Part 02. Moving In.

I have rewritten the contents of this blog and published it as a book, called Captive Congregation: My Fourteen Years in the Church of Bible Understanding, which is available as a Kindle book or in paperback.

After I prayed with Chuck, I gave him my contact information.  A day or two later, he called to invite me to the “Fellowship House” on La Grange Street.  It was a big old house in what was once a nice neighborhood.  There was an empty lot on one side full of weeds and trash.   The house was not kept up very well and the rooms were filled with boxes and trash bags filled with clothes and other junk.

I started visiting regularly and I liked the “Brothers” I met there.  Chuck, who was the one who met me in the mall and who prayed with me to get saved, was there to give me a bible study.  I no longer felt strange about the whole thing.  I felt happy.  I met Gary, who I thought was really cool.  And Rick.  Most of these guys had long hair and beards.  And they were all friendly and wanted to know how I was doing.  I liked having friends.  It reminded me of my college years and after a while of not having any friends after leaving school, it felt good to have friends again.  That feeling of being among a group of peers which I had first experienced in college with my friends in my dorm meant a lot to me and this felt like that.

Why does someone join and even move into a cult?  Studies have been done on the subject and attempts have been made to identify the kind of person who joins a cult.  The conclusion of one of the studies I read, not long before leaving the cult, was that there is no typical cult member and that they come from healthy families, extremely dysfunctional families and everything in between.

My family was in between.  However, the breakdown of our family structure and another attempt at college only to drop out and come home left me with an attitude to do anything, absolutely anything, to move away from home and to stay away, because I felt like a failure.  From as early as I can remember, I was supposed to go to college and I had stopped going.  I had no idea of what I wanted to do.

I tried once more to live away from home, renting a room from a family I knew and taking courses at another college.  I ran out of money by the end of the semester and could no longer afford to live there and to keep my car, so I had to go back home again.  The next time, I went to school for three months in London and when I returned home, my father had left my mother, where they had been living in the house they built in Florida.  He was now back up in New Jersey and had moved himself into the bungalow by the beach that my two younger brothers were renting.  When I came back from London, my father said I could live there too.  My brothers had gotten his place to be their own pad and though they did not talk to us about it, I knew they did not like how we had both imposed ourselves on them.

On one of my long walks on the beach in the winter, I remembered that Denise, an American girl from Worcester, Massachusetts whom I met in London, had often talked about how she and another girl wanted to rent a two family house.  They would have the downstairs and I could rent the upstairs.  I had no intention of moving up there if she was not interested in me, but now in my present circumstances the offer didn’t sound so bad.  I called her.  Yes, they were still planning on renting the house.  She invited me to come on up.  She didn’t have the house yet she said, but I could live with her father for a couple of weeks till she got the whole thing together.  Her father had an apartment and was separated from her mother.

Her father, a doctor, was a really great guy and he was friendly to me.  But, by the second or third week he said I should be looking for a place because he thought this was only a temporary arrangement.  And, according to Denise, the rented house was no longer the plan. And in the 20/20 vision of hindsight, it seems clear to me now that I was only used to make her boyfriend Doug jealous, because he was wavering in the relationship and not committed to taking it to the next level.  My presence seems to have helped. I went out a few times with Denise and her brother and sister to some clubs where Doug was playing in his band and sat with them in the audience.

But, now I needed to find a place to live.  I got creative and I went to the local college campus, where I thought I could easily find a room. There was a lot of off campus housing.  I saw a notice on a bulletin board from two guys looking for a roomate to share the bottom floor of a house.  Call Scott or Steve at this number.

When I met Scott and Steve, I told them I was a college student, but that this year I not taking any courses, but I would next semester.  Scott and Steve were cool guys who were into sports and girls.  Definitely not the crowd I could have been a part of in high school.  But by having friends in college, I had learned to socialize and make friends and was able to pass myself off as an OK guy.

I think this is the person I always was. I was outgoing and energetic as a little kid.  But over the years, events at home and in school caused me to become a withdrawn loner who preferred to be alone and as a result, I was really lacking in social skills.  I regained some of those skills and that personality, when I moved away and went to college, escaping my home environment, where I was the least liked family member who often was considered not worth very much and even was the cause for everything that had gone wrong with the family, or so I was told.  I also was not a part of the high school scene because I was not accepted and was one of the socially marginal people.  That had started in the third grade, when during a game of tag, it was discovered that I could not catch anybody, not even the girls.  And it continued on during my time in school, where I was known as someone who was not good in sports.  And by high school, I still looked like a little kid.  I looked about 5 years younger than all the other teenagers.  All those factors pretty much assigned me to socially marginal status.  I remember when a new girl moved to our school in the eleventh grade and in class before the teacher walked in, she was flirting with one of the guys by asking him the names of all the other guys sitting there.  When she pointed to me and said, “What’s his name and what is he like?”  Two or three guys said to her, “Don’t worry about him, he’s not one of the guys you want to know.”

