1997, 03/04. How I Was Able to Leave COBU.
I wrote this letter to Shellie after meeting with her and Beth, another ex-member of the church. Shellie had been a “Gayle Helper” when she was in the Church of Bible Understanding. Gayle Helpers were a group of young women who lived with Stewart Traill, the leader of the church, in Princeton (and later in the “New Property” in Philadelphia). Their official job title was to be helpers for his Traill’s wife, Gayle.
This letter describes the process I went through on my way to leaving the church. It also describes some of the events that helped this along. (I left the Church of Bible Understanding in August 1993.) The comments in brackets are explanations that I added later, to make some things clearer to anyone reading it now.
I want to note that for Shellie and other (former and current) “Gayle Helpers,” coming to understand false doctrine and studying other cults is hardly the issue. The issue for them is that Stewart Traill, a married man and a so-called pastor, had inappropriate relationships with them.
As far as I know, none of these women have come forward to talk, except for Ann B., whose story can be read at the link below:
March 4, 1997
It was good seeing you after such a long time. There is much to talk about and we both have our experiences from the Fellowship. I find I can talk to and get to know everyone much better now that I have left, rather than when I was there, when we were all supposed to be “Brothers and Sisters” and “really loving one another.”
It was interesting to hear from you about your life in COBU and how you have been since. I would also like to tell you more about my life there, especially about the last three years, and abougt how and why I left.
For a long time, I believed in the ideals of the Fellowship, even though I realized it was bad there. I always hoped it would get better, because I thought Jesus knew all about it and would change it in the future. When Stewart confessed that he had been wrong, I thought this was Jesus improving things, as I always expected he would. (When I listened to that meeting on tape after I left, I realized Stewart was only saying that his teaching was wrong on a few points. But at the time it seemed like a major change.)
Until then, I only saw Stewart at meetings about five or six times a year. For me, the Fellowship had been all the Brothers and Sisters, people “just like me” who believed in Jesus and wanted to follow him and tell others about him. But then Stewart got very involved in our lives. At first I thought this was good. He attended Brothers Meetings and went through the motions of getting voted on. (We always voted him in the first category, as we were expected to.)
Soon I noticed that Stewart was still doing all the things he said were wrong and that he had repented of, like pushing Brothers around and making it too hard for us and blaming us for everything. When I said this to him in the meetings, I got put down and backed into a corner. I was marked as a troublemaker. This was never forgotten and I was reminded of it whenever somebody felt I was “doing my Jim LaRue thing again.” (With this comment, my thoughts were being dismissed as a compulsive disorder. Their saying, “You’re doing your Jim LaRue thing again” meant I was losing control of myself and blurting out irrational things, rather than speaking about the legitimate doubts I had.)
There were more Brothers who spoke their minds too, but they went back to being good and obedient, never saying anything again after being “corrected.” They folded up immediately with just a few words from Stewart. I usually did too, but I always felt I had to say something, to “speak the truth,” or “say what I really think, honest, no games,” which were principles that I learned from Brother Stewart himself. That caused a conflict for me, having to use principles I learned from Stewart toward Stewart, because as I understood it, these things applied to everyone. They weren’t supposed to be used with Brothers and Sisters only and not with Stewart if he was doing something wrong. He said we should participate fully in the Bible studies, so I did, saying that I didn’t believe what he was teaching about “those who are born again do not sin.”
I began studying Christian history about this time. I became interested when Stewart said he was researching the Reformation. Sisters read books and reported to him what they read. I think you stood up during a meeting and talked about how you were reading about John Calvin. I started reading out of curiosity, but as I saw the place getting weirder, I wanted to read about how Christians have lived during the last 2000 years, because this can’t be it!
Stewart hinted that he was on the same level with the Reformers and that what he was discovering was just as important. For example, at a meeting he told us that before Jesus came, the “lampstand” had been taken away and people were living in darkness. But Jesus came and restored the light. He said this was the first Reformation. (He also said that the Apostle Paul was a reformer.) But then the light went out again because of unfaithfulness and people remained in darkness until the time of Martin Luther. This was the second Reformation. But, according to Stewart, no one remained obedient to it, so the lampstand was removed and darkness returned.
Then after a pause for drama, Stewart said, “And now, this is being revealed.” OK right, I thought, so this is the third Reformation and Stewart is a great reformer like the Apostle Paul and Martin Luther. Of course, he never directly said that. But with that last comment, this is what he was really saying. Although it was being left to us to draw that conclusion for ourselves. That way the conclusion would be our own and Stewart wouldn’t be held accountable for actually saying those words. He added, “Paul was concerned about the truth, but since then, the truth has been lost. And now, nobody cares but me.” Stewart was claiming that he was the only truly concerned Christian.
You probably heard a lot more of this than I did, because you were living with Stewart as a Gayle Helper in Philadelphia during this time. But I heard enough for the little red flags to go up in my mind. It caused me to do a lot of studying on my own.
Then I studied American Christian history, trying to find where we fit in and what we represented. Because if what Stewart said was true, then God was choosing our church for an important purpose. I didn’t really believe that, but I started with the idea of, “what if?” If it were true, then this is where I should look. By reading the about history of Christianity in America, I learned a lot.
[I wanted to find where the Church of Bible Understanding fit in Christian history and especially in American Christian history. If a person believed Stewart Traill’s claims, our church (and its leader) were a highly important and central part of Christian history, on a par with the Apostles and the great Reformers.]
