1993, 09/02. First Letter From the Outside.
This is the first letter I wrote after leaving The Church of Bible Understanding.
September 2, 1993
This is my first letter to you since I left. Right now I am in Bethlehem, PA at Chris’s parents’ house. We came out here because Chris wanted to pick up a Jeep at a repair shop here. We will both drive back separately. I am sitting on a nice back patio. I haven’t been in a setting like this in a long time.
I don’t know if I will have much to write to you about. Not because there isn’t anything to write, but because I have now come out of a highly organized environment which I understood very well, to one that is a lot less highly structured. Not that I don’t understand this environment. It’s more like, I don’t feel compelled to write about how bad it is, like I did before. Nor am I trying to figure when, how or why to get out, as before.
Things are pretty good. I still have to get my feet on the ground financially. (Chris and Dave are letting me stay for next to nothing and giving me work. They understand my situation.) I am worried about this, but I understand that with stready hard work, I will have no problem. I just haven’t gotten there yet. That’s all. I do have the sense that if I blow it, there’s a chance that I could end up back at the “Fellowship.” But I am determined never to go there again.
I have been going to Times Square Church. It is good there. For one thing, by contrast, comparing it with COBU, there are all kinds of people there. Sixty nationalities. Everyone from businessmen to bums. We only could attract street people, the most damaged people, those who wouldn’t recognize a real religion if they saw one – although some were pretty sharp and knew right away. (A good percentage of homeless people only recently got that way. I know a few that had houses, families and good jobs until they got into drugs. Then it was a long way down. They lost everything and were living in abandoned buildings. So, these people were not stupid. I say this because of their former lives, but also because they had to be pretty sharp to survive the way they did too.)
[I was talking about all the homeless people I met in COBU. These are the people we “swept up” and offered so-called Christian training to, although the real purpose was to recruit workers for the church from a segment of society willing to accept being exploited in return for “three hots and a cot.” At the time, I did not think of it that way, because I still believed in the avowed purpose of the church, which was to “ got out into the highways and the byways and invite the homeless poor into your house.” And that we did, although for a different purpose than the Gospel of Jesus Christ and for their benefit. I got to know a lot of these people and it helped to dispel stereotypes about homeless people.]
Times Square Church is in a magnificent old theatre, so the setting is verry different. The place is kept clean. In COBU, we just about had become like the homeless ourselves.
Last time I was in Times Square Church, I used a headset to listen to simultaneous translation they provide. They have people translating into five or six languages. This is just one of the many services they provide there. They have programs for all kinds of people. A lot of outreach and missionary work. In the lobby they have tables for the Jewish and Moslem outreach. Myself, I am just relaxing. I don’t want to dive into anything right now. I don’t want to occupy myself with a lot of “church work” instead of finding Jesus. First things first, anyway. A lot of these things here look interesting. Back at COBU all these programs would be, I am sure, roundly mocked as just glitter and busy work. But from what I see, Times Square Church is alive and has something real to offer people. They have a choir that sings praise music which, by the way, I just sit through and watch. Most everyone else is singing and waving their arms. Some are shouting, others look very absorbed. If this seems too much for me, I just look around and remind myself that these people would never be able to come to that dead religious organization I have belonged to for so long, nor would they want to.
And, in contrast, there are five or six pastors. There are three head pastors. David Wilkerson, his brother Don and Bob Phillips, who I can already see from the way he speaks, is very good at explaining the Bible and getting his point across. But the main thing I see here is a group of pastors. Which means they talk together. If one starts to get a little off course, this means the others will help him back to the truth. Of course, I don’t know the inside story. I am new here. But I see them sitting together, talking. I can see a fellowship there. They seem unafraid of admitting their faults, even mentioning in sermons things they had thought they were doing right, till God showed them. This has an effect on the rest of the congregation, getting everyone else in the church to be more open about their own faults and more willing to correct them. Stewart would never admit to anything and nobody could say anything about what was obviously wrong. (There is a Romanian woman here who told me that COBU sounds just like where she came from – communism!)
[I would like to say something about David Wilkerson and the idea that there was a fellowship of pastors there that helped keep one another in check and to avoid extremes. Within a year, there was a falling out between David Wilkerson and his brother Don and Bob Phillips. They tried to talk to David Wilkerson about some extremes in teaching and behavior, which he would not accept, and soon there was a church split. I attended a few meetings that Don Wilkerson and Bob Phillips had with the faction of the church that left with them (some of them had been fired from their positions by David Wilkerson). They were reasurring and comforting those present, saying that they were not going to hell because they weren’t in David Wilkerson’s church any more. It seemed that Wilkerson told them they were in rebellion and headed for hell. All they had done was bring to his attention that a woman Wilkerson hired as administrator for a Hannah House, a shelter for women, was controlling and abusive. Wilkerson saw his choice of this woman as a divine appointment, therefore all who raised questions about her were in rebellion against God (as demonstrated by their “opposition” to this God-appointed woman). Rather than address their concerns, he categorically labeled them as “ in rebellion.” He summarily fired the choir director, Gwen W., over this. I met her years later at a worship conference. When I asked her if she had been in Times Square Church, she denied that she had ever been there. The abuse she had been put through caused her to utterly deny any history with that church. When I attended those ex-member meetings, I could only think, “been there, done that.” It helped me also, because I knew they were not going to hell for not being in David Wilkerson’s church and for questioning a few things. I realized that neither was I going to hell for not believing and obeying Stewart Traill. It’s too bad really, because Wilkerson wrote that great book, The Cross and the Switchblade and has done such great work with Teen Challenge. Wilkerson began preaching sermons on gossip at this time and saying that God will destroy his enemies who were gossiping against him. If any church members were discussing privately what they thought was going on with Wilkerson and about the mysterious disappearance of long term church members, this was labeled gossip. But, there could only be “gossip” because all anyone could do is speculate on what was going on behind closed doors. Here again, like in COBU, we see the use of sermons and Bible teachings to manipulate people and keep them in line through the use of fear of judgement, hell and destruction.]
