Part 04. The Decline of the Jersey City Fellowship.

The decline of the Jersey City house.

The Older Newly Saved fellowship began to decline before I arrived, but in the fall of 1980 when I moved there, there was still a lot of activity going on and the house was full.  Fred and Donna told me that there used to be so many people that during meetings there were people praying on the front and back steps, because the house was too full.

When I moved there, there were about 30 young men and women living in the house, including 2 couples, Fred and Donna and Danny and Brenda.  Relationships in the church were already on the way out, and Fred and Donna told me they were surprised their relationship was surviving, since so many couples had broken up (or had been broken up).  Danny and Brenda left first.  And not long after, Fred and Donna left.  Both couples made the decision to stay together and did not want to follow everyone else, having to break up and still be in the church, yet no longer be able to have a relationship.

The exodus was happening when Steve arrived.  He was not the same as Joanne.  He had an ax to grind and insofar as we could tell, it was because he wanted to get married to his fiancée.  In the Church of Bible Understanding, you couldn’t just get married if you wanted to, you had to prove you were “taking the church by the hand” first.  That is, Jesus was first in your life and then the church was second and that you were a leader.  Where did that leave the rank and file members who were not leading fellowship houses?  Not only that, you would have to prove this to everyone and get voted on, and the atmosphere during any kind of voting was adversarial if not outright hostile.

This requirement is in direct opposition to the Bible.  The Bible says in I Timothy 3:1-7 that:

…If anyone sets his heart on being an overseer, he desires a noble task. Now the overseer must be above reproach, the husband of but one wife, temperate, self-controlled …He must manage his own family well and see that his children obey him with proper respect. (If anyone does not know how to manage his own family, how can he take care of God’s church?)….

This seems to say that one must prove to be an effective leader by first being the leader of his own family.  You can differ on just what level of leadership an overseer is, but the point seems clear that you do not have to be a leader in church in order to have permission to marry.

There was a high rate of people leaving the Jersey City house about the time Joanne was taken out and Steve came to both work on us and to work for a wife.  This was set against the backdrop of a general wave of people leaving the entire fellowship at this time.

Steve lacked the concern for people that Joanne had and was often rude toward any brother who was not outgoing or an “alpha male.”   He immediately went to work on me (and some others), considering me to be “weird” and “strange” and whatever other epithets were handy in the COBU lexicon at the time.  After one bullying session where he was berating me, he asked me in front of several others if I had thoughts of hitting him.  In COBU style confessional honesty, I admitted that I indeed did have a thought about punching him, which did occur to me when I had gotten very angry at receiving this treatment (which I would never have tried because it wasn’t my nature, and besides, he was about twice my size).  He then turned this around on me to say how weird I was that I was having violent thoughts about him, all the more “proving” what a “weird” person I was, just like he had said.  But this was typical COBU bullying tactics, and Steve had learned such ploys from the “master” himself, Stewart Traill, and as a result, it was acceptible for him to act this way and no one was going to call him on it.

Let me talk about some of Steve’s motivations.  I met Steve many years after we both left, and he is not this way now.  People caught in the web of the cults can do all sorts of things in the name of wanting to do the right thing.  And I would say that there are more good people in cults than bad ones and even the bad behavior is coming from good motivation directed at wrong goals or directed the wrong way at right goals.

Steve wanted to serve Jesus.  And, Steve wanted to get married.  As simple as that.  In many churches, that would be no problem.

In the Church of Bible Understanding, it was not so simple as that.

People in cults are idealistic.  They want to change the world for the better.  The founder of the cult, who is enjoying the financial rewards (and more) does not have these motivations.  For him its all business and what’s in it for him in this system he set up and through which he controls people and finances.  But the rank and file are sincere people.  That’s why they work so hard.  They believe in the stated goals of the cult, which is to bring positive change to the world.  In the case of a Christiany based cult, it is to bring salvation to the world. To save as many people as possible.  To live in community as a right example of Christian faith and fellowship.  To have relationships with one another based on love and truth – including proper marriage relationships.

Steve was sent to whip the Jersey City house back in shape.  Really, Fred and Donna could have been enough as fellowship leaders and they were, unofficially anyway, being the two strongest personalities in the house.  And Joanne (and later Steve) were only around part time.  So really, we did not need another fellowship leader after Joanne left.

Part and parcel of Steve whipping the house back in shape would be proving himself as leader and worthy of marrying his fiancée.  Steve wanted to serve Jesus and he wanted to “get married rightly” as the COBU terminology went.  There was a lot in that loaded statement, “married rightly.”

I became disappointed to see people leaving.  Rich, who was the first person I met when I arrived, had sat and talked with me for a long time on the back steps of the Jersey City house and was a good friend.  He disappeared one day.     After that Luchie left.  Luchie (Lucien) and Bernie were two young men from Switzerland who left to come to America, with no more plans than just to live in hostels and have some adventure.  They met the fellowship and were treated so well that they moved in.  Luchie went to Germany where he is now a doctor and Bernie stayed in COBU for about another 15 years, sometimes leaving and then returning during that time, till he finally left for good.

Another good friend of mine, Brian, left.  He wanted to leave the fellowship and be in the theater.  He was always torn between being in the fellowship and being in the “world” and we had a lot of conversations about his “struggle.”   Many other friends left.  I drove Brian to his new rented apartment in Montclair.  During most of the drive I was trying to convince him to come back.  A really good friend, Mario left and went back to Ecuador.

I was now in the house with Victor, Linda and Miriam.  Soon after, I helped Victor move his belongings to the Lower East Side, where he moved in with a relative.  Linda went home, and a few days later, Miriam moved to another fellowship house in Queens, NY.

