1993, 07/03 4. The Key That Unlocks The Prison Door.
In this section, I talked more about my early years in COBU, because that is when I first accepted the terms and conditions of this way of life. If this is where I began to live this way, it might be a key to understanding why I still continued to live this way. If Stewart Traill had not truly changed after having promised to, and if the terms and conditions of fellowship life were therefore still the same, it might be valuable to look at those past times, which were easier for me to understand, and to apply what I knew about those times to how I was living there now.
Then I talked about getting woven into the next deeper layers of life in The Church of Bible Understanding as I continued to live there and what that was like for me. I closed by asking myself how I bought into all of this, and now that I realized this much, what can I do about it now?
Maybe this is where I drop the ball. I’ve done so much thinking, and I’m at a point where I should probably make a decision. I’ve done a lot of reading on all these things that are similar to what’s going on here, such as reading about cults and total institutions. And I’m waiting, not really knowing what to do next.
Here too, I may spring back to talking about Jersey City and maybe I ought to think about how I just dropped this decision at this point. But it started with such a review. I may find something worthwhile pursuing again by delving back into those years. They were certainly my formative years in this fellowship and they probably had something to do with the way I live now and with the way I see everything. Maybe this was the time when the basis under which I still live was nailed down. If the more things change, the more they remain the same, then it’s really the same thing now as it was then, but under different terms, and maybe the terms of my accepting and living it are also the same. And this would be best analyzed in the time period where I began to accept it. In one sense, I accepted it as soon as I walked in the door. I did it under total ignorance, though slowly but surely I began to realize some things. It’s hard to even realize what I did. I had bought the whole thing, hook line and sinker.
Without going into a long explanation, the Jersey City fellowship fell apart. One by one, everyone began to leave, the first casualty being Rich. I can’t remember the exact order of who left next after Rich and the final end. Toward the end, it was me, Victor, Mario and the two sisters in the house for a while. I helped Victor move to the Lower East Side. But there were many who left in between. After Danny and Brenda left, the next to go were Fred and Donna. I remember it was a late Sunday afternoon and Miriam realized something was wrong. She said, “Don’t you realize?” And I said, “What?” She said, “Fred and Donna!” I said, “They went home for the weekend.” But she said, “Yes, and they’re not back yet.” And she was glaring at me like, don’t you realize, don’t you care? It had been obvious to her that since they weren’t back by this time, that they had left the fellowship. And she was right. They left the fellowship and they never came back.
After that, more left. Brian left and was renting a room in Montclair. I saw him there at least once, I went with somebody to visit him. Bernie was in the Jersey City house for a while, but he got rescued out by going to the Young Sheep House that was starting up at that time. By and by, I was the last person in the house after Miriam and Laura went to other fellowship houses in the New York area. And lo and behold, it was just me there for an entire two weeks. No one was checking on me. The only one who was coming around at the time was Steve M. and I did a few carpet cleaning jobs with him. When I was with him, I was really “into my head,” as it was called back then. I was on a carpet job and I was just standing there, not even carrying the water and I was withdrawn into myself.
My being that way had to do with what was going on at the time. After everyone left, I worked in the carpet cleaning business alone for two weeks, picking up the calls on the answering machine. I called the people back and took the van out and did jobs. I remember doing a job by myself in a highrise in Newark and I was getting tired. The same day, I went out to the suburbs and cleaned the all carpets and furniture in someone’s house by myself.
It’s hard to even know what I was thinking back then. I was just cruising along. I didn’t even think of going somewhere or doing anything. I had become completely routinized. Why didn’t I go some places I would have wanted to visit? Maybe it was the habit of a year of routine, where we went to work and then we went out witnessing all night and that kept us busy until we came back home late and had a meeting. I had been through a whole year of that, so I really didn’t think for myself very much or take initiative to go somewhere or do anything. The only time I took initiative was to go to a store to look at something I was interested in.
Working by myself in the church cleaning business in New Jersey didn’t last long anyway. Soon I was getting chewed out over the phone by somebody at the office who said I hadn’t paid the bill for the answering service, but I didn’t know anything about the bill for the answering service. I discovered that the service was cut off when I called to pick up the messages one day and that ended any calls on the answering service for Christian Brothers Carpet Cleaning. It was toward the end of the summer. I had to move out at some point.
(When Jerry and his wife Pat bought the house from the church, I had to move out immediately. I moved into an apartment rented by the church on West 46th Street in Manhattan, and began a new and deeper phase of my involvement in COBU.)
