Monday, June 9, 2008

The Yellow Deli

Mirrors - The New Frontiers (mp3)
I'm Going to Wait - Lyle Lovett (mp3)

I can still see Kristy McNichol being taken in that blue van, away from the commune, to be deprogrammed. I can see it like I was still watching it on TV. The movie was called "Blinded By the Light," and it was about her and her brother falling under the spell of a Moonie-esque cult. The people in the cult were all lovey-dovey and caring, but it was the little secret subversive things they didn't see happening to them that brainwashed them.

Stuff like, um, nutritional manipulation, feeding them foods to make their minds weaker. And other stuff... like, lots of sermons and hugs and crap about a purpose.

This crappy TV movie scared the ever-livin' hell out of me. I must have watched it three or four times, because I can still remember four or five scenes from it pretty clearly. Her in one of the worship services, with her head spinning because of the malnutrition or something. Her working in a greenhouse kind of place, talking to some blonde groupie.

It was on TV when I was 8 or 9 years old, so I'm not even sure I totally understood it. All I knew is these adults who seemed caring and loving and wholesome were actually oddly sinister and manipulative in the name of religion. Be suspicious of Devil wolves in Christian sheep's clothing, was the message, which is as frightening a prospect as an overly-trusting, overly-naive boy can encounter.

Thirty years later, I'd like to say I'm more spiritually mature and aware. I'm grateful I was warned to be suspicious of devil wolves in Christian sheep's clothing, because I learned the most dangerous ones are rarely the dudes who look like Powers Boothe and force you to guzzle Kool-Aid.

Between the Milgram Experiment and other crap I learned in college, I've also learned to go a little easier on the idiots who get sucked into extreme religion. We're a vulnerable, naive bunch, the lot of us.

With all this baggage of fear and awareness, I cautiously but amusingly entered The Yellow Deli last week for lunch.

The Yellow Deli is Chattanooga's own special religious cult. Not only that, but my mom informed me a couple weeks back that my biological father was friends with Gene Spriggs, the dude who started it. They were drinking and party pals, apparently, before Gene went off to California and got all cult-ured. (Ha! That's a joke, son. Get it? I keep pitchin' 'em and you keep missin' 'em!)

The group basically got run out of town on a rail just a few years after Kristy McNichol was making her little TV movie. They were enticing a few too many vulnerables, it would seem, and, well, let's face it. They're a cult, a label which comes with some pretty hefty historical baggage. When you look at the "crimes" The Yellow Deli commits, however, they seem pretty vanilla: child abuse that sounds several notches down from "Mommy Dearest," freaky dress codes and hair requirements, and limited freedom for adults.

In truth, nothing described in that first-person account seems all that more unreasonable than the standards and expectations heaped upon any number of fundamentalist congregations, especially in the South.

Does it weird me out that members aren't allowed to eat the food they serve at Yellow Deli? Yup. Is it strange they look like hippies but don't engage in "free love"? Sure. Will any of this ever bother me as much as those Hell Houses? Hell no. Are Twelve Tribes goobers standing on street corners at Riverbend or walking down Bourbon Street with pictures of aborted fetuses and a laundry list of the damned? Hell no.

Do they take advantage of the downtrodden and outcast? Um, I guess? Maybe? But show me people who don't, quite frankly. If giving the homeless and transients a place to lodging and food (even if it's not Wendy's) but demanding that they follow certain rules and expectations in return is taking advantage of them, I guess they're guilty. But I wouldn't call it exploitative, nor does it seem beyond the pale cruel or harmful. It seems kinda... Christian, albeit slightly freaky.

I'm not gonna join, and I'm not gonna become a regular at their joint. Give me freaky clothing and strange social practices over the reenactment of unbelievers and sinners sinking into hell every day.


jennifer said...

This is freakin' fascinating!

Bob said...

I heard Vegas is living with them now. Are you happy?