1993, 04/02. Breaking Silence to My Family About Life In COBU.
This is the first letter where I told my mother about what my life in COBU was really like. It was a major step. Before that, I had only written letters which were carefully censored.
This self-censorship has to be considered in two ways. I was not going to let someone outside the group know there were problems here, but also until this time, I hadn’t “broken.” Until recently, I still believed in the ideals of the Fellowship and I considered it to be a good system. So I didn’t talk to anyone on the outside about what was wrong. I only thought that there were some bad people who made life rough for me, Jim G. being the prime example.
(Jim G. led the pack of those who threw me out of the Rescue Mission in 1983. In one mass uproar, they demanded my removal from the church grounds immediately, though only moments before they had no such thing on their minds. Within moments, they had turned into a lynch mob and I was summarily removed from the church grounds at 11p.m. with no advance preparation. I was allowed one phone call (only after I requested it) and I was escorted to the phone room by four of the largest and strongest Brothers, who were very nervous and on guard, as if they feared I would turn violent and they were going to have to fight me. I had never been violent and had no plan to do so at that moment.
I remember seeing the fear in these Brothers. Somehow I had room within myself to see the humor of this in that dark moment. Maybe it all happened so suddenly that I didn’t have time to think too much about it or to be angry about what was being done to me.
Those Brothers’ fear reflected what my normal reaction should have been, because it was wrong to do this to someone. At least give the guy a day to make preparations. But I had suddenly been turned into a dangerous outsider who was to receive no sympathy, other than the phone call. I called John D., an Older Brother who had his own independent house (where he and other “live-out” Brothers lived). John said I could stay there, and within a half hour of the uproar and lynch mob scene, I was now on a trolley to John D.’s house.
I wrote my mother after this situation, telling her I had been thrown out for not pulling my weight, but I carefully worded it to make it seem like there was nothing bad about the Fellowship or the people in it. I did not describe how you could be in a meeting one moment and then the next moment, people were shouting that you should be thrown out right now.
I was thrown out of COBU’s house in Philadelphia twice in 1984, both times during witch hunt inquisitions. And each time, I still continued to come around and asked to move back in. I still believed in the group and its ideals and I could not see living apart from it. Even when I lived out those times, I still went “witnessing” and visiting people I had met to give them Bible lessons, sometimes meeting up with Brothers and Sisters from the church and sometimes going alone. I was living hand to mouth, barely able to pay my rent at John D.’s or in the rooming house where I lived the second time. And I was totally in the mindset of the cult, despite this. And believe it or not, it was not all bad, because I liked visiting people and doing other things like going to the library and studying languages and sometimes I had pleasant thoughts and felt good.
Another reason I wanted to move back into the church is that I did not believe I could get married unless I lived in, because I would not be trusted as a live-out Brother who was not able to contribute money to the church. Becky, a Sister I liked, told me that she did not trust me because I was not living in and was not united and working with my Brothers. The desire to conform to the group in general and to be desired by a woman he likes is a powerful force on a young person.
April 2, 1993
I have decided finally to write you a long letter. I have been meaning to for some time, but always held off.
Now that I’ve decided to write some things in detail, I realize I might be quite a shock. Or who knows, maybe there will be no shock at all.
You will notice that I have not talked much about my life and activities over the last thirteen years. You probably don’t know much about me except that during that time I “got saved” and began living and working with a church group, and from my calls and the short notes I write you now and then, I seem to be doing OK, but I don’t say much more. I have been very careful to present an “everything’s OK” front by leaving out information that would indicate the contrary, such as the general course of my life (what it’s really like, that is), the things I don’t agree with doctrinally in our church and with our way of life here. You may have also wondered why I never speak of marriage, or say that I am engaged or will marry at some time (I’m not and don’t know when I ever will be – more on that later) or why I never speak of having a family and children, even though I am 35 years old now.
Believing that honesty is the best policy, I’ve decided to write out some of these things at length and answer some questions that you might have, but possibly didn’t ask because I didn’t seem very open or didn’t initiate the subjects myself.
