Part 09. The Kingdom of the Cults.

I have rewritten and expanded the entire contents of these pages as a book called Captive Congregation: My Fourteen Years in the Church of Bible Understanding, which is available in paperback and as an eBook. You can also continue to read the rough outline and first draft of Captive Congregation right here on these pages.

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This is all that happened after 810 (about 1991) until I left COBU in August 1993.  Beginning to understand that I’m in a cult, and exactly how things work there in order to keep me in place and to make me obey.  Reading books on cults.  

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I always found ways to take some kind of a break from the intense work schedule we had. (By walking back from a jobsite rather than going back in the van with everyone else, or if I worked late the previous night and didn’t have to be back to the jobs site till the afternoon, I took some time to myself.  There were some people there who, as far as  I could tell, thought it was wrong to have any kind of private life.)

I used to take out books from the library, mostly on foreign languages. But I also read about society, history and other things  I was interested in languages and I had a desire to “evangelize” (although we didn’t call it that).  In my earlier years in the church, it seemed possible that we might “preach the gospel to the ends of the earth” and being able to communicate in languages like French might help.  Learning a language wasn’t incompatible with the COBU way of life in those earlier years.  But in the years leading up to when I left, there was an extreme drive to “break up our lives in this world” and to “kill everything within us.”  It became hard to pursue any desires and interests other than the full time work of the agendas of the cult.  This message came from every angle and it was hard to escape or break free from it, even in your inmost thoughts.

(This extreme self-denial was the twisted view that Traill presented of Colossians 3:5, which says, “Put to death what is earthly in you.”  The purpose was to get us to give up our own wants and interests and to devote our entire lives pursuing Traill’s interests.  He presented these arguments so convincingly that it seemed like this is what the Bible said to do.  If you did not study and think on your own and come to your own independent conclusions, the pull and undertow of this, when combined with communal life, where everyone else was doing this and living like this, plus being tired and worn out from a treadmill like working and meeting schedule, combined to make this an overpowering force on you that was hard to fight against, and at the very least those there went along with the flow, and there were also those who enforced this on others.)

One day in a library on West 23rd Street, I noticed several books on cults on the shelves.  I was curious, but I thought I should not read them.  I realized, on some level, that if I read them, it would open up a can of worms for and that there would be no going back, once I started reading about cults.

I had already been open to the idea that we were in a cult, because Stewart Traill himself used to accuse us of having a “cult.” That among this right and only true church of his, there were a number of church members who were suppressing the truth of Christ through their unfaithfulness and that as a result, there was this subgroup among us opposing the true way, which labeled “the cult.”  It was never too certain who was in “the cult” and who was not.  It was this mysterious force among us and none of us believed that we ourselves were in the cult, but we did think a lot of the others were.  If anyone looked dull, wiped out dirty and tired, uptight and unreal, I usually figured they were in “the cult,” not realizing that they looked that way from long work hours in the church businesses, sleep deprivation, the dirty and crowded living conditions, a less than ideal diet and the general frustration resulting from living according to this way of life.

When I was a Middle Brother, I thought that all the Older Brothers and Sisters were in “the cult,” and that I was in danger of being sucked into it and that my only way of escape was by being “fully there” for Christ, every moment, every second, or I too would become like them.

It could get pretty embarrassing when the “cult” was mentioned sometimes.  When I was in Jersey City in my first year of the church, we met a guy who was very interested in the church and who had started to come over to the Fellowship House.  Wanting to explain more about the church and to extol some of our accomplishments, such as our orphanage in Haiti, I handed him a postcard from a Brother who had written to us from the orphanage.  The Brother’s message said that he was doing well in Haiti and that he would be coming back to New York soon and that when he did, he “hoped to escape the cult.” I could see my new friend tense up and grow silent.  He never came back again.  He had been worried that we were a cult.  My attempts to tell him “that just means a group of people among us who are acting unreal” didn’t help allay his fears.  A house full of people living communally who carried Bibles around probably already looked like a cult to him, or at least he was worried about it.  He was interested, but cautious and this just tipped him off.  And, we were a cult.

