a part of each others’ lives,” Cathy says. “If there are just roommates, there’s not always that connection or effort. Wanting to learn from each other is what sets us apart.”
“We’ve all put our energy into a specific movement,” says Kinsey, an international-security and conflict-resolution major at San Diego State University. “It’s impossible to do everything. So being able to collaborate and use synergy in order to forward all of our movements is what I think is really cool about this house.”
Kinsey recently pulled out all the grass in their yard, tilled the soil, and planted vegetables. That’s one aspect of her passion for the food-justice movement. She places a tray of vegan banana bread in the oven: “I want to make sure that people all over the world have access to sustainable, organic, low-cost, culturally appropriate, and delicious food. That’s a right everyone should have. I spent the past six months farming and learning about development in Africa and the Middle East, so I’m taking what I’ve learned and starting a garden in the front yard. You have to start grassroots and local. Community members come up to me all the time. I made three new friends just today. Our lives revolve around food, and corporations are taking away our right to healthy food, and the future of our children. That’s something we need to fight together to prevent.”
One way in which Free Skool furthers their causes is free classes at the Activist San Diego center at the back of the house. The small garage has hosted everything from bike workshops to circuit-bending classes and offers computers and film-editing equipment gratis for any social-justice cause. The space has been utilized by Food Not Bombs, Border Angels, and the San Diego Military Counseling Project, among others, and was once the home of the Bike Kitchen, a free bicycle-repair shop. Now, a similar group, Bikes del Pueblo, meets regularly at a nearby co-op and the City Heights farmer’s market. Free Skool, Cathy says, is currently seeking English as a Second Language teachers and job-development mentors who would like to volunteer.
Back in the house, Manu Chao is playing in the living room. Giant origami cranes dangle from the ceiling and posters on the wall cry “Risiste!” “Zapata Vive!” and “Schools for Chiapas.” A tie-dye tapestry covers the front window. A surfboard occupies a corner by the couches. I sit by a coffee table covered in activist magazines and grab a business card detailing Miranda rights, which is meant to be presented to authorities. Another guest, José, tells me about political rallies in San Diego, past and future. Wearing a Dr. Seuss T-shirt beneath a Hawaiian shirt adorned with political pins, José seems to be involved with just about every social-justice cause in town.
A girl from Burlington, Vermont, who is about to take off on a bicycle trip to Vancouver, Canada, tells us about dumpstering huge bags of chocolate and 50-pound sacks of cheese back home. Having networked with houses up the coast, she plans to stay at co-ops and dumpster-dive the whole way to Canada.
More guests show up with dishes, and in no time the house is full of people ranging from children to grandmothers, all talking passionately about the American Civil Liberties Union, Cannabis for a Cause, same-sex rights, and urban farming until late into the night.
∗ ∗ ∗
I catch Casa Jackdaw a few days later at a similarly festive moment, arriving at the Mission Hills house around 8:30 p.m. Housemates Marisa, Chuk, and Steph are decorating for the evening’s pin-the-tail party, and the living-room table is covered in paper tails of every sort — devils, lizards, shooting stars, pigs, cats, rats — all meant to be pinned to various paper bodies (robot, butt, bird, caveman...) fastened to walls around the house. Two calico cats chase each other as Marisa — she established Casa Jackdaw with fellow University of California, San Diego, communications graduate student Chuk in 2006 — explains how she came to live in a cooperative house.
“When I was a small child, I was reading Aldous Huxley novels, and there seemed to be a lot of stories about people living in big mansions and having intellectual conversations all the time. I thought, that’s what I want to do with my life! I want to join a commune.”
When she moved from upstate New York to Berkeley for college, she became intrigued by East Bay’s co-op culture. Though not the cerebral manor she’d pictured while reading Huxley, Marisa went on to spend three years in a 63-person cooperative complex, an experience which she summarizes by saying, “You really see the best and the worst in people.”
She shows me two handprint tattoos on her back, which signify the Berkeley co-op. Now, she and Chuk have matching Jackdaw bird tattoos to commemorate this household. As with the Roost, Casa Jackdaw interprets cooperative living primarily via communal food and shared cooking duties.
“This was something we figured out when I was living with five people in a house in Seattle,” Marisa says. “Every month we put rent and about $170 extra into our shared account, and with that we pay bills, for internet [service], and all of our food. We each have a debit card, so every time we go to the store, we use it, and then everyone takes what they want from the kitchen. I’ve had roommates in the past where you open the refrigerator and it’s someone’s orange juice, someone’s egg, and it eventually just kind of breaks my heart. If you’re living with someone and can’t eat the food in your own kitchen, it’s a sad thing. It’s a constant reminder that this is not really a family. We also have a tiny fridge, so there’s a practical reason.”
