Part 04. Jersey City.

It was decided that I had to move to the Older Newly Saved House in Jersey City in order to be rescued from the spirit of the Older Brothers in Worcester.  The brothers there were said to be lazy and unfaithful, and therefore they were setting a wrong example for me, a new convert.  I was not happy to go because I liked most of the brothers there, but by then I had already begun to be indoctrinated in the COBU worldview and began believe what I was told were problems and also what the solutions to those problems were.  I did not want to end up spiritually dead and on my way to hell, as the older brothers were said to be.  I wanted life, so I decided I had better take this option.

Sister Joanne was running the Jersey City house.  It was unusual for a woman to be leading anything in COBU.  But Joanne was a personality and a half.  She was older than most of us new ones, about 26 at the time.  The young women looked up to her.  She was a role model.  Everybody liked her, including the men.  Joanne was all about Jesus.  Jesus was her life, her everything.

She was separated from her husband John, who was, according to Stewart, one of the most evil people ever to have been in the fellowship.  An evil reprobate, a backslider.  Although it was never really clear to me, as a new member of the church, exactly what he had done wrong.  Knowing what I know now, it was part of Stewart’s efforts to break down personal relationships in general and the marriage relationship in particular that was the motive for this character assassination of John.

(Stewart wanted to break down relationships so that we would only be loyal to him and look only to him.  Under the guise of marriage counseling, he broke up marriages by pitting couples against one another.  He discouraged any new relationships from forming and even discouraged friendships.  You’d get come down on if you said someone in the fellowship was your friend.  Instead, we were “brothers and sisters” and were to practice loving one another, which usually meant harsh criticism in the name of helping someone.  Not exactly a way to build close friendships.)

I and others totally believed that John was evil.  We had a lot of sympathy for Joanne.  Joanne was a brave soul, soldiering on despite all her trials and tribulations.  And the Jersey City Older Newly Saved House was assigned to her.  We liked her and she made our lives interesting.

Other times though, she would seem to take such control of everything that we would refer to her as our “den mother.”  When we had to vote on something, whatever she wanted prevailed.  This irritated some of us so much that one meeting someone passed a note around that said, “Whatever song Joanne votes on to sing next, everybody pick a different song so that she doesn’t get her way.”   Someone intercepted the note and handed it to Joanne.  We waited to get come down on, but Joanne took it in good humor.

I was in this fellowship house from September 1980 to September 1981.  Sometime around May or April, Joanne had been pulled out by church leadership and replaced by Steve M., an older brother with a whip to crack, who would not cut anyone a break.  We were never told why Joanne had to go, other than that she was not doing well, or that she needed further training elsewhere.  It was an end of an era.  We used to go to downtown Jersey City to witness and lead people to Christ and then have Bible studies in the diner after, which Joanne called a “Diner Scene.”  We looked forward to getting together with Joanne at the end of the night, before she went back to New York City and we went back to our house in Jersey City.

It was mostly the women that sat next to her and asked her questions.  They all looked up to her for advice.  I would say that she was one of the last really good fellowship leaders in the church and an example of all that was right about the Church of Bible Understanding, before whatever was good about it disappeared.  She was willing to be all there for anyone who needed it.  She looked like she enjoyed what she was doing.  If I were to say there was a best time for me in the fellowship, this would be it.

I am saying this from the viewpoint of a new convert.  I know now that anyone who was a leader was under tremendous pressure to perform and had to give account of himself at leadership meetings.  So Joanne probably had very little enjoyment in what she was doing.  And no matter how well she did, it would never be good enough.

These were my early days in the fellowship, so I can only offer partial explanations and speculations about things.  But I think that is good to tell the story this way, because you can see how naively trusting I was as a new member.  As time went on, there were no more illusions.  But it was going to take ten years for me to get to that place.

We used to ride in a van to go witnessing and when we were done, we all went to the diner.  We often sang during the ride.  Twenty people in an overcrowded van, singing together.  It was a really great time.  There was a song called Wade in the Water, an old spiritual.  There was a chorus to it that went,

Wade in the water children, wade in the water.  God’s gonna trouble the water.

Then anybody could sing a verse, making up whatever words they wanted.  One night, everyone was trying to outdo one another with their original verses. Mario, a brother from Ecuador, sang….

“Tonight we’re going to a diner scene,

Joanne’s gonna tell us

what the Bible really mean…”

Then we all sang the chorus:

“Wade in the water children, wade in the water.  God’s gonna trouble the water….”

[For a recording of one of the songs we sang in COBU, click here: The River Song.  It’s not Wade In the Water, but it will do.]

These songs were a lot of fun to sing together.  In just a few years, no one would be singing anything anymore.  At this time, the fellowship had not become what it was to be in just a few years.  I am not stretching things too far when I compare it to a death camp.  I’ve read accounts of prison camps.  I can relate.  Believe me, I can.  Recently I went to a veterans meeting for men who had been in prisoner of war camps in World War II.  I could relate to what they were talking about.   Unlike my situation, they could not just walk out the gates to freedom once they decided they did not believe in this way of life anymore, so it is not an exact comparison.  However, until your mind is unlocked, it is just as if there are barbed wire and sentries as well as deprivation and hardship – and death (in this case certain spiritual death and a miserable life until you die) if you try to escape.  I will explain this later as I go on.  Jim Jones told members of his cult that if they tried to escape through the jungle outside the compound that there were soldiers out there ready to gun them down.  The scenarios that Stewart created in our mind were similar, in that it seemed that no matter how bad and oppressive life in the fellowship was, life outside in the “world” was worse, and that to leave was guaranteed hell for eternity, because you were choosing to leave the only source of wisdom and salvation and that the forces in the world would overcome you and pull you ever deeper into sin.

I believed this because it was reinforced by the testimonies of returning brothers and sisters who had left and gotten into sin, drugs, crime and worse.  They came back to the fellowship to try to rebuild their lives.  Each one brought their horror stories of life on the outside.  But what was missing was the countless hundreds who left and went on to normal lives.  These people didn’t come back, so you did not see examples of successful escapees.  You only saw those who had left and gotten into bad situations.   They came back with their stories of how hard life was out there “without Jesus,” and the miserable, twisted, sin hardened faces of the returning “backsliders” was enough to make you fear being swept away with the current of the world.  Of all those who left, only a handful ever came back!!!!!  These were the “lucky” ones. The rest were lost!  This had a strong impression on me in the early days.  I would do anything not to be a “backslider.”

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

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2 Responses to “Part 04. Jersey City.”

  1. glen kakowski Says:

    remember it all too well

  2. Dennis Sharkey Says:

    they tried to recruit my handicapped brother

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