1993, 07/03 1. If I Wrote A Book About COBU.
This is a tape I made while sitting outside the Red Hook warehouse one summer evening. (Some of the brothers in the church lived in this warehouse.) It was before a long weekend of meetings with our leader, Stewart Traill at the “New Property.” It was pretty clear to me by this time what the real story in COBU was, but I hadn’t left yet. In this first part of the tape, I was mostly talking about how I came to COBU in 1980.
Today is July 3rd, 1993. I’ve just come back from work, I have my new tape recorder here. I feel like coming outside and talking, making a tape. Not that I especially have anything in particular to say.
It’s a nice moonlit night. It’s still, with a little wind blowing. I don’t really know what I’m going to talk about, though it would be crazy to say that there has been nothing on my mind lately. I have been doing a lot of thinking.
When I was on the job today, I was thinking about writing a book. It would be about my experiences and my life in the Church of Bible Understanding. It might start with a dramatic first chapter, when I stood up in a meeting, trying to tell Stewart, “You’re alone and your views are wrong.” And then Stewart telling me that he’s going to throw me out and then me immediately capitulating and saying, “No, no, I’m the problem.” Then I would write about how, obviously I was no hero, but this shows the kind of pressure I was under. Then I would write about how it was good that this happened to me, because my thoughts and my efforts began to flow in another channel, because that’s where I began to see that I couldn’t openly say anything. I began to think, well then, what are we? If we are such an important church, we must hold a place in Christian history. And that’s when I began to study Christian history and especially American Christian history and learned about fringe groups that had their one sole prophet, or man of God, with his revelation that no one else had. Their leaders had a special revelation from God which was either revealed in visions or on tablets – or in visions on tablets, depending on who your prophet was.
And, I can report my findings, with respect to the things I’ve read and as compared with my own experience here. We’re basically just one more manifestation of this peculiarly American phenomenon. (Although it wasn’t always confined to the American continent.) And in some ways I can even say I learned this, thanks to Stewart, because I probably would have never put out this effort if he hadn’t quashed all asking of questions. If he had thrown me a couple answers instead of threatening me, I might have stopped there and been satisfied. It caused me to put out a tremendous amount of underground effort to hit the books and to really ponder and consider just what this group is that I’m a part of, and just what it is that I’m doing.
(Thanks to Stewart for having suppressing my attempts (however weak those attempts were) to speak the truth to him about himself and about the way things were in COBU, because if he hadn’t done that, I would never have started reading the books about religion and cults, and I would never have begun to consider my life in the Church of Bible Understanding and to question more deeply my place in it, and especially about how naively I was trusting in the organization and its leader to be concerned for my welfare.)
So, after that opening scene in the book and a brief description of the things I began to learn, where would I go next? I guess I would start with my own experience. I don’t know how deeply I would go into writing about my own background, or whether I would just give a general overview of it, such as that I came from a middle class family which, if it could not be called a broken home, was one in which appearances were kept up, at least on the surface, where my father was the figurehead of the family. And appearances were kept up on the outside, at all costs. I would write about the cold war my parents had. About how I was groomed for college and how these plans fell through and how I came to meet the fellowship after a lot of intense searching about the meaning of life. It was a lot like the searching I’m doing now. At that time, I was a very intense thinker about my situation and about life. I read a lot of books, trying to figure it out.
I suppose I’m doing the same thing now. I have the same intense drive, an almost painful drive that I can’t let go of. Every day is like standing on a hot plate. I have to move. And I’m compelled and driven to look and to find.
The book would include how I met and moved into the fellowship and my first months there in the Worcester fellowship house. And maybe a character profile of myself. I was basically looking for someone to tell me what to do. I don’t know if I would have said it in such plain terms then. Rather, I was looking for answers, and as they say, one of the appeals of cults is that they provide answers. The question is whether these answers are right or not. Cults do provide concrete, definite, black and white answers on just about every issue in life, and I fell into that net. It seemed that I stopped searching and asking questions as soon as I met Jesus, which seemed right to me. I found the truth about life, so there’s no more searching to do.
And, a lot of answers were given on just about every topic you could think of. Strong, definite and seemingly positive answers. And I fell into the trap of looking for someone to tell me what to do, and to make me do it, even operating and controlling me. That was such a turnaround for someone like me who had been really searching for answers and clues. Even if I had been searching in all the right places, what would suddenly make me turn off and live this way instead? Well, it might have had something to do with Jesus and the idea that this is the ultimate truth. But this life of operate me, tell me what to do, got more intense by the time I was here for a year. And I wonder, how did that happen? How did I go from being a bright, earnest, albeit troubled, seeker into an emerging sense of being a robot? And, I might have had the sense that God’s laws are absolute. But I had more and more of a feeling of the rules coming down on me, and these rules were absolute. Maybe it began to happen after I moved to the Jersey City house, when I would often say something and I got fired upon, “You shouldn’t say that!” I had a sense of being a living personality sinking down into a life of obeying the rules, in a hopeless kind of way, trying to look out the window from my prison. I remember a growing dissatisfaction with the fellowship after I moved from Worcester to Jersey City. I was beginning to see things I didn’t like, didn’t want or couldn’t handle. It was only then that I ever thought about leaving.