“It feels inefficient and petty have to have your own eggs,” says Chuk. “I also like the sharing because it equalizes what we buy. For example, I think I buy all the cleaning supplies from the shared account. It would be stupid to buy it myself, and then ask everybody for two bucks or whatever.”
“We have a box,” Marisa grabs a container with a sea monster pasted on top, “and the box holds ‘The List.’ I don’t think there’s anything in there now. Wait, what’s this? ‘Books on Owls?’ Hmm…okay. And we have a Costco list. So everyone knows if they go to the grocery store to grab what’s on the list.”
In lieu of a chore list, the housemates follow a more organic approach to cleanliness. “I’m tidying up all the time,” Marisa says. “Steph and Chuk are more of project cleaners. Sometimes, we’ll set aside a day for a cleaning party.”
As for dumpster-diving, Steph, a UCSD sociology graduate student, defiantly says, “Are you kidding? I wouldn’t put myself in a dumpster!”
“Steph and Chuk don’t,” Marisa says, adding, “I’m the most…hippie of all of us.” She says “hippie” as if she might be admitting to have contracted a communicable disease.
The house fills with mostly graduate and exchange students. We drink wine, talk, and, until early morning, attempt while blindfolded to pin tails on things.
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The Grow Strong house in Oak Park exhibits many common co-op features: chore lists, bulk food, regular house meetings, and a flourishing garden. However, unlike the aforementioned, primarily student co-ops, this four-bedroom house is unique in that there are children. When I arrive on a blistering spring afternoon, Malaki Obado answers the door with an infant in his arms and a wide-eyed toddler by his side. He sits in an armchair in a living room strewn with children’s toys. Obado speaks softly, but with an undertone of humor. Blue sunlit curtains waft in the breeze.
“First of all, we cooperate in making sure the rent is paid at the end of the month.” He taps the infant gently on the back with the side of his hand. “We share the utilities per head. The kids take one head. We have collective bulk purchasing for the kitchen — a big bag of rice or beans, sugar — and everyone has a cooking night for the whole group. We roast green coffee beans. We collectively clean up. Yard work, garden work, chicken duty. We share the cost of feeding the chickens, and we share the eggs. We also cooperatively raise a goat at a nearby location with several others and share milk.”
The Grow Strong house is also unique in that the cooperative living is less a social statement than a continuation of the lifestyle into which Kenyan-born Obado was born.
Obado, who runs Asali, a bee-removal and honey-production company says, “Cooperative living makes sense. I come from Africa, where the extended family has not been broken up too much. There’s still a lot of cooperative living [there] that is unintended. It’s not like we decide to now do it — it’s what you’re born in. There are shared resources, like water and fields to graze livestock. And everyone has skills. If I’m a vet, I take care of the animals. If he is a builder, then he helps people build. If he’s a musician, he plays music. Not everyone can do everything. We need each other. So coming to live in another setting — we are human. We still need that community. We need that social life. No one stands alone. You can have everything you want in your house, but you won’t enjoy your dwelling if you don’t have someone to share your success with.”
Obado currently shares the house with his wife, two children, and one other roommate. But the house once held up to ten inhabitants, including more children. “There are many good people out there,” Obado says, “but we don’t have enough space.” All the adults in the house volunteer for the Grow Strong nonprofit, which supports farming education and development in the impoverished Bondo District in Kenya. Locally, the house remains active by hosting potlucks (more often last year than this) and documentary-viewing nights in conjunction with Food Not Lawns, a grassroots project which began in Eugene, Oregon, to help people turn their yards into gardens, and the One in Ten Coalition for urban-farming policy reform.
Clearly a master of the home garden, Obado shows me the back yard. The space overflows with herbs, fruits, and vegetables. There is the sweet aroma of jasmine and fresh-cut grass. Six chickens peck around the roost located next to an open-air kitchen and a meditation shed. Quietly, Obado considers the typical American lifestyle.
“At some point, independence came to mean success, but I think the best model is interdependence. A car needs four wheels to run. No wheel is more important than the other. This is how we live.”