I found a book called “Christianity in America” that was about the Methodists and other traditional groups. The book also had a chapter on communal and fringe groups. The more I read about these groups, the more I realized that this is what we were.
[The chaper was a history of cults in America since the 1700s. I had never read anything like this before. It opened my eyes, wide open.]
(I had always been told that we were unique and there was no other church like us and I often heard it said, “Where else are you going to find a church like this one?” The answer to that question is: “In books on US history in the last 200 years.” There are even more of them around today, each believing themselves to be unique, to have the highest calling, having the truth in its purest form and that all others are in darkness unless they come and join their way. And that when members leave, they are rejecting God and are lost, and that it is not possible for them to be faithful to God in another church. And that if they were faithful, they would not have left. And that if they want to be faithful again, they have to come back.)
Some of these groups, although they existed over 100 years ago, were almost word for word descriptions of the Church of Bible Understanding. Most started as members of mainline denominations, but felt that the churches were asleep and that God had given them special revelation. So they separated themselves and started communal societies, withdrawing from the world in order to be separate and pure. Most were lead by a man who portrayed the Moses image (an authoritarian figure with a long white beard) and the congregation huddled around him as their source. He heard from God. He was the only one God was speaking to and the only one chosen to restore the truth that had been lost since the first years of Christianity.
A very good example of this is in the book “Churches That Abuse.” There was a communal group called Shiloh around 1900 with amazing parallels to our own. Shiloh only gets one chapter in that book, but I looked in index to find the source and went to the library and checked out a book called “Fair Clear and Terrible,” which gives the complete story.
I used to think about how we were supposed to be the best church, with the truth in its highest form, and wonder, if this is true, why is life so weird here? Considering the way things are here, wouldn’t God have picked somebody else to tell? We used to assemble before Stewart in a dirty warehouse in Brooklyn to hear this truth – the truth that, according to Stewart, has been rejected by 99.999% of all other Christians (because they are arrogant). But somehow God had deemed us worthy to hear it. I used to wonder why God would give such revelations (“not since the time of the Apostles”) to wiped out people who were told every meeting that they were in rebellion and had not yet converted to Christ ever in their lives, and who, now in our late 30s and 40s, were still not able to get married [due to our alleged unfaithfulness to Christ, as Traill always pointed out]. How could people like us represent the Gospel and take it to others? It didn’t make sense.
A picture of what life here would be like for me in the future began to form in my mind. I was getting older. What would it be like to be here at age 45 and beyond? There was no retirement plan. After I outlived my usefulness to the church financially [as an unpaid worker in the church business who gave all his income to the church – and ultimately, to Traill], there probably would be a reason found to put me out. I’d have no benefits, no pension, nothing. And I wouldn’t be able to do anything about it. It wouldn’t matter how many years I had worked for the church.
It seemed difficult to leave and rebuild my life from scratch in my mid-thirties, but if I waited another five years, it was going to be even harder! I thought about how Stewart was alone, and most likely wants it that way, despite his lamenting that there is no one he can “fellowship” with. I realized he was a failure, because even though he has his little world together, for all his proclaiming about being a great teacher, nobody outside the chain link fence of the “New Property” takes him seriously. He has never written a book and the only place in a Christian bookstore where a reference to the Church of Bible Understanding can be found is in the section on cults.
I realized too that Stewart was forbidding marriage, not because of keeping the standards pure, but so that he’d have an army of unattached people without family ties, expenses or children to take care of, so they’d be free to do his work day and night. We couldn’t marry, not because we were not ready or able, but for economic reasons, based on the way a communal society works.
(Communal societies forbid specific attachements between people. Members are expected to have “open” public lives, “loving” each other equally, which means no “particular love.” That is, no exclusive relationships with one another, such as marriage. When Stewart was pushing the “loft life,” which fortunately never got too far, he said that we’d have no walls between us, no going off into our back rooms, no time for our private lives (a great evil!), no time to be into our own thoughts. But this wasn’t to help us get closer to Jesus, but to exercise even further control over our lives.)
A lot of people didn’t study like I did. They didn’t need it. They left because they couldn’t take it, because life was strange there or Jesus showed them to get out. For years, I wanted to leave too, but the “truth” had such a hold on me. Maybe it was because I wanted to “do the right thing” to the point of where it was harmful to me. My compliance [to the COBU way of life] was going to cost me my life! It was like there were locks on my head. Somehow, I needed to read all these things. (I’ve only briefly mentioned what I read about here, but I read about 100 books.)
When I finally got “unlocked” and realized I didn’t need to be there to be saved, the act of leaving was easy. I walked down the street and went to Chris and Dave’s place.
Nobody has ever come looking for me. [Church members often went after wayward members to bring them back into the fold, but in my case, they never did.] I guess I said too much, even though most of the time I kept my mouth shut. I had committed the worst kind of crime of all, crimes of thought against our way. I could never be accepted back into the fold. It would be one thing to confess and forsake actual sins, like stealing tips and drinking, and to demonstrate I was not doing them anymore. But who could ever know if I was still thinking the things I had said about what was wrong with the church and with Stewart, even if I said I had stopped? I could never be trusted again, and I wasn’t. That also helped me to realize I had to go, because there could be no future for me there.
In the last weeks before I left, I was put on probation. Brothers watched me. I was forbidden to speak in meetings or to talk to, be around or work with New Disciples. I was told I was “dangerous.” The ground was shrinking under my feet. It was like, there wasn’t a place for me there anymore.
It was time for me to go. I’m glad I did.
So, this has been a little bit of my story.