So, getting away from home and my hometown gave me a new lease on life where I could start over as an unknown and make some new friends in a place where I was not typecast as a loser.

What I’m leading up to here are the reasons why I would move in to the cult, if the cult were the only alternative to going back home.  This is also essential to the story, because leaving 14 years later, it was a struggle to regain that original outgoing personality I was born with, and it is still an ongoing struggle as the cult life has been further layers of repression, or what would emaciate your masculinity, causing you to feel unworthy and like a little dog among the big dogs and to have no drawing power or ability to create much interest in you on the part of women.  Due to not coming across in what is perceived to be normal and due to not being very financially advanced.  And due largely in part to having very little experience.  And not only that, being drilled for years in the cult that women were the enemy who would test you at every moment, to bring you down whenever possible.  And why were they that way?  It was their “Eve” nature.

And, also, there was a method to their madness.  You see, if and only if you could pass their every test, only then could they trust in you and want to have a relationship with you.  Because then you were a true man.  And it was very, very hard to pass all their tests without getting “manuvered” by “Eve.”  If she ever did gain the upper hand, she lost all respect for you and you were not a true Christian man and she would not want to have a relationship with you, unless it was a manipulative relationship, where she was your master and you were on a leash.  But as Christians, Jesus was to be our Lord and Master and this would be a great sin, breaking the first commandment, “Thou shalt have no other gods before me.”  And if you were to pass all her tests, you had better not relax, because when you least expected it, she would do it again. It would be only over time, when the woman saw that all resistance was futile, that no trick worked, would she then relax and find, once she had given all that up, that she was free to just be herself and relax into the relationship and your love and be herself.   I began to wonder why I would want to have a relationship with someone who was continually trying to bring me down.  I began to be defensive in my posture toward women, perhaps in an attempt to not be gotten over on, so that someday I also could have a love relationship with a woman.

In fact, we were to come to believe that it was only Stewart Traill, the leader of the cult, who was able to be what a man needed to be with women.  Through true bible understanding, and a clear conscience (therfore having no guilt by which he could be manipulated, thereby having the moral power to take a stand against evil), he was able to overcome all women’s tricks.  Stewart Traill was, if one accepted his teachings – and young and impressionable minds did – the only true Christian man, or only true man. He didn’t directly state this about himself, but the conclusions were easy to draw.    Men in the world were lost. And among Christians, there were few, maybe none, who had this understanding and were faithful to it.  But Stewart had the knowledge and was faithful to it.  We were merely just beginning to learn it, and as he was always careful to point out, woefully unfaithful and lazy about what little we did know.   The true and faithful Christian man had his wife, Gayle, completely under his thumb.  And he was surrounded by little helpers.  Young women who were officially called “Gayle Helpers,” but likely did very little to help Gayle with anything.

Often at meetings he would provide us with demonstrations of his power over manipulative women.  Over manipulative women who were working together to overthrow his plans.  In one such meeting, in a session where we were reviewing finances, he made it appear that a group of women on the church office staff were working to seize control of the way the organization worked and that they had been quite successful at it.   He was a master at feeding peoples’ words back to them, slightly altering their words in order to trap them into making confessions about having evil motives.  The women had merely been doing their job, but he was able to make them appear confused about the system of record keeping by demonstrating to them that they didn’t know what they were talking about, showing that each one was telling a different version of the story and that therefore they were lying.  The reason why they were lying was to hide what they were really up to.  This session went on for a long time, till the women were tired and worn out, after trying again and again to explain that they were doing their work for the best interest of the church and that they had not been trying to sabotage anything.

For drama, Stewart bowed his head and said to all present, “It looks like they’ve got us.”  Then he revealed his plan B.  He gave a talk about manipulative women and that one must always have Plan B and even plan C ready if necessary.    This Plan B was an alternate method of keeping the records.  Also there had been essential pieces of information the women had not had access to, that Stewart had controlled all along.  He called this the “plug.”  Traill then told a story about being in a rowboat with women, saying that when you’re rowing along smoothly, the woman will always try to “pull the plug” in order to create drama into what had been, until now, a smooth course.  Some of this explanation was done with great humor, so that most of the church members were laughing.  And how does Stewart keep the women from pulling the plug?  Why, Stewart was sitting on the plug, that’s how!  This brought peals of laughter from everyone, except for the women who were on the spot.  The plug in this case was information that the women did not have access to because Stewart had not left it in their hands and under their control, knowing ahead of time that they would try to “pull the plug” if they could.  In fact, through having plan B and by sitting on the plug as he was rowing, Stewart had foreseen everything and been in control all along!