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The fifth house I visit is the most removed from my initial Roostly concept of a co-op. I had very few expectations or prior knowledge of Twelve Tribes, but an internet search revealed that the group arose in Chattanooga, Tennessee, inspired by the Jesus Movement, the original so-called “Jesus Freaks” who became disenchanted with hippie culture. Founded in 1972 by Gene “Yoneq” Spriggs (of the Light Brigade ministry for teens), Twelve Tribes has an estimated 2500–3000 members worldwide. They’ve been known by several names, including The Vine Christian Community Church, Northeast Kingdom Community Church, The Messianic Communities, and abroad as the Community Apostolic Order. They are also called The Yellow Deli People, after the name of the restaurant which the group operates in three U.S. cities. Internally, they are often known simply as the Community.
According to their website, the group makes every effort to re-create the communal “First Church” of Messianic Jews spoken about in the Bible. Newcomers to Twelve Tribes, regardless of the extent of their wealth, give up everything for the collective benefit of the community. Children raised in the community are home-schooled. The groups’ stated leader is Yahshua, the Hebrew name for Jesus. The website says: “We are the Commonwealth of Israel; We have a wonderful story to tell; No longer separated, no longer alienated; We are the Commonwealth of Israel!”
When my roommate Leif and I arrive at the large, upscale household on the outskirts of Vista at around 8:00 in the evening, we are immediately greeted by Elijah. “You’re just in time for dinner,” he says, without questioning who we are or why we have come. He wears a yellow plaid shirt and khakis. His warm eyes smile out from a full, modestly bearded face. His almost-shoulder-length hair is tied back, held in place with a braided-cloth headband. “I was just on my way to grab some fresh challah bread, but let me show you inside,” Elijah says, radiating joy and tranquility.
Inside, about 40 people sit around tables in an open dining area. The hardwood floors meet a vast brick fireplace, which rises to a high, angled ceiling. Someone plays a piano softly in the background. Most of the men are dressed similarly to Elijah, in collared shirts, slacks, maintained facial hair, and headbands. The household, ranging from infants to men and women in their 50s or 60s, find their places around the dinner tables and loudly converse.
I ask Elijah what brought everyone to the Twelve Tribes house, and he beams. “We realized our lives were empty, so we chose to come together and be happy.”
Wade, the apparent head of the house, introduces a man in round glasses with a longer brownish-red beard as HaQuinai. HaQuinai shows us to a table. “We celebrate the Sabbath every Friday with a meal and celebration. Leif and I sit with HaQuinai, Elijah, and a few others. Women wearing head coverings and modest, ankle-length dresses bring plates of fish, zucchini, couscous, and salad.
“Mackerel,” Elijah says. “The oils clear your arteries.”
After a few minutes of small talk, HaQuinai says, “You’re not bad with those,” referring to the metal chop sticks we have been provided. When I ask about the sticks, he enigmatically replies, “We have many friends from Asia.” I later assume that this is a joke, as their website lists no community houses in Asia, but 24 in the United States, five in Europe, four in Canada, four in South America (primarily Brazil), and three in Australia. The Vista house is made up of three buildings and provides some of its own food from a garden and a few goats. Its sister location, Morning Star Ranch in Valley Center, cultivates 700 grape vines and several thousand trees, including 3000 avocados and 700 persimmon. It hosts international guests via the World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms program.
The group has lived in the Vista house for almost nine years, HaQuinai says. The rotating cast of residents (many of the Twelve Tribes community choose to travel between houses internationally) all work within the house, at the community’s two artisan woodshops (Commonwealth Mill Works), selling Yerba Mate tea at the farmers’ market, at their print shop in downtown Vista, or at the two-story Yellow Deli, which the Community constructed between 2008 and 2010. The deli seats 150 people and is open 24 hours a day, excluding Friday afternoons to Sunday afternoons.
Jehu, a white-haired Community member from Germany, passes a loaf of orange challah bread which Elijah had baked hours earlier. The German Community, Jehu tells me, installs solar panels to support their household.
“What we’ve come to see and understand is that all societies, all cultures have had a foundation of living tribally somewhere along the way,” HaQuinai says, exploring a similar vein to Rooster Rachel’s thought on collectivist versus individualist culture. “Within those tribes, there were clans made up of households or small groups of people who worked together. There was interdependence. But today’s societies and cultures are based on the foundation of independence. Individualism. Everyone is doing their own thing. I think that has done a lot of damage to the soul of man. We are reaping what we have sewn in the past several decades, especially in modern Western societies. So our joy of living together is in the reality that, wow, this is what we were created to do. We were created to love one another. To care for one another. And where there’s an environment where you can do that with all of your being — 100 percent of your heart, 100 percent of your strength, and 100 percent of your soul — you actually get to experience a peace that is normal, but is not normal everywhere else that you go. We’re set on making sure there’s unity. We’re set on making sure there’s love. We actually have a set of instructions, commandments, from the son of God, Yahshua. We couldn’t do anything apart from him.”
