Part 03. Worcester.

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.

I resisted moving in.  I still wanted my independence.  But when my housemates Scott and Steve (college students with whom I was sharing the bottom floor of a house) went home for the summer, I would have to pay the rent by myself, and even though I had two part time jobs, it was still too much.  And when I went to see some rooms for rent, these cost too much also and when I tried to negotiate a better rent, no one would lower their prices.

At the same time I was visiting the cult regularly and going out “witnessing” with the brothers and the offer to move in was still in effect.  I should move in, they said, for my Christian growth because Jesus wants us to live in fellowship.  Faced with the choice of having to go back to my hometown or moving in, I moved in.  There was not much drawing power in returning to my hometown, where all I’d have to look forward to was menial jobs and having no friends.  Moving away and going to college had gotten me friends and I was desperately trying to duplicate that.  And now I had friends at “the fellowship” and it was either that or go back home and live in a rooming house, as my father suggested, and scraping money together for yet another attempt at college.  After brief attempts at college in 4 different places, I was not willing to try that again, at least not from that base of operations.  I still wanted to go to college, but maybe I could go here, and I was already now living away from home.  I did not want to go back.

As far as voices warning me not to move in, and having full knowledge of what I was getting into, I remember only one. There was a Christian from another church who called me when I was still living with Scott and Steve to tell me about his concerns about the group I was getting into.  He suggested that I give it some thought.  Maybe I could come over to his place and study the bible too, he said.

But let me tell you the comparison between this guy, whom I’ll call Bob (I don’t remember his name now) and the “brothers.”  I was with the brothers from the Church of Bible Understanding in the Worcester city center.  It was summer and hundreds of people were out.  The brothers were boldly witnessing, walking up to people and handing out literature, or approaching them with open Bibles saying, “Hey, can I show you a verse in the Bible?”

No matter how people replied, the brothers had a ready answer.  Sometimes it was humorous.  Other times it was a dire warning about hell and future judgment.  But they were animated.  And because of this, many times people stopped to talk.  The brothers, as far as I could tell, were “boldly proclaiming the message of salvation,”  actively engaging people in real conversation about spiritual things.  By copying what they were doing, I began to do this too and found out that I enjoyed it, believing I was doing good for people and that I was becoming an outgoing person rather than being quiet and withdrawn.  I could go up to anybody, no matter who they were, and say something to them, and see them react to me.  This was not a sense of power over people.  Rather a sense of power over my former self and I became very motivated and outgoing.

There was always something going on.  Some people got angry and stormed away.  Some people stayed to argue.  Some would level with you about themselves and their lives and these conversations were good.  We were really reaching people and affecting them.

By way of contrast, Bob and his sidekick were also there in the city center.  They set up a little table and were also trying to reach people with the Gospel message.  But they were timid and quietly handed out tracts and sometimes politely asked people if they would like to talk.  No one stayed to talk to them.  They didn’t get anyone angry, upset, nor did they get anyone curious and interested.  There were no hot debates going on over at their table.  Finally Bob and his friend resorted to a staged conversation, with the friend acting as if he were a person interested in the message of salvation and Bob acted as if he were witnessing to him, and they spoke loud enough in hopes that passers-by would overhear them and that way get a piece of the Gospel message.  “So,” Bob’s friend said, “Did Jesus really die for my sins?”   “Yes,” Bob replied, a little too loud for normal conversation, “he died on the cross to take all your sins away.”   “And what,” his friend said, “can I do to be saved?…..”

I thought this was pathetic.  It was obvious who I was going to hang out with!  With the COBU brothers, there were intense debates going on.  And they were not staged.  Some people were angry and wanted to argue.  Others were interested and wanted answers and would stay, listening to you as you explained salvation from the Bible, perhaps in a way they had not heard before.

On the surface, the COBU message was the basic salvation message of historic Christianity.  It was easy to explain once you knew it and it even had an effect on me as I explained it, because each time, it reinforced what I believed.  But good things can be used for manipulative purposes and even though the rank and file member had no such intentions, the power structure of the Church of Bible Understanding had entirely non-biblical intentions of what to do with this message.  The message itself is powerful and had an effect on people.  Almost no one was neutral to it.  As Jesus said, “He who is not for me is against me.” And the message was offensive to some people.  This offensiveness and the reason for it can vary from era to era.  In our current era the message is offensive because it is exclusive.  There is only “one way.” And if you don’t believe in it, you are lost.  This does not sit well with the modern idea of diversity and pluralism.  In earlier times, when exclusivity and the idea of “you’re either in or out” was a no-brainer, the message was offensive to some people because it included the idea of forgiving one’s enemies.  But it is not in the present scope of this article to go into that.

A curious thing happened when you talked to people.  It became predictable what they would do.  You could not predict what a particular person would do, but only statistically.  For example if you said to ten people passing by, “Did you know that Jesus died for your sins?”  Two people would continue to walk, without answering.  One would swear at you.  One would give a sarcastic remark.  Two would give a hey, wish I could talk, but gotta get somewhere look.  And four would stop and talk.

I know this commodifies people, in a manner of speaking.  And it is hard for me to escape looking at people from this viewpoint now in certain areas of my life. This was the first time I had experienced the commodity approach with people and it was like breaking the sound barrier and I was released from my former self who had always been on the low end of the social pecking order and could only come from reacting to what people did, rather than initiating and causing.  I had always been so dependent and locked in on what people said to me.  You got whatever they decided to give you, and most of the time they didn’t give you anything. Because I was not very important and not noticed, I had little effect on people.

