1991, 11/09 A. Worshiping and Serving the Idol of COBU.

In this section,  I was talking about the constant activity and sleep deprivation in the Church of Bible Understanding (COBU).

I was working all the time in the church’s business, Christian Brothers Carpet Cleaning, which took up most of my waking hours. According to Stewart Traill, the leader of the cult, we were supposed to be helping the “new disciples” (the homeless men we took in off the streets), but with a schedule like this, I couldn’t do anything for them, even if I wanted to. And much of the “help” we offered these people was to put them to work in the church’s business anyway, after giving them three days of “orientation,” which were indoctrination classes into the COBU doctrines and worldview. An older brother was exempted from the carpet cleaning schedule to give these classes, when we had a new batch of homeless people. Other than that, we took the new disciples along with us on our jobs, or sent them out on flyering teams to pass out advertisements for Christian Brothers Carpet Cleaning.

Stewart said we were not supposed to have time for ourselves, because the Bible says in 1st Corinthians 6:20, “You are not your own, you were bought with a price.” 

The second half of that verse says, “therefore glorify God with your bodies.” We are no longer our own when we are redeemed by Christ, but maybe serving a cult leader was not the way to honor God. Realizing this helped me leave. Life on COBU terms was not the way to honor God – even if it was done in the name of honoring God.

When I made the tape journal below, I still had a lot of confused thinking, but by this time, I understood that COBU was an idol that we were expected worship and serve. (Really, Stewart Traill was the idol, because the church was an extension of his ego and was they way he accomplished his purposes. This required “true believers” and “useful idiots” who were zealous to carry out his plans in the name of obeying Jesus.)

A useful idiot is someone who “unwittingly supports a malignant cause through their naive attempts to be a force for good.” This describes most COBU members. It also describes me until my last years there, when I became less naive. These journals record the long and sometimes convoluted journey from my status as true believer and useful idiot to seeing through it all and walking out. 

Sometimes I feared that questioning this way of life was just earning me a hotter placer in hell. For a while after I left, I worried that I would somehow go back. But I was determined not to go back.

I still have dreams that I have returned to the cult after being gone a long time. The usual theme is: I don’t know how I got back here, and how am I going to get out again? And, I’m going to speak up about what is wrong here.

Recently, I dreamed I was on a construction site with COBU Brothers in the church construction business. A brother named Greg was trying to convince me that I could not be faithful to Christ unless I was in COBU. As he was talking to me, I bent down and traced some words in Latin in the sawdust on the floor: “Haec est secta falsa.” This is a false sect. (In other words, this is a cult.)


Today is November 9th, 1991. I have some time off now, because I worked last night and there’s a little more time before I go in and work again. I thought I’d try to review some things that have been on my mind lately. Including my thoughts about this life here. What I’m doing now, though, is just laying here for a while. I was “wasting time” by reading and getting lost in the pages of a magazine, which was relaxing. It’s good to get lost in there for a while.

You see, today I just want to relax a bit. My life is so fast-paced. Not that things are always moving, but inwardly and outwardly, it’s like being on a chain gang. I decided to take it easy today. I’m going to try to surround myself with some things I like to do. I like my art table and my drawing. I like getting lost in the pages of a magazine. Things that are not officially right, things I don’t have to do. I like looking at my diaries. And writing them.

Sometimes I think you need to be relaxed and at ease in order to be human. And sometimes I even think, for Jesus to use you. This hyper-anxiety, always trying to be right – well, it’s not me. I like myself better this way, to tell you the truth. But of course, I never know whether it’s right to do these things or not. So I have to get up and live in somebody else’s life. I have to be guided by the “right thing,” pushing myself to be something I’m not. That’s the way life here is. And today, I found a place to hide in. A backwater from the rushing stream, to stop and think about what I’m doing, and why.

I don’t know why I’ve had thoughts about judgment lately. Thoughts about my warning from Jesus and all. And I wonder, what can I do about it? I don’t know what to do about it. I feel past all hope of possibly being saved. Yet to just stop there, it doesn’t seem to work either. I can’t stop being myself. I really can’t. It won’t work. I try to be something else – something I’m not. This is like being on a merry go round. I want to get off this thing. The way the whole thing’s built up and the way it moves, like some big machine. I can go through my whole life – days, months – without ever thinking or facing myself. And much less, how dare I have a pleasure of any kind, or do something to relax or take it easy. But instead, we worship and serve the idol. I feel like I’m worshiping and serving an idol. And the idol isn’t my books, or even the things I want.

(I had thoughts about judgement because it was the message that Stewart Traill was pounding on us all the time. He was constantly talking to us about how we were going to hell because of our rebelliousness and unfaithfulness to Jesus.