The women and girls ask if we would like seconds and, if not, there is banana-chocolate pudding and peppermint tea for desert. Everything is delicious.
Regarding the traditional gender roles in the household, I later found this statement on the Twelve Tribes website: “As the Communities entered the 1990s…they gained more understanding about the ways in which society was violating Natural Law — to the point of calling evil good and good evil. It was becoming obvious that the time-honored ideals of the hardworking man, the submissive wife, and respectful children were under attack. Men were striving for positions where they could make the most money with the least sweat possible. Women were demanding at least a 50-50 partnership where there was no acknowledged head. Children were increasingly being left to themselves to choose their own course and form their own values. The concept of family was being redefined to the point that homosexual partnerships were being given the same legal status as marriage.”
Can you see the Roosters cringe? Also in stark contrast to the other co-ops, who seek to eradicate hierarchy with even distribution of decision-making power, the Community is guided by councils and individuals. As HaQuinai explains: “In the Community, there’s authority, and that authority — like our master Yahshua said [of] his kingdom — are servants of all. He set the example. He said, ‘I come not to be served but to serve.’ That good authority on the Earth wants to draw out the good in other people. We don’t vote on them, but it’s evident who has grace and who doesn’t have grace. It’s difficult to explain to some people, because the authorities of today’s societies are often very contrasting to our authorities.”
On the other hand, the Yellow Deli is run, at least among the managers, by consensus.
“At the deli, we have three or so managers,” HaQuinai explains. “We’re always talking to each other, finding out what’s in each others’ hearts, and taking suggestions. Every Sunday, we get together to express ways in which we can improve the deli. That’s what true authority should be like.”
“Please clean off your tables and move your chairs to the side of the room so we can celebrate,” Wade announces. The room erupts with whoop and cheers of agreement.
“This is a diadem,” HaQuinai explains when I ask about his braided-cloth headband. “It’s what a crown would sit upon, and represents the crown which we hope Yahshua holds for us in Heaven.” He removes the diadem, as many of the other men already have, and replaces it with a leather headband.
“What does that one represent?” I ask.
“This one,” he says, smiling, “holds my hair in place.”
A band of hand drums, guitar, accordion, double bass, clarinet, piano, fiddle, and tambourine gathers in one corner. They break into traditional Israeli folk songs as we assemble to dance. The first dance is called “Od lo Ahavti Dai,” which means “I have not yet loved enough.”
“You’ve got to get in on some of these dances!” HaQuinai exclaims. “Here, try this.”
He shows me how to follow with the footwork, spin in circles, and clap in time. I fumble to keep up. I let Leif take over for the next dance, while I scribble some notes. A few songs later, we are all running around the house in a conga line, speeding up with each verse, dancing through the hallways until we reach the dining room again. There the line spirals in on itself, faster and faster, until at the final, most impossibly coiled moment, the music stops and everyone explodes with laughter.
A young boy, maybe ten, joins in the next song on a fiddle. “Every child raised in the Community learns an instrument,” HaQuinai says. Having joined himself only six years ago, he says he isn’t as proficient, but experiments with the harmonica. I jot more notes as the dance continues. A Community member, who appears to be in his early 20s, sits next to me. Smiling, he says, “You know you are trying to do the impossible. To describe this.” He’s right. The ecstatic sense of, well, community, even for a first-time visitor, transcends my capacity for words.
When the music dies down, Wade addresses the group. “We could be watching TV right now,” he says. “Some of us used to do that.”
Later, HaQuinai explains the Hebrew names which everyone has adopted. “Name means purpose. It’s who you are, or who you will become. There’s no rule or specific time, but eventually we will all name each other.” His name means “The Zealot.” Elijah means “My God is Jehovah.”
After a few sing-alongs, the party clears out at around 10:00. Wade sits down with us to tell us how he met the Twelve Tribes in the late-’80s at a Grateful Dead show. The Community was running a first-aid trailer on Shakedown Street, a temporary camp that surrounded the concert. Wade “spent three hours with the Community. I didn’t even go into the show.”
He explains how the Twelve Tribes’ ideals of living are informed by the Bible, Acts, chapters two and four. “It’s like a marriage. I love these people, so I live and share with them. When you get selfish, a marriage breaks down. We share our lives because we love each other.”