Jabbering hordes of children tramp down the dock at the city’s marina screaming “Poop deck! Poop deck!” just because they can. It is, after all, a nautical term.
They are running excitedly toward the Peacemaker, a 12-story tall, old-fashioned pirate-ish ship temporarily docked at the city’s marina at no cost to its owners, the Twelve Tribes of Israel, an international religious network with communities on a different grid than the rest of modern society.
They live in cohesive bunches “from one to a dozen or so, depending on how long that particular tribe has been established,” according to a handout available on the ship. “Each community consists of one or more households which all share a common purpose’ in that location, funded by whatever industries that community is able to establish.”
Children are homeschooled and the group follows the teachings of the Old and New Testaments, with each member taking on Biblical names when they join.
The city sees the Peacemaker’s docking in the city as a tourist attraction. With approval from City Council, the Alexandria Waterfront Commission waved the $10,010 docking fee that a commercial vessel would pay. As a 501 (d) nonprofit organization, the city is within its rights to do so, under what officials say are vetted agreements with the owners.
Still, permitting a religious organization to dock in the city by rule of law is unusual or it would be if the Peacemaker did not dock in Alexandria last summer as well.
“I was aware that it was affiliated with a religious organization,” said James Spengler, director of Recreation, Parks and Cultural Activities, which oversees the Waterfront Commission. “Regardless of whether it was a Catholic church or Baptist organization, as long as they don’t bring that message out front and don’t put the city in a perplexing position, they are okay.”
Religious groups are under limitations in terms of disseminating information, according to Mayor Bill Euille.
“We’re certainly sensitive to the fact that we’re not here to promote religion. It’s not something that we do,” he said.
The group is not in Alexandria to proselytize, they say, and tourists don’t feel like any religious doctrine is being shoved in their faces just the physical aesthetics of the antique-looking ship (actually built in the late 1980s) that seems to be doing its job attracting foot traffic to the area.
The Peacemaker’s mission includes an apprenticeship program for their youth members and “a floating microcosm of the life we live in all of our communities,” according to the literature available on the boat.
“They were very knowledgeable,” said Pat Bragg of Clifton as she disembarked from the boat. “They gave us a history of the boat and we enjoyed it very much.”
Bragg, as did every person interviewed, said the ship’s crew did not mention their religious views unless asked. Tourists are free to roam the Peacemaker at will and its crew obliges any and all questions.
The Twelve Tribes have been accused of cult practices and child labor violations in their cottage industries several times since their creation in 1972, resulting once in a $2,000 fine but no convictions
“We believe that there has to be a demonstration of the life on the earth, or else what you’re talking about [in regard to religion] doesn’t really mean anything,” said Morris, a member of the crew. “We believe that the witness of our life is whatever people see. If they don’t see anything in that then we’re not out to try to convince people.”
Religious or not, the vessel docked in Alexandria last May for 12 days, increasing pedestrian traffic by about 61 percent, according to a Council memo “and marina staff received positive feedback regarding the vessel.”
“The Peacemaker is operated by a religious organization with the public tours and education focusing on the ship itself,” the memo from City Manager Jim Hartmann stated in support of the waived fee.
The memo also stated that the waived fee would be “offset to some degree by tax revenues generated by ship visitors” and that the dock would likely not be used by a commercial vessel during its stay.
“It’s impactful,” Spengler said. “That’s the rationale.”