Part 05. Spiritual Retards: Getting Into The Retard Program.

In this entry, I talk about getting further pulled into the Church of Bible Understanding, and about the forces that were at work on me to get that to happen.  This part covers the fall of 1981.  I had moved out of the Jersey City fellowship house to one of the apartments the church had on West 46th Street in Manhattan.

I was the last person remaining in the Jersey City Fellowship House.  I wondered if it would be sold and I’d have to move to 515 West 47th Street, which was a 5 floor apartment building owned by the Church of Bible Understanding in New York City’s Hell’s Kitchen section.  I didn’t want to live there because it was filthy and dirty.  The rooms were filled with junk and milk crates filled with literature and with black trash bags filled with members’ clothing and other possessions.  People slept in crowded conditions, usually on foam mats on the floor.  I didn’t know anyone in the outlying fellowship houses and didn’t know if anyone there would want me to live there.

I felt temporary relief from wondering where I’d live when I found out that Jerry and his wife Pat (a married couple who “lived out” of the fellowship) would be moving to the Jersey City house.  When they came and announced they were moving in, I said, “Great, and I can stay in the room on the second floor front.”  Jerry said to me, “You don’t get it.  I bought the house from the church.  You can’t live here.  It’s our house now.”  I felt momentary bewilderment, because we lived communally and why couldn’t I keep living here?  (Married couples lived out and contributed a certain percentage of their income to the church, which was a wise financial move on the part of Stewart to not have to foot the bill for their living expenses.)

Fortunately for me, I knew the brothers on West 46th Street in Manhattan and was able to move to one of the apartments there until another apartment opened in the same building and I moved in there with Bob N.

I was moving in with what little possessions I had, which included a wooden chair, a lamp and an Audubon print in a wooden frame.  Some brothers took up the taunt about me being “into house and home.”  I thought it was pretty unreal.  Actually, the apartments on West 46th Street, which were in a building not owned by the church, were kept up nicer than at 515 West 47th Street, which was a dump.

I lived in a kind of limbo, from September to December 1981. I worked at a health insurance company in the nearby McGraw Hill building on 42nd Street as a data entry clerk, sitting in a cubicle and entering medical claims information into a computer all day and carrying on conversation with a Puerto Rican woman and a Brazilian woman who were near me, mostly talking about silly things.

By this time I had begun to believe that the unsaved were as different from me as I was from them and that we had no conversation subjects in common, other than that I should “witness” to them, that is, tell them about Jesus Christ and salvation and that to become too familiar with them on any other basis would be inviting myself to be swept away with the current of the world, or at the very least, in to “wrong agreements.”   Yet, I had to talk and be sociable so I’d try to make conversation.

In one of these conversations, the Brazilian woman asked me, since we were talking about things like, if you had one wish, or if you had a million dollars, what would you do, just talking about things like that in order to pass the time and alleviate the monotony of the repetitive and boring work.  She asked me, “If you could go back to any place and time, where would you go?”  Of course I said, I’d go back to the time when Jesus was alive and see him.  It was the right thing to say.  She actually called me on it and said, come on really, where would you go?  I said, I’d want to see Abraham Lincoln and I’d also visit some scenes in World War II, which was actually more toward what my “human” interests were.

I was also careful not to fraternize with “unsaved” women, as this would certainly carry you into sin and make you a backslider.  One time, there was an announcement at work and we were all called over to the side of the room as the supervisor read something to us.  There was an attractive woman there that I often suspected was watching me from across the room.  She came up and stood next to me as we were there and just once, swiftly moved her right foot to gently tap my left foot.  I should have looked and said hello or any comment would have been sufficient, but I kept staring straight ahead and acted as if nothing had happened.

Of course you were not going to be able to date or have a relationship with someone from outside if you lived in COBU.  You’d have to bring her over and how would that go?  You figured maybe if she got saved and moved in… but what was the chance of that?

Besides, there were lots of nice sisters in the church, who were Christian believers.  Why should I look outside the church?  At that time, I could not have known about the absolute ban on marriage in the church.  Marriages, although a lot fewer than before, had taken place up until two years before this time.  And then they had stopped.  Who could have predicted the future and have known?

Evenings were often filled with going out “witnessing,” usually by having “Art Shows.” The Art Show was a series of 21 drawings on large placards, each showing a verse from the Gospel of John, Chapter 3, verses 1-21, which were used to explain the message of salvation.  21 brothers and sisters held the signs in a long row along the sidewalk and others went out to approach people to invite them over to see the Art Show.  At the end of the line, they would be asked by a group brothers and sisters if they were ready to accept Jesus and be saved.  Many did.  The Art Show was very effective in presenting the message of salvation.  The drawings were done by a brother in the church named Bob D.

