From a Brazilian cult to sexual liberation in Manchester

'They made it feel like you belonged to something. I don’t remember being this happy in all my life'

Good morning Millers — today’s story is about Leila Silva, who came to Manchester from Brazil after leaving a controversial religious sect called the Twelve Tribes of Israel. Our writer Daniel Knight met her at the Arndale, where they both work, and she started talking about her past.

Like Ahmed, the delivery rider we interviewed earlier this year, Leila’s story shows the extraordinary paths some of our fellow Mancunians have taken to reach this city, and what Manchester means to people who have experienced mistreatment and trauma along the way.

As with Ahmed, we agreed not to photograph Leila for this story, so we have illustrated the piece with posed photos and some pictures of the Twelve Tribes, who are also referred to in this piece as the Tribe and the community.

By Daniel Knight

The first time I meet Leila Silva, she tells me about the time she fell off a train. She was eleven, maybe twelve, and travelling across Brazil with her two cousins in near-complete darkness. When the train came to a stop, she was pushed out of the carriage — it was an old train and the doors didn’t close properly — by her cousin who thought they had arrived at the platform. She dropped a good six feet onto the tracks. “I could feel the air pulling my legs from when the train was going past,” she says. “It was terrifying.”

I met Leila in 2019 when working a Christmas job in the Arndale. She was bright, upbeat, and accomplished in two hours’ work what I struggled to do in eight. Hardly surprising, really, given that she had toiled from the age of 12 for up to 12 hours a day, carrying out menial tasks for little reward.

She grew up in the impoverished northeast of Brazil. The area was remote and barren, with the nearest school an hour and a half away. She had no toys or television and even if she’d had access to a telly, there was no electricity. She was raised mostly by her grandparents. It was customary back then in Brazil for girls to work for rich families, and she would wake up at 5 am to get the children ready for school and clean the house. She gave what little money she earned to her mother. It wasn’t much, just enough to buy rice and beans.

When I meet her today we sit outside a café in Manchester’s Northern Quarter, the part of town that befits this anomalous and storied soul. You get the feeling that a few people around here have fallen off a train at some point in their lives. She’s telling me about her time in a highly controversial religious sect in Brazil back in the 1990s. 

She’s wary when she talks about the Twelve Tribes of Israel, as if what follows might land her in some trouble, or at least inspire a serious reconsideration of our friendship on my part. “I was in a cult. You must think I’m crazy!”

The Twelve Tribes is a Christian fundamentalist community (not a cult, they insist) that developed out of a bible study group in Chattanooga, Tennessee, in the early 1970s. Its founder, Eugene Spriggs, a former high school guidance counsellor and carnival showman, believes he has a “direct pipeline” to God. It boasts around 3,000 members globally and its aim is to remake the Twelve Tribes of Israel, thereby ushering in the return of Yahshua (Jesus), who will arrive like “a King come for his bride when she is fully prepared for Him.” The Southern Poverty Law Centre describes the group as “a Christian fundamentalist cult born in the American South.”

Leila first learned of the Twleve Tribes in school when her history teacher invited members into the classroom. She was immediately intrigued by this group, who cut a strange sight in their elaborate dresses, long, Jesus-like hair, and almost mystical aura. “From the moment they came into the classroom, there was something different about them — their lives, their culture, the way they live in the community,” she tells me. “I was amazed.”

Members of Twelve Tribes gather for sunrise prayer before the start of Together 2016, a Christian revival on the National Mall, 2016, in Washington, DC. Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post via Getty Images.

The sect makes its money through a chain of approximately 20 restaurants, spread across various continents, from the United States to Australia, and even the UK (Honiton, Devon). Named the Yellow Delis, they are quaint and bucolic, manned by staff who look surprisingly hip. They serve small artisanal dishes, and literature lies strewn around the restaurants for idle customers to browse, offering a different life.

Leila envisaged an idyll away from her dreary and monotonous life. She was 13, and when social workers blocked her from joining the sect, she moved to the countryside to live with a relative of one of the members, working there for around three years. The Twelve Tribes community had been sending the relative money which would eventually fund the three-day cross-country hike to its new location in the more fertile Brazilian south.

One weekend, she was supposed to go to the countryside to see her family. Instead, she took the money, boarded a bus and headed south. She left a note in her bedroom for her mother, apologising, but telling her that she had made up her mind to join the community.

The journey was unspectacular and long; three nights with no company. She had no phone but never felt lonely. She had been told that the community was waiting for her, that she shouldn’t feel scared. Being a naïve 16-year-old, she believed all that she was told. Adrenaline, she says, staved off any sense of fear.

Leila’s arrival coincided with a spate of mass suicides in an (unconnected) American cult. When she arrived, there was a heavy police and army presence as paranoia surrounding reclusive communities heightened globally. It was 1997, and 39 members of the Heaven’s Gate community had just consumed what Rolling Stone described as “apple sauce laced with barbiturates and washed…down with vodka. Then they put bags over their heads, purple shrouds over their bodies, and laid down to leave their earthly vehicles behind.”

