1993, 07/03 2. My First Year In COBU: Ignorance Was Not Bliss.
In the previous section, I was talking about how I was sold an idealized version of the COBU when I first came there. What was really going on was carefully hidden from me. I was not talking about this in an angry way, like “they tricked me!” I was talking analytically about the process of being inducted into the cult, a process that continued even after I moved in. I was also saying that those who guided me into the cult, the cult members who had been there longer than me, were sincere and that they were telling me the version of the church as they wished it could be, instead of telling me what it was really like for them there. Many people were leaving COBU all the time, because of how bad things were there.
It was very essential for me to think about and talk these things through. I was on the verge of leaving COBU and my process of leaving involved analyzing how I had started and how I had become involved in this in the first place.
So that way, when the brothers come to meetings, they can say, “Jesus has given us two new brothers!” And how important such trophies would be at the time, where in ways, I was wined and dined – or at least not fully informed – so I could have made an informed choice about what I was getting myself into.
That’s part of what was going on. The brothers were friendly and I liked most of them, except for some of the older married ones like Dave R. They didn’t seem so great. And Gary always seemed troubled, but friendly. But he really didn’t talk to me. They put on a show, though it’s not really a show, like how a teacher leaves their domestic problems at home and teaches the students the basics. Gary was always troubled inwardly, behind the scenes. But, I suppose he laid that aside, not that he would actually lay it aside, but he would not get into that with me and he would teach me a Lamb Lesson instead. Coming from that teaching attitude they had back then, he asked appropriate questions and I gave the appropriate responses, and I thought it was all pretty good.
(The Lamb Course was lessons for new members about salvation. These lessons were about basic Christian doctrine and were not about what I was about to get into, such as moving in, living communally and working for COBU. This is what I meant about how there was no manual about COBU life given to new members, which if it had been a legitimate organization, might have described what these things were, so prospective members could make an informed choice. In the first Lamb Lesson, called What Just Happened To You, there was a line that read, “you have made a decision to get saved and to follow Christ – this was not a decision to join a cult.” In the next lesson, called The Next Few Days, it said that you would see a new life beginning in you and that you should begin reading the Bible. But it also said that “others people, even your close friends and family, may try to talk you out of your decision.” But this decision was presented as having decided to follow Christ, not that you had been recruited by COBU and that others might be concerned that you had joined COBU.)
And then there was Dale, who often seemed very ridiculous to me, but I liked him. And there was Rick. There were others, like Eddie, but these three brothers helped me into the fellowship. They were friendly and they gave me an introduction to the basics and entered me into this new Christian world that, well, like I said, how could a beginner or a new person know what was really going on here? Or know what their lives were like and what it was like for them to go to meetings with Brother Stewart. What their world, their inner landscape was like. Perhaps they couldn’t have conveyed that to me, but neither did they tell me and they made no attempt to convey to me what it was really like to live here. I imagine they exercised the same censorship about themselves and about Stewart back then, as we do now.
All in all however, I have mostly positive memories of my time in Worcester. Then I got sent down to Jersey City. I didn’t think I needed to go there, but someone told me about the Older Newly Saved house, where I could be around “others just like myself,” who were “going through what I was going through,” who could “understand me better,” and that this would be a better atmosphere for me to live in. And again, this was never my choice. I would have never thought of it, but someone alerted to me to this, with a little salesmanship. Maybe a message had come, not necessarily from Stewart, because there were quite a few intermediary heavies back then too, and someone probably said that any new ones should be sent to the Older Newly Saved House, isn’t that what they need, isn’t the most hopeful thing for them?
One of the first few days after I moved to the Jersey City house, there was Joanne. [She was the Center Leader, the only female Center Leader in COBU that I know of.] I didn’t say or do something right in one of the meetings in the living room and she was waving her finger at me, saying “You really got spoiled up there in Worcester with those older brothers.” Which is something I also learned to use as an excuse for why I was so messed up, it was because of the bad training I got for five months with those older brothers! But, I see myself there getting woven into a scenario and screenplay that was already in effect and already choreographed. A choreographed screenplay that the characters were already involved in before I came to the church.
(It was part of the script, with Stewart as the screenwriter, that the older members of the church were bad, unfaithful and backslidden. I was getting introduced to this screenplay and to my part in it. Stewart used the bad example of the older brothers to keep us on our toes (so we would do all of our training and other work), so we would not become like them. Really, these older members had done a lot of work for the church, but Stewart was always abusing them.)
There was a sort of drama, a scenario taking place in the fellowship, with the perennial evil older brothers, who even though they gathered lambs, Stewart said that they could do nothing but ruin them once they got them. And I was a bright hopeful and I needed to be rescued and sent to a place where I could be with others like myself. So, there were always the new movements, the different departments in the church. There was the Lamb House, the Middle Fellowship and an Older Newly Saved Fellowship. And I suppose, forces beyond my control, people making decisions that I was not aware of, said that I should be there at the Older Newly Saved House. According to them this was the real story, that I should be rescued from the older brothers, but I was never told that. I got the cover version. The older brothers in Worcester talked up the benefits of the Older Newly Saved house, saying I ought to go there and that I really needed this. I’ll get the training I needed. It was a type of marketing. I’m not quite saying it was deceptive marketing. But it was a type of marketing where they don’t tell you what’s really going on.
