Part 08 A. The “810” Era.

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 a brief overview of the 810 Era and the events leading up to it. This took place in 1990-1991.

810 refers to a property the church owned or rented at 810 North Broad Street in Philadelphia, but even more so, it refers to a time period in the church when the Older Brothers (or Ex-Older Brothers as Stewart Traill now called them, to demonstrate his desire to banish or demote them from their position in the church) were to be driven out of the church, having been replaced by, it was hoped, the new homeless people who had been brought in (through the efforts of these same Older Brothers, who went out and gathered them in) and who could be trained in less skilled businesses that would fund the church, that would not require the Older Brothers.

The Church had just bought an entire city block in Philadelphia. It was a facility that had once been a boys’ home. It had several dormitories, a meeting room, a pool and a small gym. This was labeled the New Property. We began having meetings about who could move to the New Property for training, but no one was ever voted as being faithful enough to go there, though some Older Brothers came to do guard shifts. Meanwhile, the church property in Princeton had been sold and Stewart, his wife Gayle and his entourage of young and pretty female “Gayle Helpers” moved together into one of the dormitories on the New Property.

Meanwhile, we were to  get our committees and delegations together. They were supposed to be our representatives and to go down to the New Property to meet with Stewart.

The funniest thing was that – though it was not funny at the time – we had backed and approved a delegation of 10 Older Brothers and Sisters to go. They began feeling nervous about themselves on the way, so at various rest stops during the journey, they held meetings where they voted on themselves to see if they still supported one another and saw one another as “being in a right spirit.” They had 2 of these meetings on the way down and then they held another meeting in the parking lot of the New Property. At this last meeting, they decided among themselves that none of them were in a “right spirit” and that therefore they were not worthy to enter the building to have the meeting with Brother Stewart.  So, they turned around and drove back to New York.

Really what was behind such a thing was that the standards were so high with regard to what “being in a right spirit” was and that Stewart fostered so much self-doubt among us that we all considered ourselves to be unworthy to be at the New Property. What was ultimately behind this was that Stewart did not want anyone to be there but himself, his wife and his close circle of younger females (some ex-members refer to these women as “half wives”), and perhaps a brother or two to guard the grounds at night. If he wanted more of us there, he would have just extended the invitation.

During this time of, what for me was apparent hopelessness. (It was hopeless because I saw the possibility of going to the New Property for “retraining” as impossible. I mean, if even the best ones of us could not go, what about me?  I badly wanted to be “retrained” and to “use all my talents for Jesus” and thereby to escape the hopeless life I was living in Woodruff Avenue.  Why, perhaps I’d even have some one on one training sessions with Stewart and we’d review my talents and skills and see how they could be employed for the good of the church, as well as my own personal fulfillment, as I would then be “living my purpose.” Who knows, with Stewart “starting over” and admitting that he made it too hard for brothers to get married in the past, I might even get married!)

At that time, when all looked impossible, I had a vivid and amazing dream, one that kept me hanging on and gave me hope, despite the fact that current circumstances in the church seemed entirely to the contrary. In this dream, Stewart had repented and was now fully serving Jesus.  (An impossible concept, how could he not have already been fully serving Jesus?)  Not only that, but many brothers and sisters who had left the church had returned.  And everyone was excited and happy.

Shortly after this dream, I was guarding the Staten Island house with Greg S.  We went to the local school field to jog on the track there.  (There were more freedoms then than in times to follow, you could actually do something like this at the time.) When we had finished running, we were talking about the current hopelessness in the church and that’s when I told him about the dream I had. He said that it sounded great, but let’s wait and see. I said, you never know. I believed the dream. It had seemed so real!

In essence the dream came to pass and it was part of what kept me believing for a long time in what was going on there.  It was personal, and directed at me.  And I had a deep tendency to believe the prophetic message aspect of vivid and striking dreams. Stewart did indeed tell us that he was starting over and that he had repented.  And soon, a lot of brothers and sisters who had left the church returned to it.

I cannot deny that I had the dream. But now I realize that the dream did forecast that this would happen, but nowhere in the dream did it say that it had been a genuine conversion. In just a short time, Stewart was going to say that he, in effect, repented (an unheard of and preposterous concept until that time!) and many brothers and sisters were going to return to the church and for a time, at least, be very happy!

(This dream is included in full from my September 1988 journal at the bottom of Page 2 of this story.) [note, at this editing, I have not put this dream in here, but need to…..]

Events leading up to this time period were:

The Grace Meeting (which had initially been called Backslider Meetings and Repentance Meetings in which the entire church membership was being called back to some group effort again, whether they were live-ins or ones who had left). We were to write essays on how we were backsliders and bring these essays to the meetings and when we were assembled together, to stand up and read our essays out loud to one another.

What I didn’t know then, but know now, is that at some point in this process, Stewart had been caught by his wife Gayle in a compromising situation with one of his Gayle Helpers (whom he admitted to “touching sexually,” without being specific about what this touching involved).  In a classic case of divide and conquer, he held a meeting with some married, live-out brothers to talk about this sexual touching of of this sister, but did not publicly announce this aspect of his “repentance” to us live in members when he made his grandiose and theatrical repentance speech before the assembled body of believers and those who did know the specifics remained silent about it.