(I had been searching for answers in life, and that having found Jesus, I left off this struggle, because it would seem that Jesus was the ultimate answer in life – which is true. But at the same time, I left off critical thinking and did not continue to seek for answers in life. I could not discern the difference between the real Jesus and what I was being subject to in the cult in the name of Jesus. Also, it was a relief to let go of this intense struggle to find meaning and purpose in life.
“Leaving” was a very loaded word in the Church of Bible Understanding. It meant more than just leaving the place. It meant, leaving the truth, leaving Jesus and going out there, into sin, being deceived, backsliding, or just playing church. Stewart said that if we knew the truth and left it, what could our lives be after this? So, in contemplating leaving, I had to take into consideration more than just leaving the physical place, to the degree that I believed that the Church of Bible Understanding and its leader were what they claimed to be. Many considered and stayed. Not that they liked what they were complaining about, but they stayed in order to be with the truth, and that leaving to get away from the unpleasant things in COBU was not worth losing their salvation for.)
I remember around about that time, I thought about leaving. I remember saying, “This church…!” And someone said, “You’re being contentious when you use the phrase ‘this church.’” I remember there were things I didn’t like, such as the harshness and the rigidness of the rules. And that’s when it began becoming apparent to me about the immense difficulty of getting married here in.
(People were often rude and demanding with one another, in the name of speaking the truth and rebuking evil. And there were many things that I was not allowed to do. And I was slowly becoming aware of the prohibitions against starting relationships and the negative views about marriage. These are not the things I would have been able to know when a COBU brother met me in a mall and talked to me about Jesus and about getting saved. It would take some time living in COBU for these things to become apparent to me.
By my first year there, these things were becoming apparent and I did consider leaving, in an abstract sort of way. I fantasized about leaving and starting a rock band called “Backslider.” All the band’s lyrics would be about leaving Jesus and about knowing the truth and not serving it. This odd sort of daydreaming shows a few things. One is that I could not imagine a constructive and positive life apart from Jesus, and I could not imagine a life with Jesus apart from COBU and all that was in it, including the things I did not like and wanted to escape from. And I could only expect a life of sin, as evidenced by playing rock – the devil’s music – in a bar band. I wanted a life apart from COBU, but I believed that the only alternative to life was destruction and ruin. I was not thinking in constructive terms, as all positive escapes seemed cut off from me. I could not go to my family – even if I did, I would soon wear out my welcome and have to go live in a boarding house and be alone. Here in the church, I had friends. Being alone and feeling very lonely was one of the issues I dealt with for several years before coming to the church and I did not want to live that way ever again.
At the same time, there were other factors keeping me in COBU and drawing me further into it. I was not independent enough to move out on my own, I could not go back to my family. And I did not want to be lonely. I had friends here. I also feared backsliding and being lost.)
Now that was in 1981. It was only two years before, that someone had gotten married in the church. The last time anybody got married here was in 1979 – and that’s an incredible thing in and of itself. And even before then, the number of marriages here must have gotten down to a trickle.
And even before, whatever had to do with marriage must have become weird. I think 1975 or 1976 was the last time marriage was freely available and easy to do in the church. That coincided with the tremendous falling off of growth of the church. There were about a hundred fellowship houses at one time. But something happened and the whole church collapsed. My understanding is that from 1970 to 1975 or so, there was explosive growth. And then things began to go wrong or something wasn’t right and it began to collapse. And one of the first things to go was marriage. You know, all was not well from the beginning or shortly after the beginning.
(We rarely talked among ourselves about the history of COBU and especially not about such trends. I was speculating about what had gone wrong in the past. I came there in 1980. I was not there when those things happened, but I had a general idea that something had gone wrong. I pieced this together over time, from what little I was able to pick up. After leaving the church, I learned more about what happened and about how Stewart divorced his first wife and married a young sister in the church and continued to consolidate his power over the church, driving many people away.
The were church members who had been there during this time never mentioned any of this. These things were like family secrets that were not talked about. I sometimes thought a brochure should be made for those who were considering becoming members, like the way universities have brochures explaining the history, aims and purposes of their institutions. COBU probably was mentioned in a book in the library where I used to go before I met the church and I could have read a short description of COBU there. It might have been enough to put a pattern in my mind to build from. The usual articles about COBU were about the vacuum cleaner salesman become cult leader, which was the story about the church found in books about cults.)