I suppose that first a little background information is in order…
Back in 1980, my life was in disorder. I had just come back from what was supposed to be a semester abroad in school in London, but was really a series of nightly drinking binges and disappointing relationships with women. Even my four year friendship with Mike (who was there with me) fizzled out and came to an end. Really this was the culmination of three and a half years of disillusionment with all of life in general which began at Drew University, when I failed to find any direction or meaning to life, dropping out from there and having everything in my life shattered. Everything I had been good at doing or put my trust in for meaning and definition of self (such as school and good grades) came to an abrupt end. From there I began groping around for meaning and trying to find out what life was all about.
I never really told you then and probably couldn’t have really explained it anyway at the time, but in the middle of my second year at Drew I got hit with what amounted to a ton of bricks and never fully recovered. (I could explain that more fully at some other time.)
After I dropped out, I worked to save money and tried moving away from home and going to school in different places. I was desperate to move away from home, part from shame of failure, part also from the normal desire to grow up and get it together and be independent. (Though a wiser choice would have been to stay at home and go to school.) Also, in moving away I was desperate to avoid what I considered to be a bad situation, namely our family life. (Really, it wasn’t that bad, but that’s how I tried to deal with it.)
My last move was to Worcester, Massachusetts, because I knew a girl there I had met while in London. I would never have gone there, but I had nowhere else to go, unless I rented a room in a rooming house in Pt. Pleasant, which seemed lonely and a little scary. I was also wearing out my welcome in the house Mark and Todd had rented for themselves for the winter, into which Dad, then I moved into, uninvited. So, up to Worcester I went.
I never expected anything to come of my friendship with the girl, whose name was Denise and nothing did come of it. She planned to rent a house. She and another girl would live on the first floor. I could live on the second. (There are many such two family houses in Worcester.)
Later on, I pieced together why she was so eager to make such an offer. She even put me up at her father’s apartment (her parents were separated) until a house could be found. Seems she was trying to make her life-long boyfriend jealous. And I was the bait! Can you believe it?!
The house never came through anyway, but thanks to her father putting me up for a while I was able to find a place to stay. I went to a nearby college and found an advertisement by two guys searching for a roommate and I lived with them for a while. I told them I was between semesters and deciding what to do with my life and school. We got along pretty well.
Then, I met the church, or rather a Brother out “witnessing.” My life has not been the same since and that is both a good and a bad thing. (I could go into detail, but it would take up a lot of paper. Some other time, I could describe my life here over the last thirteen years. It would take a lot of time.)
I met a lot of new friends here. I was no longer lonely. I now believed in Jesus. (I suppose there had always been some grain of belief there all along.) My life had some meaning and purpose and direction now. Although I was distressed about being advised to forget college. I sometimes got anxious about going back and finishing school, but it was easier to just forget it. It had always been such a source of stress and worry about how I was going to find my way in the world.
In many ways I became like a kid again. I can see how this was a result of life’s pressures being taken off my back. One shouldn’t be too stressful for sure, but a little stress and pressure to get it together can be good for you. It was so easy to forget everything I had been so concerned about and to defer all important life decisions indefinitely into the future! “Jesus” was now taking care of me and everything else would just “work out.” And I began to live a life of very unrealistic goals and ideas, where I was being used to support and provide the needs, goals and aims of our church, rather than being realistic about some of my own important needs and goals.
In fact we were often encouraged to “seek the welfare of the city you are in (that is, our church) and in it you will find your own welfare.” (This is a verse in the Old Testament. But it may not have really applied to this situation.)
With regard to marriage, we were told – among many things, some true, some that would boggle your mind – that a man must be laying his life down for the whole church, “taking the church by the hand,” and be seen that way by everyone, and doing that for a long time before he could even consider taking a “Sister” in marriage. A monumental task for someone in his early twenties. It was a teaching that would insure a lot of zealous work and tireless zeal (or plenty of attempts to look that way) on the part of would-be husbands.
Actually, I believe this to be backwards. The Bible says that “if one does not care for his own household, how can he care for the church of God?” The idea I get from this verse is that one should be proving himself in a slightly smaller responsibility, a little closer to home, namely a wife and children, gaining experience this way and demonstrating ability in managing household affairs before managing a larger household – that is, the church.