Still, her arrival was greeted like any other would be: “They had a big party for me. Dancing, food, drinks. It was incredible. They made it feel like you belonged to something. I don’t remember being this happy in all my life.”

A new life

On arrival, members are forced to surrender all earthly possessions as a sort of spiritual cleansing from the outside world. “I didn’t have many possessions to give up in the first place,” she jokes, “but they wanted to cut me off completely from the outside. They told me: ‘Your new name is Lebanah.’”

This isn’t unusual: each member is given a new Hebrew name to replace their own. They are assigned tasks, like restaurant work, farming, or the disciplining of children.

She remembers having to strike a child of one of the elders, and how guilt-stricken she felt doing it. From the age of six months, children in the community are physically reprimanded. They are beaten with wooden rods and bamboo canes for minor offences. When I ask what sort of crime a six-month-old child could possibly commit, she tells me that if you are, say, changing a nappy, and the child is moving around, you are encouraged to strike them and eventually they learn to be still. Children would not be allowed to scream, and if they did, you were supposed to strike them again and again until they learned to accept their punishment quietly.

“Everything is about control,” she continues. “If you are interested in a boy, for example, you never go to the boy. You go to the elders and explain that you are interested. Then they arrange for you to go to a park and see if you have anything in common. They have control over everything.”

Leila became especially close to Martha, a pleasant, studious American girl 10 years older whose name, even now, gives her goosebumps. “Martha was my best friend and such a hard worker,” she recalls fondly. “I think about her a lot.” 

The Twelve Tribes was able to recruit its members by offering the very things which had formerly eluded them — rosy declarations of unity and belonging. “My mother was always distant,” she tells me. “And these people come along and say, ‘We will love you.’ And it was something I had never had before.”

This, perhaps, explains why the newly indoctrinated behaved with such unswerving obedience. They carried out their tasks dutifully, waking up at six every morning. They worked the farms or delis, or they taught the children, all of whom were home-schooled. They accepted their exploitation as a consequence of their love, not as punishment. The community, she says, comprised “one single hand”: a hand from which dissenters were cut (metaphorically) for anything that even vaguely resembled noncompliance.

Many of the online testimonies echo and even expand on what she told me. In the Sydney Morning Herald, Mark and Rosemary Ilich, escapees of the Tribe, describe an archaic culture in which wives “must submit to their husbands and are encouraged to have at least seven children. Condoms and the pill are forbidden. Mainstream medical care is likewise shunned, something observers have linked to what appears to be a higher-than-normal rate of stillbirths.”

In VICE, Jamie Taete writes that the Tribe “endorse heinous practices like segregation (they say that multiculturalism is ‘just not reasonable’), misogyny (they believe that women were ‘created to complete man’), and some pretty questionable treatment of children.”

But on browsing the Tribe’s official site, I uncover no such endorsements. Instead, I find that they wish to carry out their Father’s will, which is “to love one another and be a light to the nations; so that they could see our life of love and know how much their Creator loves them.” However, on delving deeper, I discover a now-defunct web page that claimed that politicians who “rally to different races to be one are forerunners of the antichrist.”

Had she witnessed this sort of outdated prejudice? “I never saw it personally, other than disciplining children, but I believed everything they said. I was brainwashed. They could tell me anything and I would believe it. I was very naïve. There was lots I probably did not pick up on.”

Gradually Leila began to worry about the impact her absence was having on her mother’s health. She had agreed to speak with her once a month, but doing so proved difficult since there was always someone nearby, listening in. “First time I realised I was hurting Mum was [when I was] on the phone to her. She asked how I was, was I eating well? I lied and said I had put on weight. When I said that, she told me that she had lost weight since I had left and that she was [growing] unhealthy through worrying. I was really concerned. That day, something clicked.”

That evening she took a photograph of her mother she had been hiding and put it under her pillow. One of the elders found out about the photograph — she still does not know how — and demanded she throw it away.

“They said I needed to be 100% inside,” she says. “Basically, I had to forget about my mum and my family. Even I didn’t know I loved my mum that much. When they cut me, nobody talked to me, not even Martha. It was horrible.” This isn’t a literal cut: dissenting members are threatened to be “cut” from the family “hand”; they are ignored completely — often for days — in the hope that a protracted spell of isolation will eventually bring them round. Leila could bear the silence for little over a day.

“I had to be re-baptised, to wash away my sins,” she continues. Then, as suddenly as she had been expelled from the group, she was welcomed back. She tells me after that, things went back to normal, exactly as if nothing had happened in the first place. All the same, she was shaken. “But I thought, how can you tell me you love me and then just cut me off so easily?”