Stewart told us that the things we wanted to do “in this life” were our idols and that we had to “put them to death.” But I was beginning to suspect that the real idols were the Church of Bible Understanding and our worship and veneration of its great leader (although nobody would admit to doing that) and the treadmill of working in the church business. We were devoted to this way of life, day and night, and it was everything to us. If current members say it is Jesus they are dedicated to, I will concede the point, but will also say that Stewart Traill was the filter through whom we saw Jesus and who told us what Jesus was really telling us. We did not dare to “go by our own thoughts” – a true hallmark of a cult members.)

It’s a lot deeper and it goes further back than that. The carpet cleaning business is a part of our church and a part of the way our church operates. Although, there are new disciple brothers coming here. [“New disciples,” homeless men we “swept up” off the streets and put to work in the church’s businesses.] I guess that’s not the idol. I heard that 12 were swept up last night. And, I must get in there and start helping them. In part, I’m out of the picture because of work. Often, I roll in late from a long day of work, and I don’t see these ones. And the other part is that I don’t want to jump into the pool. I make excuses to be out of touch, because it’s unpleasant in some ways. These people come off the street. Yet I do have desire to help them.

Well, I’m talking about two things now. Worshiping and serving the idol of our church and how deep and far back that goes. And the other thing that has been on my mind is providing some kind of life for the new disciples. I mean, both of these ideas are connected, because we throw the new disciples into this idol, into this work idol especially. We take them off the street. We promise them freedom. Sure, it has to be better than where they were. But we take them off the street, promise them freedom, then we throw them into the church business after three days of orientation! They’re not really being groomed to follow Christ, they’re being groomed to work in the church business.

They need to work, but if we’re going to put them to work, we need to have something a whole lot better to offer them. Just throwing them into this business system is not viable. I’ve been thinking that it’s a yoke that neither we nor our fathers have been able to bear.

(Acts 15:10: “Now then, why do you try to test God by putting on the necks of the disciples a yoke that neither we nor our fathers have been able to bear?”

Working in the church business was a load that was even hard for us long-time church members (the “older brothers”) to bear and yet we were exploiting homeless people by putting this load on their backs. When we met people, we told them to come live in our church in order to receive “Christian training” and a place to stay. We did not tell them they would be put to work for our church. After three days of “orientation,” they were assigned as helpers on jobs or sent out on teams to pass out flyers for the church cleaning business.)

The business is supposed to be the greatest thing and maybe 15 years ago it really was. There were a lot of happy kids working together to make money to start our orphanages in Haiti and they had no problem working around the clock, day and night. But even that didn’t last. They’re not still doing it, all these brothers. A lot of them left them the church.

(Only a small amount of the money we earned went to the church’s orphanages in Haiti. The Christian Brothers Carpet Cleaning business in its heyday employed hundreds of COBU brothers, and most of these brothers left the church over time.)

Many brothers and sisters look back to the business as the big thing, because of what it was at one time and the meaning it provided for everyone. And that’s like the sacred cow, the idol. The business. It’s everything to us. And if you don’t worship and serve it, you’ve really had it.

I’m skipping around a lot. The reason I’m doing this is to try to get my own thoughts together and to listen back on them.

I have also been thinking about why do I live this way? And I’ve been tracing some of the roots of it, because as I look into my past in the fellowship, I can see myself doing the same kinds of things in the past too.

Anyway, aside from assessing my past life in our church, I think that deep down inside, I would never want to admit it, but I think I’m rejecting Christ. It’s like I’m pushing past warnings and I just don’t want to hear it. Especially about renouncing myself and not trying to have it both ways. New disciples are coming into the church and I don’t even want to bother with them. The whole crunch of bodies downstairs. [We packed the new people in the basement, where they slept.] I mean, when I get to know them, after I’ve known them a while, I guess they’re okay. [I got to know and like some of these new people.] But I hardly even see a future for myself here next week.

(I didn’t see a future for myself in COBU, not even beyond the next week. There was that night’s meeting and I could barely think ahead to the weekend meeting, which was probably going to be a beating session where Stewart talked in great length and detail about what was wrong with us older brothers, that is, about what was wrong with me.  

Stewart often threatened to put us out of the church, and he made several concerted efforts to get rid of the older brothers and to replace them with the homeless people, who would be taught to work in the church businesses and to expect even less reward than the older brothers got. Stewart’s efforts to get rid of us always ended in a disaster of one kind or another, and he discovered that the older brothers were still needed to bring income into the church, so he reinstated us to our former positions after having stripped us of everything, and the church nearly blowing to pieces as a result.

How could I care about these new people and train them for this way of life, in order for them spend the rest of their lives here, to follow Jesus this way? I didn’t even know if I had a future in the church. So it was hard to be concerned about training converts for a new life in this church and to tell them how great it was to live here, when the leader of the church himself made it clear in no uncertain terms how much he despised me.)

Really, I just want to get away. I wish I could just leave our chuch for a while and do my own thing. That’s the truth. I would like to go away, take up jogging for a while and read, and just stop and think about what I’m doing and what I’ve been doing.

(The desire to do “our own thing,” was a serious sin in COBU. Individuality and personal choice would render ineffective the smoothly functioning cogs of the machine, which required that all church members thought, acted and spoke alike, and worked at the same things all the time.)