Sometimes when talking to people, I’d see things about them, or make good guesses.  A young man came up to us one time and I said, “Are you from Egypt?”  He said yes.  I said, “Are you 20 years old?” He said yes.  I was then going to say, “Is your name Mohammed,” but I chickened out.  This was getting to freaky for me!  So I said, “What’s your name?”  “Mohammed,” he said.

Each time before I spoke, there had been a whisper in my ear what to say to the young man. Was it the Holy Spirit showing me this about him?  I have often wondered if I had not chickened out at the last moment, that with three accurate questions like that, the young man might have become a Christian because he would have felt that by me asking with such knowledge about a perfect stranger, that the God I was representing was all-knowing and that this God knew him. Well, he looked Egyptian.  He looked 20 and what is a popular name in Egypt?  Good guesses on my part, maybe.

The responses that people would give, especially the wise guys, were so predictable.  Each one thought they were so smart.  The common objections were like out of a handbook.  “What about the people who have never heard this, are they going to hell too?”  We would say to them,  “But YOU have heard the message, what are YOU going to do about it?”

This gave me a sense of purpose. And as Jesus said about your needs and wants in life,“Seek first his kingdom and his righteousness and all these things shall be yours as well.  I was to learn that, at least in this case, this was not to be so.  I thought that if I devoted my life to following Jesus, that he’d take care of all the rest.  I thought that if we went out into the streets day and night, it would be an adventurous life and Jesus would take care of all the details.  We might get locked up.  Shot.  Who knows.  The brothers talked about needing to be ready for a time of future persecution and that we needed to be strong and ready.  I heard some of the stories the brothers told me about the police (as well as angry parents) storming fellowship houses and locking up some of the church members.

We were out witnessing with Rick and Gary and we got into a conversation with some teenagers.  One of them said to Rick, “You look like Jesus!”  The kid was actually complimenting him.  I had never noticed before. It was the hippy era, or the end of it, and a lot of guys had long hair and a beard.  Aside from the T shirt and jeans, he would have been perfect for the lead role for a Jesus movie.  The kid was right.  Rick looked like Jesus.  Amazing, I thought.

There was a cult group in Worcester at this time and we’d see a band of people in white robes and sandals following a guy who looked just like Jesus.  We’d say to one another, those guys are in a cult!

One day, when I came over to the fellowship, Rick was no longer there.  He had left.  Why people left was never explained in detail. People would just disappear.  It was to have an effect on me.  Chuck, who had met me at first, was also gone.  I got a long letter from him, which I did not fully understand, about his having been called to the Manhattan Training Center because he needed help and was not doing well with Jesus.  I felt disappointed…..  Eddie, a Haitian brother I liked, not only disappeared, but took a church van and the proceeds from a day of carpet cleaning when he left.  Charles from Ghana got very “contentious.”  He had criticisms of the church and Stewart and now he was gone.  Gary didn’t leave, but confessed to the brothers that he had been looking at himself in the mirror and thinking he was good looking and that he was fantasizing about “backsliding” and going into the “world,” so he could have a girlfriend again.

Through these events, I learned to be unstable and to lack trust about my relationship with Jesus.  If this way was so great, why are so many people leaving it?  People seemed to be doing well and then mysteriously, as if infected with some unknown virus, they would become strange and leave, some of them saying the worse things about the church.  I was sheltered from the specifics and a spin was put on what they were doing.  These people, I was told, became “contentious” (speaking badly about the fellowship and Stewart Traill) because they loved their flesh and sin more than they loved Jesus, so they were looking for any excuse and were maliciously using lies about Brother Stewart as an excuse to go back to serve the devil and the world.  It was at this time that I learned what a “backslider”was.  It was a very despicable kind of person, whom evil had entered, just like Judas at the Last Supper. (The word was rarely used to refer to a wayward sinner who needed to be compassionately brought back to the way.)  I did not want to be an evil wicked “backslider.”  I would hang on at all costs and do whatever it took!  I was afraid of becoming a backslider and losing my mind, and my soul.  I would apply myself and be good and faithful.

After living in the Worcester house for several months, it was time for me to move to the Jersey City “Older Newly Saved House.”  According to some higher ups in the church organization, this was to save me from being ruined by the bad Older Brothers in Worcester, so there might be a chance for me.  Gary told me about a new house being started in Jersey City called the “Older Newly Saved House,” where “older” people like me, who had just gotten saved, could be together with “other people just like themselves” in order to get training.   Being 23, I was considered to be older and not a “lamb,” that is, I was not a 16 year old new convert.  We were a special category and since enough of us had been coming to the church, it was decided to create a special program for us.  I did not want to leave Worcester, but wouldn’t it be the best thing for me?  Jesus wants me to, I was told.  The Older Brothers in Worcester were going to give up their only convert that they had in quite a while, because he needed to be saved from the very people who had helped him see the light, because they were so full of laziness and other bad things, and they could do nothing but ruin him, it was said, so that I’d become just as bad as they were if I stayed with them.  Later I will talk about this artificial vilifying and pitting different categories in the church against one another that Stewart Trail used to create diversions from what he was really up to and have us looking at our own shortcomings – and those of others, in order to keep us weak and to exercise control, and suspicion between the members and in general create absolute control over people, by creating such imaginary scenarios….  I was reluctant to go because I liked the brothers that were there….

I was soon off to Jersey City, to a memorable year in my life….

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