And I have often thought, these are the things no one ever told me when I was coming in. There was a drive to get new members, who really aren’t fully informed about what they’re getting into and they don’t find out until a long time afterward.
If I had a mind, I guess I would have – to use a forbidden word – shopped around. The concept of shopping around for religions is often spoken of negatively, but there’s certainly nothing wrong with looking before you buy. It must be a Christian concept. Although Stewart often told us about that verse, “Lord, thou has deceived me and I was deceived.”
(Stewart told us that God had tricked us about coming to COBU, and now that we knew the truth, we could not leave, not even because of complaints about the terms and conditions of life here. The Bible verse he used was Jeremiah 20:7, which says, “O Lord, thou hast deceived me, and I was deceived; thou art stronger than I, and thou hast prevailed…” This verse was twisted to fit COBU ideology. Stewart told us that, in effect, God did a bait and switch, first starting off with a wonderful promise of purpose in life and salvation, and then later, God put the real deal to us. And now we knew the truth and what was required of us, and there was no way of getting out of it.
This is the bait and switch practiced by COBU members when they go out and talk to people as well. No one who went out “witnessing for Jesus” told anyone about what life in COBU was really like and what was expected of them if they joined, nor did the brothers and sisters tell people about the oppression and pressure they themselves were under. They only preached a straightforward salvation message. But, there was so much more being “offered” to prospective new members. There was so much more they did not know, and would not know until they had been living in COBU for a while. Once they got in COBU, some people found it hard to get out. And now, as a COBU member myself, going out and gathering new people, was I going to tell them what I really knew about the church, or just was I going to just “talk to them about Jesus?” Toward the last year or two of my stay there, I began telling new people what was really happening in the church.)
Stewart told us that Jesus made it seem easy at first and then he pulled the rug out from under us. And now, we couldn’t get out without destroying our consciences, because we knew too much to ever leave and to try to find another, easier way. I wonder if that’s what God is like, or, if it’s just what the fellowship was like. Instead of anthropomorphizing God, it’s more like fellowshipomorphizing God.
(Anthropomorphizing God means to attribute human characteristics to God. Instead of making God over from a human point of view, it was even worse – we made God into the image of the fellowship, so God had the characteristics of the Church of Bible Understanding and Stewart Traill.)
Now, returning to the concept of how we don’t tell people the things they should know when they first come here. It’s like that with the new disciples now. On one hand, how do you tell them all of it? But there are a lot of very well-kept secrets here. And I wonder if five years down the line, they’re going to start finding things out. Most places publish a book or a catalog. Any learning institution, or any group that has a more positive outlook on the world and toward its members does this.
But it’s like a black hole here. Everything is convoluted and turned inward, and you don’t really know anything. Everyone keeps the secrets and even between the old-timers, nothing is discussed. We don’t talk about it. In our private conversations, we used to talk about marriage and our frustration over not having it, but brothers don’t discuss it much now. And definitely if brothers and sisters are riding in a van together, the subject of marriage is totally missing from our conversation, like the missing link. Everyone is always in a perpetual crisis situation, about what’s going to happen at the next meeting, about “we could die in two minutes” and about how we have to “sell everything.” So everyone is always on the cutting edge of reality and there isn’t time to discuss the finer issues or backwater regions of our lives. We’re all in the the trenches and we don’t have time to write home or to air out our laundry. We’re always crouching in our trenches, fighting the enemy and basically just fighting to stay alive.
(We lived in a constant crisis mode, in which it seemed like there was no time for practical or personal matters. )
When I first came here, no one told me it was a dying religious movement, or that it was beginning to collapse inwardly on itself. I remember Dale talking to me one night in Worcester about fellowship houses. He said we used to have a lot of fellowship houses in many cities and that it was the dream or plan to go back out and start these houses again. These houses would be everywhere again and that sounded good to me at the time. It could have been my fault that I was so ignorant of what was going on when I first came here. I never pursued it with anyone, I never really asked questions. It seemed pretty nice. Everyone put on the cheerful front, you know. I was the new “lamb,” an Older Newly Saved brother, and everyone read the lessons to me. I had a sort of political significance, if that’s the right word, in the sense that the Worcester fellowship could now show that they were bearing fruit. You know, they got somebody.
(Why would these ones (the church members at that time) want to have me join them in their beatings? Why would they conceal the abuse they regularly received from Stewart and groom me for entry into the COBU way life? One reason may have been, if they were following their purpose of gathering new church members, Stewart Traill might slack off on the abuse, seeing that the numbers of new converts was increasing and they were bringing new lambs to the meetings. I remember feeling so bad, even as a new member who was not yet expected to be bringing anyone to meetings, that our fellowship house didn’t bring anyone new to a meeting. I just felt so guilty and worthless.)
Read the next section of Sinners In The Hands Of An Angry Cult Leader here: My First Year In COBU: Ignorance Was Not Bliss.
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.