I might be wrong, but this life we live is not conducive to prayer. This is probably just all excuses, but I’ve found that by going on like this, hashing it all out like this, that somehow afterwards I’m able to pray better.

(After I made a recording like this and got all my thoughts out on tape, I was able to pray better. The inner voice accusing me of “making excuses” during this method of self-examination came from years of cult programming. To question cult life or to disagree in any way with the COBU program was making excuses to not follow Jesus.)

So maybe that’s why I’m doing this. I’m at a real low point, to the point of blowing up about the business, about how it really stinks. I can’t find Christian expletives. Other words cross my mind, but they’re not appropriate.

This whole way of life is monkey business. The whole thing, top to bottom, is monkey business. As far as a life conducive to prayer, we’re always on the go. Can I really pray? I just feel like throwing all this stuff off, and if I’m going to do my own thing, I’ll do it. If I’m going to pray, I’ll pray. I’ll be what I am.

(I thought I had enough of COBU life, and that from now on, I was going to stand apart from it. But COBU life – the constant treadmill of activity in the business, the endless meetings, getting to bed late at night, and being surrounded by others who acted and talked this way in a communal living arrangement was a powerful force to drag me back into the machine, and it was not going to be so easy to carve out a little respite for myself. I was still not ready to face I was in a cult, although I was starting to. I still feared that if I left COBU, I would end up in hell.)

We work, we get up, we’ve just got to snap right up! [We went to bed late, then got up early and immediately went to work again.] There’s no quiet time to read or to think. I’m hooked up to a machine and can’t get off it. Part of this is inward, however. It’s true that there is this outward pressure, the schedule of the business that drives me on and on. And the pressure is to just give up and go along with it.

(It was difficult to resist the current and not get swept along with torrent of  cult life. (Two of the main characteristics of life in cults are constant activity and sleep deprivation. The distraction caused by this activity, and the tiredness resulting from lack of sleep makes it difficult for cult members to think criticially about their situation, because they’re busy and tired. Most cult members sign off and go along with the flow.) I often thought of it like a current I was trying to swim against and the temptation was to become tired of fighting it, to give up and let go and be swept and carried along by it, giving up control of my life.)

I’m on this horse and it keeps charging forward. Instead of trying to pull the reigns to guide it, I slump forward like I’ve passed out and I bob and weave and bounce on it as it drives me forward and carries me along. I give up. At least sometimes, I scheme about getting off the horse, or trying to grab an overhanging limb. Or I try to grab the reigns to steer the horse over to the side maybe, away from this or that.

(I used to fight to have some control over my life and to find time to do things I wanted to do. Most of the brothers there seemed strangely zealous to give up their lives and to “deny themselves” and their desires and to “put to death their lives in this world.” And there were the extra zealous ones who ratted on the less zealous members, while parroting the slogans and lines given to us by Stewart Traill. Stewart’s phrases and words were almost the only means of communication between church members, the only way of expressing ourselves. These were the only acceptable words and concepts with which to interpret our lives, outlook and experience, to others or to ourselves.)

Read the next section of Sinners In The Hands Of An Angry Cult Leader here: “Older Brother, When Are You Packing Your Bags!”

(These pages, as well as my other pages, A Day In The Life Of A Cult Member and The Tangled Web, are part of the source material of my book, Captive Congregation: My Fourteen Years in the Church of Bible Understanding, which is available as a Kindle book or in paperback.)


3 Responses to “1991, 11/09 A. Worshiping and Serving the Idol of COBU.”

  1. Bonnee Says:

    Having been in the COBU for a year and a half as a teenager (1975-77) and reading the utter deterioration of it makes my heart hurt. It’s so much pain (for your suffering) that I cannot read anymore right now.

    I thank God that you have been set free & pray He might use you to lead others in His place of wholeness.


  2. Millie Brocco Says:

    I surrendered to Christ and the church of Bible understanding GET SMART GET SAVED in 1972 and left approx. 77, 78 or 79.
    Your story is pretty much as it was back then. Although Stewie probably has his act tuned closely to mere narcissistic maniac. I left twice. First time I was too scared about going to hell. Second time I knew I didn’t want to go back. Following is a short description of my last months at COBU. We were in NY. We lived in tenement apartments. Meanwhile Stewy and Gail (I often wonder how she is) lived in a beautiful home in Princeton. I was invited there, after first might the very next morning. Stewy told me I was an adulteress and was immediately sent back to the loft in NYC. At the group meeting Gail proclaimed she didn’t know what to do with me. So I was sent to the clown house with all the other clowns.

    • James Says:

      Millie, to this day I don’t understand the kinds of things Stewart used to say to people, such as calling the sisters “adulteresses,” or Gayle saying “I don’t know what to do with you.” On the other hand, I’m glad Stewart didn’t treat me well when I used to question him, because if he had, I might still be there today.

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