The community leadership offered an unflinching warning, telling her they would stab a stick into her feet to make sure that she would never sin again and so that she couldn’t leave. “It was so real I thought they would actually do it. I knew if I didn’t leave then, I never would.”

A panel depicting the Twelve Tribes of Israel at the Israel Pavilion of the New York World's Fair, USA, circa 1964. Photo: Y. Fodor/Archive Photos/Getty Images.

Something in her had shifted. It had become impossible to believe the community practiced the lofty ideals they espoused. Instead of love, she found conditional affection, given only in exchange for total subordination. Instead of freedom, she had found endless rules.

The instant she told an elder that she planned to leave, she was given the silent treatment once again. Even Martha, who had been like a sister to her, didn’t acknowledge she was going. “As soon as I came out of the body, they cut me off,” she recalls. “I saw Martha the night before, but only from far away. We never got to say goodbye.”

A familiar, oppressive quiet descended and she was driven to the bus stop in complete silence. Just as suddenly as she had been embraced by the community, she was back on the outside.

Sexual liberation

Leila came to England in 2003. It was around this time that she began to come to terms with her own sexual identity. She had only been vaguely aware of her feelings towards women, but had never pursued them to their logical conclusion. “Homosexuality was never talked about [in the community],” she says. “But it would not have been acceptable.”

Julia Scheeres writes in Pacific Standard that in the late 1970s, Twelve Tribes founder Spriggs asserted that, as well as black people being destined for slavery, homosexuals “deserved the death penalty.” Spriggs — and various other apologists for the Tribe — have since refuted such allegations.

But even if Leila hadn’t joined Twelve Tribes, it would have still been challenging to come out as gay in Brazil, a notoriously hostile country for the LGBTQ community. A decision by the Supreme Court to criminalise homophobia in 2019 was met, with disapproval from President Jair Bolsonaro, who has never disguised his intolerant views on homosexuality (“Yes, I’m homophobic – and very proud of it.”)

When she left the community, she went to live with her sister in São Paulo. Homophobia was endemic there, beginning in the church. The church, she says, acted similarly to the sect she had escaped, telling worshippers of a fire in which homosexuals would burn for an eternity.

In Bolton, where she lived shortly after her arrival, she met her boss, an openly gay man with a partner. It was one of the first times she had been exposed to a same-sex relationship. “He spoke of that person with so much love,” she remembers. “In England, being gay was not such a bad thing. It was just a way of loving someone.”

She was at once curious and excited. For so long, homosexuality had been a dirty, immoral act pursued in secret by the damned. She went to the Village, the crux of Manchester’s queer scene, and sat alone in a pub.

Consumed by guilt, the next day she confessed to her pastor: “He said to me, ‘If you ever want to speak to me again, make sure my wife is there.’ To this day, I don’t know what that means. But I never went to church again. From that day [on], I didn’t see [being gay] as a bad thing.”

When Leila came to Manchester, she started questioning why other people believed homosexuality to be bad or wrong. I ask her if, over time, her sexuality has affected her religious beliefs. “I’m questioning my religion as I’m getting older,” she says. “The god I believe in now is a god that looks after you whoever you are. He’s a different god to the one I grew up with.”

Thanks to her staunchly religious upbringing, she remembers trying to suppress her desires, or at least conceal them. When her mother wondered aloud where the marks on her knees had come from, she did not mention that she had spent hours in the church on her knees, asking God to take away her feelings.

“When I came [to Manchester],” she tells me, “I could see a same-sex couple and I was curious. I accepted them, but I could not accept me. It took about eight more years to accept it for myself.” So absolute was her sense of personal shame, she once more contemplated suicide.

It was Manchester, then, that offered a lifeline. She describes the Village as “looking like hell” when she first arrived, but it was there that she would meet her fiancée.

They got engaged earlier this year, and like everything in her life, it was spontaneous: “Things in my life just happened,” she says, smiling. “I didn’t plan anything. I thought I would become a nun and close myself in the church forever!”

She met her fiancée on Boxing Day in 2016. She didn’t know many people in the city, and she was sat alone in a bar. A woman introduced herself, and Leila got chatting to her. She wanted a distraction, she tells me. They had met by chance; her fiancée was supposed to be somewhere else that night. During the pandemic, they got engaged.

Does she miss the community? “No, not really. But I miss some of the people.” She tried to reach out to Martha a few years back but couldn’t find any contact details. “I think about her a lot,” she says, and her eyes mist over. “I hope she’s okay.”

But she has a new life now in Manchester and a life which, albeit gradually, her family is coming round to. It’s a slow process, though. When she came out, her brother didn’t allow his children to say goodbye. They haven’t talked in a while — a fact so bleak even her perpetual chirpiness wavers for a moment.

But she accepts who she is now. Her old wounds are still there, but they no longer define her. “It doesn’t matter who I fall in love with,” she says fiercely, “I’ll always be me.”