I have found out also that the elders at Times Square Church have tried to contact Stewart and that Stewart won’t talk to them. (This is another piece of information we never heard. Only certain kinds of information got passed around in COBU, only what was useful in keeping the machine running. Everything else was strictly hidden and censored. And we knew we shouldn’t talk. This was how we shortchanged ourselves, helping ourselves to stay in chains.)
This piece of information about Stewart helps things to fall in place. I talk to a lot of the ex-COBU members here. And of course “ex-members” always “complain.” In other words, I will still have trouble believing other people whose stories are just like mine. But this new information comes from an entirely different angle. The pastors tried to call Stewart. He doesn’t return the calls. Why not? (Is it because the COBU secretarial staff doesn’t relay the pastors’ messages to Stewart, because they know what kind of messages are and are not proper, as far as what the “boss” wants to hear? This is possible, but I think the issue is a lot deeper.) I think I know why Stewart doesn’t want any outside contact. It’s all just too bad, isn’t it? Too bad it has to be this way.
It seems Stewart has a lot to hide. There are rumors in the “grist mill” out here, rumors that go around about Stewart’s sexual misconduct. (Which I have always wondered about.) There is a specific incident and person named. (There are other kinds of rumors too.) Now, this is just a rumor. But, I have been listening to and “collecting” these rumors, because they are instructive nonetheless. And though it is a rumor, there is one thing I realize about what is true. You see, it is true that it is a rumor. A rumor that is circulating. Why are there rumors? There are rumors when there are closed doors. There are rumors whenever people know that secrets exist, secrets that are not told. Even if rumors aren’t true, they are a symptom of these closed systems. And that closed system is the real unhealthy thing.
Pastor Bob Phillips got together a few times with forty ex-COBU people for a talk. He told them they were under a ministry of heavy condemnation. That there was truth mixed with error, which made it difficult, including making leaving difficult. If it was just the Moonies, we could have just walked out with little problem. But there was some real Christian truth in
COBU. (Though I think in a highly distorted form.) These meetings were taped. I have to get these tapes.
I’ll tell you something else about the selective circulation of information in COBU. The only thing I ever heard like the above, about a meeting with ex-members, was that Wilkerson had noticed this faction of ex-COBU people in his church and said they seem to have a grudge and they ought to settle whatever was wrong instead of going around talking about it. Maybe he did say that. But if anybody back at COBU heard about the meeting with Bob Phillips to help ex-members, they would just shrug it off as typical nonsense and not pass the story on! But the other story about ex-members’ grudges fit the bill just fine and found its way through the informal information network. Because a story like that helps promote the highly biased picture of what happens to people who leave COBU. And I must say I was a victim of that biased picture, though I struggled to free myself from this view. But it had, and still has, its effect on me.
Chris also told me about David Wilkerson’s response to the letter I wrote him before I left COBU. He told Chris he was writing me a reply, but the Holy Spirit stopped him and said he should refer this to the other former COBU members. (I got a little worried about that. Maybe it’s true then, that we ex-members are all deceivers and God wants to spare Wilkerson involvement with us. You know, let the dead bury their own dead. Let them take care of themselves. This can cut both ways. Other COBU members can understand what is best, plus Mr. Wilkerson can’t do all the pastoral work. It’s good to delegate to those who are most competent to help in certain areas. But when I heard Chris say that, I felt like an arrow went through my heart.) But Chris also told me that David Wilkerson may want to talk with me.
(At this point I, asked Chris, who is here on the patio, about this. He said they really like ex-COBU people over there. They want some of us for ministerial positions and they are very selective about who they chose. Richard Wurmbrand meets ex-COBU members all over the country. They are valued by other churches. Someone I used to sell carpets with, Bill P., is now doing missionary work in Romania, with blessing and financial support of the church. So, there are a lot of misconceptions I have to clear up. I don’t have it all figured out to the extent I thought I did.)
This is about the end of the letter, I am running out of paper. The other side of these pages is from a book by R. Wurmbrand that I was given to read. I thought you might want to look at it too. We have been watching some videos of Mr. Wurmbrand speaking. He will probably come to speak at Times Square Church in October. This also means he will stay with us here or in a house in NJ owned by Sisters who used to be in COBU. I would like to meet him, though I don’t know what I would say to him. But he is very approachable and will talk to you and ask questions you anyway. Dave used to go for a walk with him every morning. Maybe you could be up at that time too? If you’re planning to come up anyway, to see Uncle Harry (and me). Possibly you could stay a night or two with these Sisters as well. Maybe I can arrange for that. I would like to see you, at this time, or whenever. It’s so much easier now that I’m out. I would have never wanted you to come to where I was living before. Now I am free to travel with you, talk to you and see you for as long as I like. The people I am with are a lot better and much friendlier and accommodating. I would never have invited you to a COBU meeting. But I think you’d like a service at Times Square Church. I think you’d like the music too. Now I can start working on the rest of the family in a real way, though I will pray first, rather than devise my own agenda.