The Drawing for John 3:3 in The Art Show.

(The entire Art Show can be seen at this link: All 21 Drawings of the Art Show.)

By this time, I had learned enough Spanish to be able escort someone through the pictures in Spanish.  I walked with them through the line, and because most brothers and sisters didn’t speak Spanish, I read each Bible verse that was on the placard and then explained it, using the picture.  There was a sister named Laurie who did speak Spanish and if she was in the line, when we got to her, she read the verse and explained it as I waited, and then I continued through the line with the person I was explaining it to.

We mostly went up to Upper Manhattan, around West 181st Street or in Jersey City or Union City, NJ to do Art Shows.  Seeing the crowds of people coming through the line, I often thought we would be preaching the gospel around the world someday.

The fellowship often went through periods when there was some program going on, alternating with periods of time when benevolent anarchy reigned, when we didn’t see Brother Stewart much, except at occasional meetings and we basically ran things, making money in the businesses, or handing in our paychecks if we worked in the “world” and going out at nights with the Art Show.

This was during one of those periods of anarchy, though I more mean that in a sense of laissez-faire.

But after such periods, Stewart would come up with some program to “help” everyone, in order to channel our efforts into a more focused goal.  The Older Fellowship (the long term members, many of them here from the beginning) was declining and there were a vast number of what were called Middle Brothers and Sisters who were just going through the motions, working and witnessing without any kind of control or having to work on some program or lessons or reporting their activities to Stewart.

So, Stewart came up with a program – one that I found insulting in its description, but soon found myself signing up for.  The Retard Program.  We were, as he said, spiritually retarded.  We had gotten saved, but then fell back and were disorganized and untrained.  The implications also being that we’d eventually end up in hell if we remained in this condition.

I heard that a lot of Middle Brothers and Sisters were meeting in 515 for the first Retard Meetings, declaring their intentions to work at the program and proclaiming that they were spiritual retards and that they needed the program.  I thought, there is no way I was going to join this.  Though not openly, I scoffed at the program and at anyone willing to be in it.  I read some of the materials, looked at the application, and felt insulted.  (One of the things Stewart had written in the application form is that being that we were retards, we could fill the form out in pen, pencil – or crayons, if we wanted.  I felt insulted, but also noticed that some of the sisters seemed to like this, as if they felt that Stewart was gently teasing and playing with them.)

Someone among the Older or Middle ones that I knew said, “I was over at 515 last night and there were a lot of pretty sisters there.”  Being about 23 years old, and being that dating and relationships are extremely important at that time, and also that I had bought into the idea that I need to marry one of the women in the fellowship, along with the idea (as taught by Stewart Traill) that if I am not trained to be a Christian man, I cannot have marriage, it was powerful incentive to change my mind.

Still, I had not joined the Retard Program.  I began to take a hard look at the Older Fellowship and they did not seem to be going anywhere in life or in their faith.  (Which actually is not true, it just seemed that way.  Many were on their way to leaving and starting their lives over, outside the church.  And the wiped out, dull look they had was really often the result of being overworked, tired and generally fatigued and not due to being backslidden and unfaithful and Stewart accused them of being.)

My buddies, the small group of Older Brothers who had their own little fellowship group going on West 46th Street, where they listened to Wayne Monbleau on the radio (and got mocked and called Monbloids by others) and read verses to one another about God’s love and grace, also began to be a lot less a source of inspiration to me, especially after I saw how they acted at a Big Meeting.  (A Big Meeting is when the entire church gathers for a weekend.  At the time these meetings were held in the Hamburg Fieldhouse in Pennsylvania.)   I rode with these brothers to a meeting and they were talking about forming a Christian band and writing our own songs (that sounded great!) and also were encouraging one another with bible verses, a little too worried sounding, now that I look back on it.

When they got to the meeting, rather than acting like brothers who believed that God truly loved them, and thereby being able to stand up to Brother Stewart’s relentless accusations and berating about their alleged lack of faithfulness, I saw that as soon as we arrived at the meeting, each and every one volunteered for guard duty and they disappeared and remained in hiding for the entire 2 day meeting.  That really disillusioned me.  I thought we’d all sit together in the meeting.