As I said, I was walking into an ongoing screenplay, one that’s already going on for some time, and I end up being told I needed to go to Jersey City for this or that reason, but really there were other factors going on. For lack of a better word, there were socio-political forces at work, due to the different groups in the fellowship and the pressures Stewart was putting on them. Those were the real reasons, but I was told the idealized version of the story.
It was for these reasons, but they said it was for God and for my growth as a new believer. They attached a different meaning to it, alluded to the purpose and the ideals of the fellowship and they sold me on these ideals.
And, in Jersey City, I began to see the fellowship as it really was, that it was pretty degenerate. Whereas up in Worcester, it was alright. It was loose and relaxed, and it may have been better for my growth as a believer. I’m supposed to say it was bad up there. I seemed enthusiastic, although a bit childish, when I was in Worcester, yelling things about Jesus out the car window and preaching as we drove down the street. But, there could actually be some excitement or even fun and motivation in preaching to people. When I got down to New York, things were different. This was where I learned about the weird messed up people, I saw the brothers and sisters living at 515, close up. (I had seen 515 before when I passed through there from Worcester to Big Meetings.)
(“515” meant 515 West 47th Street in Manhattan, where most of the older brothers and sisters lived at the time. They were packed into small rooms and the building was run down and dirty.)
Now that I think of it, it was part of a general rescue campaign. Somebody found out about Older Newly Saved brothers in Worcester, and said we’ve got to get them down here. “This is what you really need. You need to be with these people who are just like yourself.” Someone else was deciding for me and I guess I just went along with it. What I’m trying to say here is that at that time, there was no way I could have known these things.
(As a new convert or inductee, I could not have known about Stewart’s divide and conquer tactics and his categorizing of new people who were older than teenagers, but too new to COBU to be considered older brothers, who had to be kept away from the older brothers and also kept apart from the middle fellowship and from the “lambs,” who were the youngest converts. Everyone had their own category in which they were processed and dealt with, according to their age and time spent in the church.)
And no one was really telling me. I wasn’t asking and no one was telling me. But when they spoke, they gave me an ideal description that wasn’t the real facts. But maybe it was the version that everyone wished it could be. Patriotism is another word for it. Like what patriotism is to America.
Someone pointed Joanne out to me at a Big Meeting, saying that she was in charge of the Older Newly Saved house and that I should talk to her. Someone nudged me in her direction. So, I went over and said, “Hi! My name’s Jim. I want to talk to you about moving to the Older Newly Saved house.” She seemed very busy and preoccupied as she paced back and forth. She said a few things to me and I had the feeling it was now arranged. But it may have been arranged already, now that I think of it. By approaching her, I had put into motion what had already been decided. Maybe I could have held out, but the package was presented to me in such glowing terms. It was presented to me in terms of my own best interest and how could I resist that?
So, I came down to the Jersey City Fellowship and moved in there and it did seem exciting. There was a lot of life and activity there. But within a year, I would be the only person still living in the house. And I already had the view, “Yeah, those older brothers in Worcester really messed me up.”
(I bought into the church’s idea that the older brothers in Worcester, those who had met me and witnessed to me about Jesus and gave me the basics about salvation, had messed me up and that I needed to be rescued from them. I was already buying into the COBU screenplay of the theater of Stewart Traill’s mind. He pitted different groups in the fellowship against one another, and he especially liked to beat up the older long-term members of the church. But as I was saying in these recollections, how could I have known all of this at the time?)
I was told that The Older Newly Saved House is where it was really happening, and maybe someone pulled the wool over my eyes. Here I was with all these new people, who were “just like me.” And they weren’t like those wiped out hardened older brothers and their dead routines. But most of these people in the Older Newly Saved House were new to the church, so maybe they were easier to talk to, because they didn’t have a whole line of jargon and things that they had to say to me, but instead I could actually talk to them. They told me, “I’m from the Bronx, I’ve been here for six months,” or, “I’m from New Jersey, I got saved a couple of months ago.” And, it may have been a lot easier to talk to people there instead of having people sell me things. So, in that sense, it may have been better for me there. No one there had been in the church a long time, except for Fred and Donna, who had backslidden and come back.
(It was easy to make friends and get to know other Older Newly Saved brothers and sisters in COBU. They had not been there very long, so they didn’t try to run the usual lines and church doctrine on me, simply because they did not know it very well.)
And the only person of knowledge there, who had known the fellowship a long time and who knew what was going on, was Joanne. In many ways, she was our glorified den mother and the sisters looked up to her. They always asked her questions. It wasn’t all bad having Joanne there. I didn’t have issues like, “A woman is ruling us, this is not right.” I also wanted to look up to her. I didn’t have any aversion to taking orders from or learning new concepts from a woman. It wasn’t a terrible thing to me.
So, I’m doing an overview of Jersey City Fellowship, being chronological about it. I’m sure that if I made several tapes, I could probably get into deeper insights. It’s good to look back on it now, thirteen years later, sitting outside on a summer evening.
