2011, 02. Guest Post From Larry, A “New Disciple” Who Was “Swept Up” in 1991.
This is a guest post from from Larry S., who saw my WordPress pages about The Church of Bible Understanding and left some comments. With his permission, I combined all his comments and emails into one story that reflects his brief stay in COBU as one of the homeless people we “swept up” with an offer of a warm place to stay, food, and “Christian training.” His observations about COBU and the way of life there are very perceptive and accurate, and I felt it would be good to present the experiences and point of view of one of the people we swept up at that time. I’ll leave off any further introduction, as his comments speak for themselves:
My first name’s Larry. and I was in the church for about 3 weeks, maybe a month, in the early 90′s, when I briefly became homeless.
I probably wouldn’t have stuck out much in anyone’s memory, since I made a rather presentable picture. If you’d seen me on the street you might not have guessed I was homeless, as I did a lot of personal “upkeep” as far as making sure I washed my clothes, showered every day, shaved and brushed my teeth. Maybe that would have made me stick out more…lol.
A friend of mine, who was unable to let me stay at his place but had once talked to some cult members in Staten Island and had been enthusiastically recruited, suggested I try it out. Neither one of us had any interest in Jesus, but my friend knew about the carpet cleaning business and was under the impression that if you joined the church as a member and worked cleaning carpets you would actually be PAID for your labor. The idea was that I would play along with it for a bit, and at the same time be saving up money in order to rent myself a room or whatever.
Needless to say, this was not the case. However, it was a warm place to sleep, so for the time being I went along with it and wound up sleeping in the Brooklyn location, going out on some carpet cleaning jobs and unfortunately having to attend the meetings. These I found to be almost unimaginably boring, but since nobody hassled me too much, I was able to deal with it.
I am now and was then a total atheist, by the way. Religion is nothing more than a crutch for the ignorant, in my opinion. It was probably the fact that I wasn’t looking for any kind of answer to the questions of life, and wasn’t actually seeking Jesus, religion in general, or even spirituality that left me in a much less suggestible and vulnerable state. I don’t mean to imply that I’m smarter than everyone else. It was more my somewhat “nihilistic” outlook that saved me.
So in spite of the fact that COBU is classified as one of the most dangerous “mind control” cults around, I can truthfully say that I was never in any danger even for a second. The idea of surrendering one’s life to the existence that “Brother” Stewart and the other weirdos there were offering was laughable. I spent my time socializing with the other “brothers” who were mentally normal–meaning street kids just like me who wound up there simply because they needed a place to stay and were more than happy to eat the food, and take the warm place to sleep, while allowing all the other silliness associated with the cult to go in one ear and out the other. Fortunately my stay wound up being brief, but I do still remember it to this day.
I saw the way that Stewart would belittle and mock the older people–especially Jay, who from what I can remember was one of Stewart’s favorite victims. And you guys would just stand there with your heads down, looking all sheepish and what not. I mean, come on–look at the guy you were idolizing. Just LOOK at him. This is a dude who couldn’t have walked into an ordinary office building in the middle of the day without security coming up to him immediately to ask what he was doing. (Unless of course he had a package under his arm, in which case they’d figure maybe he was just a messenger who was probably mentally defective.)
Actually, I didn’t really think of Jay as being “weird.” He seemed like a friendly person and I felt badly for him that he was unable to see that he was in a no-win situation.
There are only a couple of older brothers I can remember somewhat as individuals. Other than that, the only ones I remember are Jay and Chuck. You described Chuck as being someone who would push around the other “ex-older brothers” when they were under the gun from Stewart. That fits in with the way I remember him. I thought he was an asshole. He used to try to throw his weight around with the brand-new members as well. An example was the fact that I smoked cigarettes. A couple of times he saw me out on the street with a cigarette and would go into the whole “I protest, brother!” bit. Of course most of the older church members would say something about it, but no one did it so loudly and vehemently as Chuck. He’d go into a whole big tirade. I recall him going into the story of how his father had died of lung cancer. It was in the church van, and he was going on and on about how his father rolled his own cigarettes, had a little machine to make them. The story was something that would inspire sympathy in anyone, but it was the WAY he told it that made it stick with me all these years. He told the story “aggressively,” like he was attacking you with it rather than trying to help you.
There was other stuff with Chuck, too. Seems like he was one of the folks who would typically hassle you, more so than the other older ones. You said in your story that you and some of the older members would genuinely attempt to help the new members by discussing the Bible with them, and trying to help them get cleaned up and so on. That jibes with my memories also. There were a few there that seemed to be well-meaning people. But he wasn’t one of them–he seemed to be on a power trip.