It is a fact that nobody has been married in our church for the last fourteen years, including yours truly. This, among other things, has driven many people away from here and prevents them from returning.
Remember, this is a live–in church (more of which later) which means that every aspect of our lives comes under the sway of the church. In fact there is not a meaningful aspect of our lives that doesn’t come under this sway. Really it is the sway of the pastor, but he insulates himself from any charge of direct control over our lives by making standards and rules which are binding and effective, and they do the work. We know that we will run up against this or that rule, usually long before we try anything. And who is to disagree with a standard of conduct that the pastor has searched out and found from the Bible? Who in a Christian community would want to be found disagreeing with the Bible? And we all help each other along in this by going along with it. No one wants to risk anything in order to defend another person from this. When I have spoken up to defend myself or others, I quickly found out that there were certain consequences – namely, the threat of instant loss of church membership, which also means the loss of job and residence. And, I’d have to be gone the next day, if I wasn’t shown the door at that very moment. So, one learns his place here, though I am considering whether I still want it or not.
In order to understand the above, about how no one will help another person in this way and how everyone has this code of obedience and silence in the face of aggression, you’d have to understand the inner psychology of our group, as well as its history.
(To explain this, this church was once big and it had a lot of members. Now it’s comparatively little, about two hundred living in, with about fifty living out but attending meetings. So what you have is the left-overs, the survivors, who have been through thick and thin, including ones who have been with the pastor for fifteen or twenty years. (I have never known him personally as they did and I have always kept myself at a distance from him.) In the eyes of these ones, the pastor always won in every situation, trial, difficulty, or so it seemed. This invincibility had an awing effect on them, since most were teenagers in their first years here. Their sense of awe at his amazing powers has never waned, at least for those who have stayed. So they are quite bought in. This awe – which is almost mesmeric – combined with the fact that they are “survivors” of all the great mass exoduses in our history makes them desperate not to leave and also willing to accept anything in order to keep staying. Though it would also be unfair to not say they stay because they believe in Jesus and want to serve him. But things are also not so simple and easy as that here.
To explain briefly the inner psychology of the group, there is the belief that our pastor has a special revelation of scripture and of us – about what makes us tick, what to use on us. He does a lot of criticism and evaluation of us. This is always done in front of all the others, with the others as the audience or jury – a jury that is always striving to maintain agreement with him, so as not to be put on trial themselves.
When you are evaluated before all the others (he is like the hammer and the crowd is like the anvil you are struck against), it is very effective, because these are the people you live and work with all week. They are the only people you have contact with in your life, so the desire to conform and be in the good favor of these people is enormous. It insures conformity and I am sure the pastor is well aware of that. Even when someone has a private phone conversation with him and is “corrected” over some fault or conduct, he is expected to go tell others what happened so they can take part in requiring him to reform.
I could go on with further descriptions, but let it suffice to say that intense social control is exercised here.
Now, returning to the main idea, which was how I got here. I was soon coming to the church regularly and soon moved in. After six months, I moved to a church residence in Jersey City. (That was in 1980.)
I sometimes heard ex-members criticizing the church or read articles about us. Words like “harshness,” “false teaching,” and “cult” were always used. I saw a lot of wrong here, but also a lot of good. And after all, my life was changing for the better. I remember reading an article from the Philadelphia Enquirer, which was an “exposé” on our “cult and its leader.” This article was kept in the house and passed around. We weren’t prohibited from reading material that was “hostile” to the church, although we were told that these reporters were doing the world’s and the devil’s work, and that this “persecution” was a sign that we were doing the right thing and that we were of the truth.
Actually, when I read the article, I thought that most of it, really all of it was true. It seems that these “people of the world,” although they didn’t have “spiritual sight” like we did, were awfully perceptive. There were also comments in the article by other pastors debunking our false teaching, something called the “figure system” that only our pastor understood and was claimed to be the “only true interpretation of the Bible.” In other words, all other Christians were wrong – except our pastor, although he would never quite come out and say that. But that’s what this and many other claims added up to if you followed them out to their logical conclusions.
Our church is called the “Church of Bible Understanding.” The pastor’s name is Stewart Traill. In appearance, he is a cross between a Moses type, with the white beard and an offbeat Einstein type. In other words, he is strange, but not stupid by any means, but instead, perceptive, sharp and knows just what to do to get what he wants – including what he wants from us.