What that Brother had meant was that he felt freer at the orphanage, but coming back to the church in New York, life would be intense and it reflected his anxieties over the constant pressure at meetings Traill put us through, where we had to prove we were not taking part in the cult.  He realized that though he was doing good now, he was not likely to stand up to the usual treatment during his visit to the States.

And when I was in Philadephia, I ran into Becky, one of the sisters in the church, and as we stepped into an elevator with some other people, she turnd and said to me, in a worried voice, “We’ve got to escape the cult!” I stared forward silently, acting as if I didn’t know her and hoped no one thought I was with her.

So, that day in the library, I got curious and opened one of the books and glanced at the table contents.  One of the chapters was called “The Cult as a Social System.”  I was hooked. I put the book down and didn’t read it, because my original fear kicked in.  But I was hooked and it was only a matter of time before I came back in order to read about the social system of life inside a cult.

I had always observed and thought about our “society,” that is, the way it was among us in COBU.  The way we acted with each other, the pecking order, the way that church members snapped to when a message or the word from Stewart came down from on high and how conversations between us were often peppered with the phrase “Stewart said.” About how Jimmy G. was the second in command and whatever he said was incontrovertable, even if it seemed to me that he was acting wrongly, because he was acting under the authority of Stewart as a deputy leader.

So, I read about the social system of cults and I thought, “yes, that’s true.”  What was significant about this event was that by reading this, I was now willing to face that I was in a cult, or that I could be in one.  I was willing to study and to do something about it.  It was part of the trajectory toward leaving, helping to put me on the path toward getting out.  The books began to explain things that I was aware of about my life there, but could not fully explain or understand or reason through clearly.

Next I began reading about the (controversial) deprogrammer, Ted Patrick.  He was often hired by parents of teenagers and college students who had joined cults and did drastic interventions that included kidnapping and isolating the victim / cult member and bombarding them with information about the cult.  The examples in the book were about groups that were clear to me were cults, like the Unification Church.  (One of the characteristics of cults is that they believe all the other cults are cults, but they themselves are not cults.)  Maybe Patrick’s methods were drastic and sometimes questionable, but as I read his reasons, I kind of liked him and understood some of his viewpoints.  (Though I would not suggest to anyone to have this done to someone.)

I remember one of the brothers in the church named Steve told me about when his parents had hired a deprogrammer and had him abducted during a visit home.  If they had known what would have happened, I don’t know if they would have hired the guy.  Steve said the deprogrammer was a Jewish guy by the name of Svi who locked him up in a room and tied him to a bed.  One of Svi’s methods was that he told Steve, “OK, you believe in God?  I’m going to jump off this dresser and land on your chest.  Now you can pray to God as I’m in mid air, and he’s going to stop me, right? Are you ready, are you willing to do that?”

When hiring a deprogrammer, it might be good to check first if he’s going to try to deprogram your kid only from being in a cult and show him that he does not need to be there in order to serve God, rather than trying to deprogram him from belief in God.  They are not one and the same thing.

Steve told he later escaped through a window and was running and hid under a car.  He heard Svi saying, “Steve…. Steve, I know you’re under there, now come out.”  So he came out.  Svi later returned Steve to his parents and Steve later returned to the cult.

Another day, we were sanding the floors in the apartment of psychologist in Manhattan.  She had built in bookshelves all around her living room, and part of preparing for the job was to put up plastic drop cloths over those shelves.  I could see the books as I worked there and I got curious about some of the titles and during breaks in the work, I pulled back the drop cloths and pulled out any books I was interested in looking at.  One of the books was  called Total Institutions.  (I had already begun to consider COBU an “institution” in the sense of a bureaucratic society with hard and set rules in which the rank and file were regimented and put in place in the assembly line like cogs in a machine and that if any discipline or trouble came your way, it was because you had stepped out of your place on the assembly line and any correction was not for your own good or to solve problems, but just to put you back in your place in the machine so things would function smoothly.  I also considered it to be like the communist Russian society described by Aleksandr Solzhenitzyn in his books.  So I was kind of prepared for the ideas already that I was to find in this book.)