I have no particular desire to be inside, yet I feel bored sitting out here. I’m just thinking about my life, and where I’ve been and what I’ve done.
(I was bored sitting out there, but there was no reason to go inside. It seemed like “indulgence” to be thinking about earlier times in the church, some of which were pleasant memories. Instead, according to Stewart’s teachings, I should be thinking only about my present desperate situation of being headed straight to hell and how to escape that by being in total terror and by being urgent and “fully there” every second, which was the crisis mentality that Stewart pushed on us.)
It was an intense time, an intense situation. I was surrounded by all these people who were positive about Jesus. And in the Jersey City house, there were quite a few personalities involved. There was the “knowing one,” Joanne, who was over all the time, and there were Fred and Donna, who were the local leaders. Fred was like the warlord of the house. And there was one other engaged couple, Danny and Brenda. There were two other sisters and about seven brothers, who were single. This was, aside from several months in Worcester, my first year in the fellowship, and they were highly formative years. I learned a lot about the fellowship and a lot about myself. It was an active house. And just one year later, I was the only one left in the house. Then Jerry F. and his wife came over one day and gave me the boot, because they were buying the house from the fellowship, they said. I said, “Can’t I live upstairs?” And Jerry had to get it through to me that the house was no longer owned by the fellowship and that I couldn’t keep living there.
(Jerry and his wife Pat were COBU members who lived out of the church. Married people did not live in. The last marriage in the Church of Bible Understanding was in 1979.)
When I came there, there had been a great decline in the fellowship and maybe the goings on and the decline in the Jersey City fellowship were a reflection of the whole. I didn’t have a broad sweeping view of the fellowship then. I knew there were different fellowship houses, but I didn’t really know how quickly everything was crumbling.
(In the following paragraph, I talked about a general closing down of many of the fellowship houses in my second year in COBU and how Stewart Traill accused those who lived in these houses of all sorts of spiritual crimes in the church-wide witch hunt he was waging against the members of COBU.)
By the end of the following year, by the time I had gone through the Bronx Fellowship and to the start up of the Middle Rescue Mission in Philadelphia, things had come to pretty much nothing. Every house was closing. I remember being in meetings, where they were closing down the Baltimore and Washington Centers. And brothers and sisters from those areas were driving great distances to meet, because they couldn’t go to a local fellowship house anymore.
There were long sessions at meetings where Stewart made everyone who lived in the houses in the Washington area stand up and talk to everyone. And they couldn’t reconcile the books and where the money went. And Stewart accused the sisters of being horribly maneuvering women who were into deep dark deceitful practices. It seems that none of them were even 25 years old. It was hard for me to imagine they were capable of such crimes. And these crimes were never the more obvious ones like doing drugs, drinking or fornicating, but it was spiritual crimes. These were the heavy crimes that people would have to give account for. Stewart accused them of hindering because they couldn’t get to the bottom of it right away, probably because Stewart and everyone else were vague about what they were trying to pin on them, so they were never able to make it clear. And that turned out to be all the more proof that these people were hindering and obscuring the truth and being wreckers. The very fact that it took so long to get a clear picture from them about what was going on in these fellowship houses was all the more proof that they were resisting giving that clear picture.
Considering the general decline of the entire fellowship at that time, maybe they were all just caught up in the larger flood and log jam. Possibly there were circumstances beyond their control about why their house was closing down. To use a metaphor, they were just washed away in the flood waters, and all the logs and trees are swept along with it. There were larger things going on in the fellowship. Maybe everyone was transferring their anger about it onto these specific people who were being brought up and chastised, as an outward manifestation of the general malaise that the whole church was going through. It really seemed like these people were really bad.
Of course, all of this is speculation. I’m just trying to piece together what was going really going on back then. I went to a lot of meetings like this, where they were dealing with these fellowship houses and other issues that I couldn’t have been fully aware of at the time. It’s hard to imagine that all these people were really capable of the deep hidden spiritual crimes that Stewart was accusing them of. And when when Stewart accused them of doing these crimes, the very fact that they weren’t able to or couldn’t understand what these crime were, Stewart said was all the more proof that they were doing these crimes.
So now, I want to describe the more upbeat spirit of the Jersey City house. It seemed like, yes, this is what I really needed, this was where it was really happening. And I was about to enter into a whole year of my life there. Quite a soap opera it was, all things considered. The first person I met and talked to there was Rich, who seemed to have a listening ear. He had left the gay lifestyle, but he went back to that life. He was one of the first casualties, not able to take the harsh dealing with one another that went on in the house. We were good friends and he was the only person whom I ever visited home with from the fellowship. I wanted to get my guitars and amplifier, so we went down to Point Pleasant. That was how I was back then, I would find a friend to be with.
It’s probably beyond the scope of this tape to describe every person who was in the Jersey City house and what they were like. I’m speaking in general terms. We went out nearly every night to go witnessing and we were always singing together when we were driving around in the van. And I was getting to know different people.
Read the next section of Sinners In The Hands Of An Angry Cult Leader here: The More Things Change, The More They Remain The Same.
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.