Also, as far as I can tell, no one takes him seriously in the larger world, that is, outside of this place. And if he didn’t have a live-in congregation to manipulate and control, there would be no one he could try out and use his teachings on! He is also a recluse, spending a lot of time in his library. His contacts with the outside world are few. We never see a guest pastor.
A few years ago Stewart came up with some new teachings which he said were necessary for all Christians to hear. (His view is that ours is the only way that works. But this place is so run down and falling apart and the people are so lifeless and dull, that I’d hate to see a way that doesn’t work, if it is really true that what we have is the best of all possible worlds.)
Anyway, Stewart made a big fanfare, telling us how he was going to visit fifty pastors and let them in on it and present these things for their evaluation. We didn’t hear much after that and the matter was dropped. It appears that he wasn’t taken seriously, and from what I know of him, he expects to be taken very seriously. It appears that at least one of these pastors laughed at him. So back he went to his private enclave.)
If you want to research our church, there is comparatively little information to what is written about Jehovah’s Witnesses or other large groups. Most references I have found concerning us is dated 1979 or earlier, all in books about cults. A more recent reference is a chapter in a new book by Ronald Enroth called “Churches That Abuse” which has the testimony of a woman who left our church. (Her name is Beth D___, but in the book she is referred to as “Betty Donald” because the author withheld the actual names.) The information is mostly accurate, though the picture is far from complete, because she left in 1989. It is also a little slanted, because she tells of only negative aspects, which certainly are negative, without speaking of the positive parts that made her stay here so long. Her story would be more plausible if she told about the negative parts outweighing the good and thereby tipping the scales for her, causing her to want to leave. That would have been a more accurate picture, more honest. This is what is happening to me, though sometimes I think the scales were tipped long ago and I just have not acted on it. It’s not an easy thing to do.
How did the scales tip for me? I think through several sources of disillusionment, or maybe just eye openers. Three in all, and this process started happening for me in a strong sense, in 1989 as well.
(Previous to that, after about the first year here, I remember wanting to leave. A lot of people did leave. These were the “backsliders.” At all costs, I didn’t want to be a “backslider.” It was a sort of reverse pride. Also, I had nothing else to do, nowhere else to go. On the positive side, I also believed in Jesus. I believed he called me here, and I liked and respected some of the work we did. But by 1987 or so, I did just want to go. But I thought I was guaranteed a place in hell if I left and that this was the only place I could ever follow Christ in. The abundant testimony of the thousands of backsliders added to this. And no one believed their stories that they had “found Jesus” in another church!
You may remember I started visiting Dad regularly in New Jersey back then. Aside from taking a break from the city, I was checking out the idea of moving back there, though I wouldn’t admit it to myself. Dad sensed it, though I never told him anything about it. He always said, “Well, I know you like what you’re doing, but if you ever want to change it, you can always come back here.” He said there was a room for me, gave me a key to the house, said to come any time and said there are always good jobs listed in the papers.)
So, with this little bit of information given, I’ll proceed to more recent events.
In 1989 our pastor said he had been teaching wrong for all these years. He made a big confession at a meeting, saying that he had made it too hard on us, and made it too hard to marry. It was a long talk, sometimes a little theatrical. Surprisingly, no one jumped out of their seats or got angry. Maybe nobody was surprised at that. We all sort of knew already, so such ideas were no shock, though it was novel to hear him admit that he did anything wrong. Especially to hear him say his teaching had been wrong. We all knew he made marriage too hard. It was always what you would hear in our carefully guarded private conversations.
Possibly also a reason why there was no great shock was that he wasn’t making admissions of moral failure (like sexual misconduct, robbing the church treasury, etc.) but only admissions of false views of the Bible and making standards of conduct that were too high (for us) to follow. So, there was nothing to get a serious gut reaction or disgust over. Yet, it was a landmark meeting, and it seemed like things were going to get better.
