I was looking for something to eat, or drink. Preferably a commercial establishment that would afford some measure of placid comfort, versatility, relief. But simplicity takes strange forms these days in Ithaca, New York.
Made with organic spelt and topped with butter and real maple syrup, it was the colorfully illustrated Belgian waffle ad that first caught my attention. “Hmm. This might work. Yes, I think it will.” Moments before my brisk walk through the Ithaca Commons ended in vain, I stumbled upon exactly what I was looking for: the Home Dairy Company, the innocuous-looking sign above the waffle ad proclaimed. Satiation was now within reach. I didn’t exactly want a Belgian waffle just then, but I was comforted by the fact that I could have one if I wanted to. That seemed important, or at least decisive.
Inside, the solid wood tables, dim lighting, and sprawling green decor reminded me of the Rain Forest Café, the Amazon-themed equivalent of the Hard Rock Café we used to go to on special occasions when my step-father felt like driving to Arizona Mills Mall. Going there for dinner was a lot like going to Knott’s Berry Farm, only the gift shop was a little smaller. The Home Dairy Company, by contrast, was what the Rain Forest Café should have been like. Its rustic atmosphere was on par with the Moose Lodge at Magic Mountain, except there were no singing moose heads on the walls. The floor was neatly swept and most of the tables were empty.
As I approached the counter, the aura of hip, eco-friendly entrepreneurs I’d felt outside in the Commons began to give way to something more difficult to place. The older woman behind the counter clearly did not recognize me as a regular, and her coldness made me feel slightly ill at ease. I ordered an iced coffee and paid $1.70 for it. “That’s a good price,” I said cheerfully when I handed her the money, hoping to add color to our otherwise colorless transaction. If she registered the gesture at all, she seemed not to register it as a friendly one. I considered that she might be inexperienced, but I couldn’t help thinking that a customer shouldn’t feel spurned this way. It wasn’t good for business. And I might want to come back.
At the other end of the counter I found my first clue that I was not in the Home Dairy Company at all. It looked like a basket of newspapers at first. But when I opened one of them, I discovered a religious pamphlet called the Twelve Tribes Freepaper. “The Radical Life of Acts 2:44,” it professed in bold type. “All who believed were together and shared all things in common.” Behind the caption a panoramic photo showed a group of people clasping hands and dancing in a circle. Some appeared to clap, others to sing. I noticed they were all wearing the same plain garb the older woman behind the counter was wearing. In fact everyone around me was wearing the same plain garb.
Just then a younger woman behind the counter handed me my iced coffee. She smiled and asked if I had any questions about the pamphlet. I learned that the café I was standing in (formerly the Home Dairy Company) was cooperatively owned by an international network of communities called the Twelve Tribes, or the Commonwealth of Israel, who sought to live like the first disciples in the book of Acts. “We share all our possessions in common as they did,” she explained. “We work together, share our meals together, we worship together, and all the money we earn in our businesses is shared so that there are no poor among us, just as they did.”
In other words, this was no ordinary venue for placid consumption. Because I’d seen that waffle ad, I had stumbled upon an authentic source of early twenty-first century countercultural praxis: the Maté Factor.
According to the Twelve Tribes Freepaper, the Maté Factor Café in Ithaca is one of dozens of cooperatively owned businesses spanning nine countries across four continents. The Twelve Tribes bases its social philosophy on what it considers the original teachings of Yahshua, the Son of God. Yet like other fringe religious sects, it is equally informed by hostile alienation from the modern world, which infuses its call for “A New Brand of Culture”:
We live in an age of oppression—physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual. We are oppressed from without and within. Screaming out for justice in an age of supreme injustice on all sides spawns the revolutionaries who strain every fiber to make a blow to the system. Everything is dark and twisted: poverty, genocide, generations under medicated tyranny, political corruption, endless war, pollution, and ecological nightmares…. The ultimate act of revolution is to respond to the call that strikes to the core, to the very essence of the world system itself…. The call of the gospel is the ultimate solution to all the injustice that this sick and dying world has ever seen. It is the only antidote to the oppression and aggression of this age. There is nothing that exposes this self-centered consumer society more than a people who wholeheartedly band together, enduring through thick and thin…”
“Where did I fit into this equation?” I wondered. Motivated by Pavlovian conditioning and Huxleyan convenience, I was the self-centered consumer who happened upon the Maté Factor in spite of myself, entirely by chance. In theory, I’m happy to support the Twelve Tribes’ cause; but aren’t I technically part of the problem, not the solution? In all seriousness, shouldn’t they keep people like me out of their little café lest the whole enterprise be soiled by association with the enemy?
The paradox of my presence in the Maté Factor underscored the extent of the problem I was reading about in the Twelve Tribes Freepaper. I responded to an advertisement, and a few minutes later I was drinking an iced coffee while contemplating the ultimate act of revolution. How could the two experiences run together so smoothly? How could they permeate each other so effortlessly? And what, if anything, did this say about the prospects for the kind of revolution the Twelve Tribes prescribed?
I was at a loss by the time I finished my beverage. Part of me wanted to leave the Maté Factor, but the image of that Belgian waffle was still fresh in my mind…