And I totally get what you’re saying about the new individuals who stayed on after an initial negative assault from Stewart becoming more and more passive thereafter. Once you’ve put up with abuse once, it makes it that much easier to accept it again…and again.
I admit to being pretty curious about what may have happened to the church after all these years (hopefully it’s now defunct!)
Interesting-looking website. [See Mike Montoya’s website at: www.angelfire.com/nm/cobu/front2.html.] That aerial photo of Stewart’s mansion says more about the way these kinds of groups work than 100 books written on the subject ever could! It’s hard to see how purchasing a spread like that equates with the teachings of a person who advises “not to invest in this life!” Oh, but I’m sure he’d tell you that he’d “gladly leave it” (using his phrase) if called upon to serve!
All people have these kinds of traits, in my opinion– meaning personal greed, the desire for having nice things, the pursuit of money. The difference is a matter of degree. Whereas most people (or at least many people) try to balance their desires with some sense of ethics and a desire to not hurt their fellow human beings unnecessarily, in someone like Stewart that impulse for good is absent. This kind of person is perfectly OK with ruining several hundred people’s lives (and more, if he could) as long as it brings personal enrichment for him. My anger is really directed towards Stewart and his kind; individuals that manipulate people’s hopes for their own personal gain.
Even the pictures have a depressing flavor to them. Hard to put your finger on what it is, but on a superficial level you can note the overall sense of poverty and shabbiness. It’s just not where I’d want to be at in life, if that makes sense.
I’d have to say, at the time I was actually in the church, I had no awareness that I was actually in a destructive cult. I remember describing the place and the types of things that went on in a telephone call to my stepmother and she said (sarcastically), “Well that’s great. You’ve joined a cult–that’s just terrific.” I remember thinking that was a huge exaggeration. I felt like she was just applying what she might have seen on TV or read somewhere about cults, and over-dramatizing. I had a hard time understanding how anyone would want to live the way Stewart and the others were suggesting people should live, but I had no sense that Stewart was being hypocritical at the time. I thought he really believed all the stuff he preached about. I was too new to the game to see the clever scheming that must have been going on in his head all the while. If he had been someone who pulled up to the church in a fancy car, wearing an expensive suit and jewelry, then I might have said, “Hey! What’s going on here?” But because he “looked the part”, dressing in raggedy old clothes and with that wild, unkempt appearance of his, I assumed he was living in the same way as the church members. I may have resented the fact that I was expected to work every day and never get to keep any of the income I was helping to produce, but I did believe that it was all being funneled back into the church. I didn’t realize that a large amount of money was going right into Stewart’s pocket, apparently. I’m sure that this presentation of his was very carefully planned out and rehearsed on his part.
I managed to accumulate some money while I was there. Often the carpet customers would want to tip. I remember being told that we were supposed to kick back all tips to the church, with the rationalization that our basic needs were being provided for and that was all we were supposed to want, anyway. (If you wanted more, then you were “living for this world.”) If anyone protested beyond that, I remember people would try to “guilt trip” you about the orphans in Haiti. I let all this stuff go in one ear and out the other. I felt that when someone is willing to work, then they deserve to have something for themselves as well. So usually if there was another new person working, we would try to talk to the customer on the side, and politely say that if they felt they wanted to tip us, could they please give the tip to us on the side (when the “older brother” wasn’t looking), because otherwise it would be taken away from us. I think a lot of the people that hired Christian Brothers did so out of believing that it was a real church, and wanting to do something good, so when we told them this story, they were usually very kind about it and did what we asked. The money I wound up making this way was never enough to actually do anything with in terms of setting myself up away from the church, though. It would wind up buying me my cigarettes, possibly some extra food that was a little more palatable than what we were eating at Woodruff, and I think I bought a book or two during the time, so I would have something to read. I never ever stole anything from a customer though. That was against my principles, basically. I felt like the customers were hiring us in good faith and did not deserve to be ripped off, no matter how desperate my personal situation was.
What would happen to the whole organization if Stewart died? I guess it could go either way–maybe someone else would “step up” and take control. If this person didn’t have the personality traits required to be the leader of a destructive cult, then maybe the whole thing would quietly change into simply a group of Christians living communally. Certainly not MY cup of tea, but far more wholesome and less potentially harmful for those who did stay.