I remember being all alone in that house. I made a tape letter to Brian, saying here I am, sitting in the living room. Do you remember just one year ago this place was filled with brothers and sisters? Now I’m here all alone. I told Brian that I had recently helped Miriam pack up her belongings so she could move to another fellowship house. She was was like my own sister. I had a friendship with her. Other than her, there weren’t any women around to get to know.
The fall of the Jersey City house was an end of an era for me and almost like an end of innocence, in a lot of ways. And since I really don’t know what to say now, I’ll just move forward and say that I was in limbo, looking for somewhere to go. When I was alone during the last weeks in Jersey City, I was going to Manhattan for fellowship. I met some older brothers when I got a ride with them to a Big Meeting one time and I started hanging out on 46th Street with them and got into their God’s love fellowship. Already by then I thought I needed to be liberated from all the harsh rules and all these weird game players in the church, and these brothers seemed alright. Through them I found out there was an opening in an apartment on 46th Street. That came along just in time and it seemed like Jesus providing for me. I guess that was our church’s view back then, and it may be true, about the personal God who takes care of you. I needed to move somewhere and Jesus arranged for me to move to 46th Street. I don’t know if that’s a right way to talk about Jesus now, but that was the view back then. Jesus knew I needed to move and he arranged this apartment so I could be around these brothers. I really don’t know what to say about that now. That could be totally idealistic, for sure.
(The view of Jesus that Stewart was pounding into our heads no longer had any providence or benevolence in it. Jesus did not do good things for us anymore. When I joined COBU, Jesus was a provider and the “shepherd of the sheep,” and I was one of his sheep, and he took care of my human needs. Now Stewart was portraying Jesus as angry judge who was going to cast us into hell as soon as we met him upon our soon death.)
It was a brief time where I got to know and be around these brothers. They were on the fringes of the fellowship and they had a “we vs. them” attitude with everyone else in the church. But soon I was scooped up to move to the Bronx to be in the Retard Course.
(My relationship with these brothers who were a little older than me and who had been in COBU longer than I had, must have been paper thin. All of them left the church soon after this. They never talked to me about their reasons for leaving. No one sat me down as a new member in COBU and told me what was wrong there, or told me that I did not have to be there to follow Jesus, or warned me of what I could probably expect if I stayed, or told me why they were leaving. But maybe at that time, they did not know they would be leaving.
Also, I began to see no hope in their little group. I saw how they could not stand up to Stewart’s pressure at meetings and how they all took guard shifts to get away. I rode with them again to a meeting and they were talking about God’s love and being free, and about the guilt trips everyone in the church was putting on them, but that by the grace of God, they didn’t have to submit to that. But as soon as they got there, they all took guard shifts and disappeared for the rest of the meeting. I had expected to sit with them as a group and to endure the meeting in their company.
So then, I thought, what they had was not real enough to withstand all the things I hated about this place. And at the same time, Stewart was offering a new program, which he called The Retard Course. He said that the middle brothers and sisters were spiritual retards. This was to be a remedial Christian training course. The name of the course was insulting, but I saw it as my only hope, compared to anything else going on in COBU at the time, so I joined the program. I could have decided not to, but this seemed like the only hopeful option for my life at the time. And besides, all the middle sisters were in this, and maybe I could get married if I got “trained.” The only other alternative was slowly dying away with the older brothers fellowship (and I would have to move into crowded and dirty “515” with them) or leaving and going back into “the world” and being lost and ending up in hell.
But, I can’t blame those brothers either. Imagine if these brothers I had been hanging out with sat in a group at the meeting and said, “God loves us. We don’t have to accept all of this condemnation.” Stewart would have put them on trial. “Oh really? Ask all the others if that’s how they see you.” Now, the majority, if not all of the brothers and sisters, would have said they did not see these brothers as being faithful to Christ. (It would have been easy for Stewart to shut down anyone who dared to disagree.) If these brothers disagreed with Stewart’s verdict, he would have asked them if they thought they were counting themselves better than the rest of us. According to the “sight of the body,” we see you as unfaithful, are you calling us liars? Stewart would have then demanded that these brothers show proof of their faithfulness to Christ. He would have made the whole session about them, if necessary. Or he might have ignored them. If they walked out of the meeting, because they didn’t want this abuse, well then, why are they leaving? This is how you show God’s love, by walking out on everyone? If they spoke up, Stewart would have refuted everything they said. If they remained silent for the rest of the meeting, he would have said that they went away, shrinking back in fear, so how is this the love of God guiding you? No one coild win against Stewart. In COBU, we either believed in this way, or we left. There was no middle ground.)