[Stewart Traill’s sexual immorality, or rather his getting caught at it by his wife, was a driving force behind his “confession” at the 1989 meeting, though he never mentioned any kind of immorality during the many hours he spoke to us and I never found out about it until after I left in 1993. Traill had illicit relations with several of the “Gayle Helpers,” the young women who were said to be his wife’s staff. Some Brothers have also told me that Traill had a secret door installed between his rooms and the Sister’s quarters in the Princeton house, by which he could access their rooms at night. Apparently things had gotten so out of hand that Traill needed to do some damage control, and this was the reason for the Grace Meeting in 1989, in which he portrayed himself as a victim of his own teachings, which had left out God’s grace as their cornerstone.]
About three months later, I began to get angry. Sometimes I’d find it hard to control my rage. It took that long to realize what had happened to me! I thought of “Brother Stewart” as being like the Wizard of Oz, who had fooled me with smoke and mirror tricks. Then one day, I pulled the curtain back to find a sorry old man. I had been duped all these years. (Actually it was him who pulled the curtain back, but after that there was no stopping my suspicions and from that point on, I began looking at him with a critical eye.)
Shortly after this time, it seemed to me that he was soon up and running again on some other tangent, with the same “believe-it-or-else” attitude and no one could ask him any questions. When I did ask him questions, I was quickly rebuffed and categorized as a troublemaker. (As were some others.)
In his repentance speech he lamented several times that “no one had the moral courage to question me back then” (actually some did try) and said, “Why didn’t anybody tell me?” (Why had no one told him that he was off-base.)
I quickly found out what this man who had been recently humbled by God thought of somebody trying to tell him anything! I guess it’s only God who can tell him anything. I was also quickly labeled with derogatory nicknames. It’s not the names themselves, but the message that he is not to be meddled with that irks me. The message is clear: “keep quiet.” These last three years or so have been a living hell for me. I avoid all meetings whenever I can. I am here in body, but not in spirit.
Over the last year, I have begun to study heavily about Christian communities, off-brand Christian religions, cults, and institutional and organizational life. All in a quest to see just where we fit in Christian history in general and in American Christian history in particular. It seems that since this country’s inception, there have been a proliferation of groups like ours, claiming to be the sole repository of truth, usually centered around a single dominant male leader, often living separately in their own communities, such as the Shakers, the Oneida Perfectionists, the Shiloh Community, the Jehovah’s Witnesses and others. The two books that I have found of particular interest and help in describing the processes that go on here are Maren Lockwood’s book “Oneida” and Raymond Franz’s “In Search of Christian Freedom.” Franz was a top member in the Jehovah’s Witnesses who was “disfellowshipped” for speaking his mind. He was trying to help make some things right, but that doesn’t seem to have mattered to his fellows. And although we don’t have any strange “1914” prophecies or refuse blood transfusions, still, Franz’s clear and concise explanation of the inner workings of their organization, on the suppression of dissent, on ever-changing revelations of truth that must not be questioned are an accurate description of life here, though on a smaller scale. These books have helped me to sort some things out.
Of course, I am wondering how you will respond to this letter. I eagerly await a reply. I would ask you though, to write me in a sealed envelope and not a postcard if you are going to make any comments on this. As you know, a postcard can be read by anybody. I’m not saying that mail is censored here or letters opened, but anything out of the ordinary gets noticed here and a few comments on a postcard about “it sounds pretty bad up there,” if read by somebody, could make life difficult for me and I would be watched and questioned about what I was doing, and asked, did I tell you anything. (Actually, I should have told you long ago and will tell you more in subsequent letters.)
What a thing for me to write near your birthday! I had meant to send another card, but in the long run, maybe this is better. Your last postcard reached me twenty days after you sent it. Maybe due to the weather.
This letter has helped me in some ways, because in doing this – writing as I am doing, and what I have written about – makes me able to talk to you. As I said earlier, previous letters were short, or, on the phone, I would mostly listen to you talk, because for me to go on anywhere beyond “Hello, I’m fine, I’m working a lot and the weather’s getting better,” I’d have to start telling you these things, which I was reluctant to do.
I am hoping this letter is not going to cause a severe over-reaction on your part, but if you have questions, feel free to ask. I will certainly be glad to answer.
c/o Christian Bros.
175 Coffey Street
Brooklyn, NY 11231