Through such staged demonstrations, church members were warned about how they had better not try to get the best of Brother Stewart, because he was way ahead of you.  Creating and then solving such fictional situations before your very eyes was one of his ways of demonstrating this great wisdom.  We believed it was all true.  We would also come to believe that he was way ahead of each one of us, and that he understood the deepest underlying psychological motives for our actions and that he knew what we were “up to” when we did not even understand it ourselves.

It was clear to us that the women did not consciously intend to sabotage things, but through carelessness, they had let the “wrong spirit” (the devil) work through them.  It also demonstrated to the young men that women had layer upon layer of hidden motivations that you would never, ever be able to decipher or get a handle on and control and that you could easily be manipulated by women and not even know it was happening to you.  I gave up hope.  It would take me years, I thought, to understand even the basics of this.  This often caused the men in the fellowship to be extremely suspicious and unkind to the women, because of their fear of being overcome by the women.  This drove a wedge between the men and women in the church, and eventually this and other consciously designed plans by Brother Stewart resulted in all relationships coming to an end, except for those who left and got married.   Some of those people then came back, only to have their marriages further ruined or broken down by Stewart, often in what passed as marriage counseling where he would pit the couple against one another, calling the woman manipulative and the man a pushover for not being able to contain and stop her behavior.  This caused great frustration and often the couples broke up.  For those of us who lived in and never left the church, there were simply to be no relationships or marriage.  And any relationships that begun, ended.

Stewart was often accused by outsiders of “forbidding marriage.” (According to the Bible, forbidding of marriage is one of the signs of false teaching and is “the doctrine of demons.”)  He stated that marriage was allowed and that it was a reward from Jesus for faithfulness.  And he simply caused everyone to think it was impossible to be faithful to Jesus and continued to pit the men against the women with methods like those mentioned above.  So, though marriage was not officially forbidden, no one got close enough to marriage, or even to beginning a relationship.  Therefore, after a certain time, there were no more relationships or marriages taking place.  And these conditions continue in the Church of Bible Understanding to this day.

Traill’s demonstrations of power were never directly sexual.  He perfected the old patriarch look, long white beard included.  He kept his philandering a secret. And very little has come out about this.  The women in the church who know about it have a wall of silence about it. It, I imagine, is too painful to talk about, because to be fully honest would also mean talking about what they themselves did, or about what they knew about and decided to remain silent about while it was happening.

Traill also hid his wealth, preferring to wear a simple uniform of Carhardt jeans, a work shirt and Converse sneakers.  He drove an old car with faded paint.  He looked like a self-employed tradesman working out of his beat up old car and not like a rich televangelist with fine suits and cars.  The whole COBU drama was played out in dirty warehouses, run down residences and stacks of crates and boxes.  It was an operation that thrived on the fringes of society, away from public scrutiny.  An outgrowth of the Jesus People movement, hippies that lived together in common houses.  I’ve met other people who had lived in groups like this, but times changed and they moved on and moved back into society.  The Vietnam war had ended.  There was little left to protest and people were no longer dropping out of society, but rejoining it and moving on with their lives.  The Church of Bible Understanding, originally called the Forever Family, was an exception that remained and continued to thrive on the margins of society.

It had originally been a loosely associated group of young people from Scranton who wanted to follow Jesus.  Over a period of time, Stewart Traill attached himself to the group.  Perhaps by the mere fact of being much older than everyone else, he was seen as having great insight into the Bible and life.  He gradually took over control of the houses.  Where once people lived on an honor system, contributing to the rent and buying their own food, now everyone had to hand in their paychecks and receive a small allowance in return.   Stewart sent people out to start new fellowhship houses in many cities.   He was to soon close many of those houses down and move people into warehouses in New York City in what was called the Manhattan Training Center.  People who were there say it was to exert more control over the members and to mold them into a regimented income gathering force by starting church businesses in which members worked day and night.  The fact that some of those people refer to this now as the “Manhattan Draining Center” gives some idea of the effect of this lifestyle on church members.

I resisted the idea of moving in.  I did not want to.  Other events and forces were to conspire to see that I did.  As I mentioned previously, the reason I was living in Worcester was that I had wanted to move away from home.

 

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