I was now in the house all by myself, which just 9 months before had been filled with people.  What followed was an interesting couple of weeks.  I lived and worked there, all by myself.  I worked in the carpet cleaning business by day and sometimes went witnessing by myself to Spanish areas in Union City, where I had a friend named Javier whom I was giving lessons to. I also went to Manhattan in the evenings where I was starting to hang out with a group of Older Brothers who were a little disenfranchised from the fellowship.  They seemed “real” and were very friendly.  They were a kind of “cell” in the fellowship who were living in a degree of freedom and at a distance from the usual oppression going on in the church.  They spoke a lot of God’s grace and love and never gave me a hard time.

I no longer was working with Victor in the church’s carpet cleaning business.  Till recently I had been going on jobs with either him or Brian.  Christian Brothers Carpet Cleaning had an advertisement in the Yellow Pages in most North Jersey towns and there were enough calls coming in to the answering service to keep us busy all day.

Now I was alone.  I used to call the answering service in the morning.  Then I responded to the people who had called in, often scheduling 2 or 3 jobs that day and going out with the van and the carpet cleaning machine by myself, doing jobs in the projects in Newark (where the customers were the friendliest) and upper class towns along the New Jersey shore of the Hudson River.  I worked hard and I’d often solicit up a little business with the neighbors on the same hall in the housing project, doing someone’s living room, or area mats at a discount, because I was already in the building.  There was a house in Union City where I came to do a living room and bedroom but while there, sold them on cleaning the basement stairs and their sofa and chairs.  I would just act enthusiastic about the cleaning process and show them how dirty the water was in the dirty water tank and convince them they should get other things cleaned too.

I dutifully turned all the money in.

I called the answering service one morning and got a message saying the line was no longer in service.  I also got a call from someone in the Manhattan office, yelling at me, saying didn’t I know that no one had been paying the answering service bill and that they had ended the account for the Jersey City house?  I was getting come down on for being stupid and irresponsible, but really, I had no idea who paid the bill to the answering service and I never had that responsibility, nor did anyone pass it on to me when I was the last one in the Jersey City house.  No one said they’d reactivate it, nor did anyone seem to be aware of the income that had been coming in, despite my being the only person there.  Maybe compared to the overall business receipts for the large number of squads in Manhattan and the boroughs, no one had noticed, or it was so small by comparison that no one gave it a thought.

No matter, I thought, I’ll go out and pass out flyers.  The business had a little flyer that we used to hand out to get business.  I spent about a week systematically flyering houses in a lot of towns.  No one called in from the flyers.  It turns out that the Yellow Page ads were the only things that would work in NJ.

If the income from the work I had been doing previously had not been noticed, a week or so of no income was definitely noticed.  Our friend Steve, who had previously been sent out to revive the Jersey City house and who had not been around for a month was again called on the scene.

Steve called and said he had a job set up in a hotel lobby nearby and that I should go and join him to clean rugs there.  I walked in, probably a little later than I should have and when I got in the lobby I heard a voice booming from a balcony above, “Come on, you lazy bum!  Where have you been? Get to work!!”

It was hard to argue with the guy, because I did feel like a lazy bum after not having worked on any jobs for more than a week.  You could count the flyering working, but there was nothing to show for it.  And, if you’ve ever been unemployed even for a brief time, you get this sinking feeling and I sure did feel like a lazy bum, although I also did not think it was right for Steve to treat me that way.

I was soon put out of the business.  There were jobs now, though I am not sure where they were coming from.  Maybe the answering service had been reactivated and the work was coming from the phone book.  Steve was in charge now and I was relegated to helper.  I no longer had the feeling of accomplishment as I did before.  I was wanding a floor and it was just not fast enough for Steve, so he took over and made me just carry buckets of water.  I was also supposed to anticipate where he was going to clean next and move furniture out of the way for him.  I soon took to zoning out, bored out of my mind as I stood next to the machine.  He saw that came down on me for being a lazy bum who did not want to work and I was fired.

Also, Steve had been all about giving orders and insults.  When I used to work with Victor and Brian, we’d talk to one another before, during and after jobs and I never remember experiencing boreout.  I might not have been the fastest worker in the business but we got the work done and no one thought it necessary to report me for being lazy.

I was not the only recipient of Steve’s cut and burn insult style.  When we finished the hotel lobby we went to a Chinese restaurant and Steve decided that a woman in another booth was looking at him.  In a booming voice loud enough for the entire restaurant to hear, he said, “Don’t stare at me!”  She must have looked again, because he said, “Don’t stare!”   This was something Steve picked up from Brother Stewart himself as he would often berate people he said were staring at him in meetings.  It would usually be someone in the front row who was watching him talk.  One time, Traill made one guy turn around and face the rest of the room, so he wouldn’t keep “staring” at him.

I also remember being in an auto supply store with Steve and he decided to berate someone behind the counter, but this time he was also talking about Jesus and other Christian things while doing it.  I walked out thinking, this is a horrible representation of being a Christian or of the Gospel.

After being fired, I took flyers again and went up to Union City and West New York, flyering a couple of days until I got discouraged and lost motivation.  I took a bus to Manhattan and walked into the nearest tall building, the McGraw Hill Building and systematically knocked on office doors till I got a job in a health insurance company as a data entry clerk and I worked there for the next half year.  I was bringing in far less money to the fellowship in a week than I would have made in a single day when I was working in Christian  Brothers cleaning, either when I was working with Brian or Victor or those two weeks alone, but no one seemed to care and no one bothered me about it.

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



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