I suppose here, I could mark my transition to middle brother. I don’t know if I was ever a middle brother. Maybe I went right from older newly saved to older brother, but that was an entirely different life from Jersey City. In many ways, the terms, covenant or agreement we had and what we were doing now was entirely different than it was in Jersey City. In comparison, Jersey City was friendly. You could say Worcester was loose and laid back, Jersey City was friendly – even with our brawls. But getting into middle brother life was different. It was more intense. This is where I met the crusaders and the cowboys and all these “maneuvering” women.
(These were Stewart’s negative interpretations of those people and the names he called them, not what they were actually like.)
In Jersey City, even though the brawls were out in the open, was more like a picnic compared to my life as a middle brother. It was a congealing or hardening of all the social ways and mores, getting to the middle period of my life, where I was at least, unofficially, a middle brother. I was a little older than most of them, but I was allowed to be in the Retard Course. I was in the Bronx for a short time. I got to the Rescue Mission in the beginning of May or June. Then I was with the middle brothers and sisters in the Philadelphia Rescue Mission for a year or so.
Year after year, life in the church was different. Each period had a different texture or terms to it. Each was a totally shocking, person molding era, where it became a new and different situation. Each time, I went to one of these things, it made me more woven in to life here. There were completely different surroundings and I was intensely involved in these surroundings, for sure. But as I said, in Jersey City, we didn’t have such intense dealings with each other. There were open brawls, with Fred storming at everybody, which probably happened less frequently than I think it did, or we got into some bickering with the sisters. I was usually on the sidelines anyway. But that was innocent compared to the more sophisticated and subtle methods of social interaction in middle life and what life was like among us there in the Bronx and then at the Rescue Mission in Philadelphia.
And a briefly from there, after the Rescue Mission fell apart and the Retard Course ended without graduates, it was basically the walking dead for the next four years. I lived out for a year and then I moved back in, going to Woodruff in Brooklyn. It was a strange life, where everything was looking back to the Middle Rescue Mission years and coming from that place. It was an aftermath, until the whole starting over in the church with the purchase of the New Property and the Reawakening and Stewart saying he was repenting and starting over, which was an entirely different era. All of this was like moving from the first level on a multi-level chess board up to the next highest level. I was still the same chess game, but it was played on more levels now.
So, this tape will end soon. I’m sitting outside at Red Hook. It is July 3rd, a quiet summer night with a full moon. There is a haze in the air, coming off the river. A huge boat is passing out there to my left. Yes, it’s summertime. I’ve lost touch with summer. I’m barely able to sense the seasons around here. That has a lot to do with the flow of fellowship life and New York City life. Often, I wish I could experience a little taste of summer to feel what it used to be like.
And here, I’ve reviewed some of my formative years in the fellowship. I suppose I’m looking for patterns. I’m still living in the same place and there are a lot of the same things going on now, under different terms. And how did I ever fall into a general and total acceptance of it all? And what do I do now? And I suppose these are the terms I’ll end this tape on. Tomorrow will be a two day July 4th meeting. Stewart has told us that the meeting will be really good and that we should bring our ideas on how to change things. I usually just figure that change is only generated from the top. Orders are given downward, and Stewart has probably already decided what the changes should be. Stewart asks us to give our suggestions, but he obviously has some things he might institute.
(Stewart called this meeting about making changes, which meant that he had changes he wanted to make. He was the only one who had the power to bring up the subject of making changes, we didn’t. It was all at his discretion. But the illusion of our own participation in the decision making process and that our input was taken into account had to be maintained.)
And I basically see myself as a pawn on a chessboard, and I wonder, how do I even take control of a just few squares and make a few of my own moves? How do I break my mind free from the mold, or from the general matrix of command and function? I try to make sense out of this whole thing, this thing I’ve been in for 13 years. I suppose I should just say these are the terms. I should just say, well I heard the truth, and that I’m unfaithful to Christ, and that this is the real issue.
(The last sentence meant that maybe the real truth was, as Stewart said, that I was unfaithful to Christ and that this was the real issue, and not all of the other things I was thinking about. I often went back and forth like this, between what I was coming to realize about life in the cult and what Stewart told us about ourselves and about why we were so messed up. Stewart said we were in rebellion against Christ. Yet, I was talking clearly about what I realized about how the cult operated and about my part in it, and the body of evidence was just too great and weighted too heavily on the side of “I’m in a cult, and this is the way this cult (and other cults) work. And now that I know this, I need to get out. I am not in rebellion against Christ and what Stewart is telling us is not only manipulative and deceitful, it is wrong.”)
Read the next section of Sinners In The Hands Of An Angry Cult Leader here: The Stockholm Syndrome: My Fellow Hostages.
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.