The words essentially jumped off the page regarding this book and its contents.  (Now, I do not want to make this part of the story a list of books I read and a review of their contents.  I am just going to say that these were not mere intellectual exercises.  I could identify with the concepts in the books.  Another important book I read at the time was Escape from Utopia by William Olin.  I identified with his experience and escape from the cult he was in.  It was like reading a book about myself.  These and other books helped to both insulate me from and help me understand what was going on, especially during day long pressure cooker meetings with Stewart.  These books were now the lens through which I was able to see and process what was going on.  They provided a buffer zone, protecting me from the intense heat and pressure these meetings could be.  Part of the heat and pressure came if you believed it was all true.  If you could separate yourself from it and believe something differently, rather than that this was God doing this to you, you had room to begin to think about it, rather than running and reacting and jumping at the bolts of wrath and hellfire being shot at you.  You could begin to say, but what if this is not God doing this to me?

I would not have been able to escape COBU only from reading the Bible and comparing Stewart’s teachings with it.  (Though that helped.)  Because doctrine is not entirely what was holding me here.  Few people join cults because of doctrine and few leave cults because of doctrine either.  It is usually because cult life begins to wear them down and also because they see a vast difference between the way the cult leader says followers have to live (usually lives of abstinence and self self denial) as compared to the way the cult leader lives (usually a hedonistic life style, surrounded with luxuries and a harem of female followers).  Traill did his best to hide his wealth and to make it look like his entourage of female followers were there to help his wife (they were called “Gayle Helpers,” no “Stewart Helpers”), but at the same time, the difference between the way Traill said we have to live and the way he lived was glaringly obvious.  And his claim that these things we a reward for his faithfulness to Christ and that our lack of these things was due to our own lack of faithfulness to Christ, while convincing at times (and also the official party line that we had to pay lip service to) could not completely explain this away – except to the most ardent and sold out believer.

This book about Total Institutions made a lot of references to a book called Asylums by Ervin Goffman.  (A total institution is an organization that controls every aspect of its inmates lives, and is often a live-in situation.  These words were like a book about my life, or about where I was living.)  Not long afterward, I found Goffman’s book at a street vendor’s table.  A basic point in this book is that most people have at least three separate spheres in their lives, in which work, family, and leisure activities are done in separate locations.  In a total institution, all these are carried out under one roof, and that what happens in one area, can affect other areas.  In COBU terms this meant that if I disagreed with my pastor, I could also find myself summarily put out of my job and also out of my place of residence.  This would be impossible for someone who did not live in a total institution. If he disagreed with his pastor, he could still go home and could still show up for work on Monday.  This situation put one in a position of being extremely controlled.  I don’t want to go into a complete description of all that Goffman wrote about here.  A good summary of it (and all that I went through up to my time of leaving) can be read in a letter I wrote after I left to an ex-COBU sister.  It can be read here, and I recommend reading it, because it is a good (and short) story about what I’ve been talking about here.  The link is here:  How I Was Able to Leave COBU.  (This letter is on my COBU Essays page.)

The following is just a brief outline of how I left.  As I read these things more and more, I began to face that I needed to leave.  I sometimes spoke up about what was wrong about life in the cult.  This was in part, because I hoped that, by speaking up about it, that things could change, and I would not have to leave.  We had a belief that “speaking the truth” is what Jesus wanted us to do. I was to learn in no uncertain terms that speaking up about anything was not going to help, but rather that my brethren (and “sistren”) would only be too glad to separate themselves from me and to quarantine me, that is, to keep me away from the new people so I would not be able to talk to them, because I was “poisoning” them with my ideas.  (Ideas such as that we should fully inform any new people, up front, about what life here was like and what they were getting into, rather than letting it dawn upon them a little at a time, while we sold them an idealized (and untruthful) version of what life here was about and what we were using them for.)

I was able to stay with some ex-members.  They came by one day to talk to brothers and sisters.  I fought and sparred with them (though I had all these doubts inside about the place myself), but later I called them to apologize for how I had acted toward them, telling them that I had been with and new brother at the time and I felt compelled to protect him from them – while at the same time, I had to admit I agreed with what these ex-members were saying.

Physically speaking, leaving was easy.  I threw a bag over my shoulder and caught a cab across town and went to stay with these ex-members.  At the same time, leaving had been anything but an easy process and it took years to accomplish, after beginning to seriously consider that I was in a cult.

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