Maybe I should go for this Retard Training thing, then, I thought.  It seemed like the only hopeful way out.  My alternatives were rotting away in “515” with the Older Brothers and never being able to get married (if I got “trained” maybe I could get married – I certainly could not without Christian training).  I could also learn to evangelize and maybe preach Christ all over the world.  As I said previously, I felt an interest in learning foreign languages and began to learn Spanish after I got saved.  And then I found out I could study more languages.  (I had never thought of learning more than one foreign language before.  In high school, you chose one of the languages offered in the curriculum, and only one.  I chose French, after agonizing that I was not going to learn German then, as if they were mutually exclusive.  When I was a kid I used to memorize words in Italian, French and German and had some phrasebooks.)  There were other brothers and sisters in the fellowship who were interested in foreign languages.  Nate L. was fluent in Italian.  A Haitian brother named Deny A. said he wanted to learn 7 languages.  The motivation for this was to preach to the entire world.  COBU brothers and sisters really did want to “make Jesus known,” as we called it.  After getting saved and moving in, and meeting and witnessing to Spanish people and becoming friends with the Spanish speaking people who lived in fellowship, I got interested in the Spanish language and culture, and began to learn the language.  I had found my calling, or part of it, and I was looking forward to my future.  Maybe I was going to preach the gospel to all nations – or at least some of them.  I was very excited about going out to the Art Shows.  When people got saved, I felt good.  They also could come to know this way.  The way of life in Jesus Christ, that is.  I did not yet know that it was expected of me in the Church of Bible Understanding to defer all my desires and interests in this life in order to serve the machine.  I did not know how much of a cog in the wheel I was expected to become, an income producing and new convert recruiting machine, who was to receive nothing but a place to sleep and a fist full of dollars for allowance and enough to eat.  (And plenty of coffee to keep awake with.  COBU is where I learned to drink coffee in industrial quantities.)

Really, I had no idea of what I was getting into or what was the true nature of the “organization” I had joined.  I knew the people I met and lived with, those on the rank and file level, and they were very sincere.  I had no idea of the internal problems of the church, and of the reasons and causes for the mass exodus of Older Brothers and Sisters.  Older Brothers could be “harsh” and Older Sisters could be controlling “maneuvering women,” as Stewart accused them of being.   There was something wrong with all of them, according to Stewart.  And, I’d do anything not to become like them.

After resisting the idea for a time, I filled out my application for the Retard Program.  I saw no other hopeful avenue in the church for my life.  Life outside the church did not seem like an option.  I did not want to end up in hell.

I began going to the meetings in Manhattan.  Then we began having meetings in the Philadelphia “Lamb House” (where Stewart lived at the time).  I and several others were not backed in the voting amongst us to be in the Retard Program.  Me, because I was 24 and considered “older” by the rest of those in the Program, who were about 19 or 20 years old, and therefore I was “not trusted” by most of them because I was “older.”  (Though actually, I was not a very “together” person and I acted and looked like I was much younger.  At one of my first Big Meetings Stewart asked me a question and then said in a friendly tone of voice, “How old are you, ‘lamb,’ about 16?” I answered, feeling embarrassed, “No, 23.”

I was a suspicious person, because I was “older.”  But I did not fit neatly into any category in the church.  I was not a “Young Sheep”  (a teenager), nor was I an “Older Brother” (over 25).  I had come into the church at age 23 as an “Older Newly Saved.”  Still, perhaps able to be rescued and not turn out like an “Older Brother.”  I cannot effectively express here, how deeply, hook, line and sinker I had bought into the belief system of the Church of Bible Understanding.  I was completely caught and hooked.  I believed in Jesus.  I just didn’t realize all the stuff I had decided to believe along with that newly found faith.  I was eventually to suffer the consequences, yet at the same time receive a life lesson that might be priceless.

However, me and several others, who were no different than the others really, except perhaps that they were social misfits because they were very introverted or did not “emote” like “normal” people, were excluded in the voting one meeting in Philadelphia.  Those were me, Diana V., Carrie R., and a few others.

I felt anxiety over not making it into the program.  But Stewart solved it with just a sentence.  “How are these ones any different than the others?”  That was it, we were all in.  I had been accepted into the Retard Program.  My only hope against being swept away with the forces of sin in the world and the mysterious forces that seemed to make Older Brothers and Sisters weird and twisted mutants by the time they were 25 years old.

Captive Congregation: My Fourteen Years in the Church of Bible Understanding is available in paperback and as an eBook.



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