I saw this sister when she was sent back to the Woodruff at this time.  The only thing we were told was that she had been into “wrong attention” around Stewart, and that as a result, she was being sent back to Woodruff from Stewart’s house in Princeton. One day walking down to the subway platform with a group of brothers and sisters, I saw that she was already ahead of us, waiting for a train. She normally dressed in an attractive but conservative way. This day she was wearing very short red pants, red lipstick and her hair, usually straight, was curled out.   She looked like Jodie Foster, in her role as the young prostitute in the movie Taxi Driver.  Yep, I thought, she’s really into “wrong attention” alright. At that time I had no idea what might have actually happened with her and Stewart.

It was probably known by his inner circle – his wife and the other Gayle Helpers – that this was not the first time that Stewart had done this.  So whether this came out during the time period of the “Backslider Meetings” and a shift was made to Grace Meetings (in which Stewart was now appropriating Grace for himself and saying he was a victim of his own teachings under which he, much more than ourselves, was pushed to various extremes of behavior – behavior possibly also included “touching” the above mentioned sister “sexually”), or whether being caught in this was the reason in the first place for “Backslider Meetings” in which Stewart could hide within the mass of other sinners and make whatever actions he had chosen just be a part of greater movement and restoration for all backsliders. Note, it was assumed by everyone one in the church – those living in and those living out – that we were all backsliders.  This was nothing new, but what was new this time, was that Traill was not railing and ranting at everyone, so no one reacted with defensive postures about being called a backslider. Look, everyone sins and falls short of the glory of God! Sure, I thought, I’d like to admit I’m a backslider and get “restored.”

We had been coming to Philadelphia for some time for our meetings, which seemed very hopeful. We put out a lot of effort to call lapsed members of the church to come back and many did. More returnees than I had ever seen at any time in the church. Normally, there would be people who came back now and then to try to start over, bringing their stories of sin and misery and woe in the “world” out there and their lives in it without Jesus.

Several papers and large pamphlets were written about grace and the restoration of sinners.  This amounted to a promise of great freedom for anyone who accepted, because here the treatment of people flowed from the teachings and prior to this most everything had been an absolute militant doctrine and the quality of life here flowed down from that.

Now, finally,  it seemed the fellowship would change. Stewart was stepping down from his place as the absolute tyrant to walk among the brothers and sisters as a servant. (I’m exaggerating here, but also trying to get at something about the change and the new way of life that was seeming to come about.) From now on, life in the fellowship would be good and everyone could get along and have normal lives.

The biggest change probably came at the Grace Meeting which soon followed. Stewart deemed this meeting so important, saying that he had something to tell us that was so important that we must get everyone there to hear it. A large number of ex-members of the church came for this meeting. Most of them were skeptical, but they wanted to know. Stewart said it was of such great importance that the “universe is going to stop.”

This was Stewart, again placing himself and what he teaches as having universal importance, that there would be something so important that he was about to say that the universe itself would stop at that moment. I heard it said several times afterward that there was an ex-member, now living in Switzerland (where it would be about 1 in the morning when this hour came) who actually went outside and looked up at the sky to see if anything was going to happen. Such is the hold on some people’s minds that this man has!

I won’t write what he said in detail, as transcripts are available elsewhere. The main point was that he said he had been making things too hard on himself and that he was a victim of his own teaching. His teaching was essentially right but that he had, as an oversight, in all sincerity, forgotten to include grace. Therefore his gospel was a hard yoke on everyone – and even more so on himself. But since this was an oversight, not a conscious decision to alter the gospel, God was merciful to him.

He never mentioned any his sins, other than perhaps he had been too rough on Gayle. I would say now that those who knew what he did had a different conception of what his words meant than I or most others did. I only understood that he had been driven to extremes by belief in his own teachings (which omitted grace) and that he was under the pressure of a hard yoke and as a result had done certain things, which however, were ultimately not his fault. He was a victim of his own good intentions.

On one hand, it surprises me that no one who knew the real story said anything. But, on the other hand, I know it is easy to say someone should have done this, but it is not so easy for someone in that position to do it. If you read my journals, you will see the great terror I was in about disagreeing with anything Traill did or said, in any way, at any time.  (Whether to his face, or mentioning it to others, because they would report, or inform on me.)  I felt nailed, pinned to the wall. There is an aspect of demonic forces, spiritual oppression to all this.  If Richard Wurmbrand trembled while speaking to him, and considered him to be a “powerful backslider,” who was I to stand up to him and succeed?  The few times I did stand to him and didn’t end up getting blasted, was not because I had succeeded in exposing his lies, it was he was doing damage control, realizing that if he dealt with me seriously after bringing up issues about him publicly, that they might think there was something to what I was saying.  So, he let me slide a few times and didn’t snuff me out.

If his inner circle were more aware of what was going on than I was, they were also more securely trapped by the same forces that kept me in line. Much more so, because they lived in close proximity with him. What I felt while Stewart was present at meetings, and what I got all week by being worked on and monitored by others and the effect of Stewart’s messages all week was merely a watered down version of what those who lived with him experienced on a constant basis. I didn’t live with Stewart Traill. I only saw him at meetings. I also found ways to dissipate the pressure by finding small ways to be alone so I could gather my own thoughts and reassess things, by finding private time alone on job sites, by reading, and also keeping a journal.

I will not go into more detail here, because it is explained elsewhere in my journals about the hold on persons in communal societies. It took me a long time wake up and to understand the social dynamics of this, and to realize it was not God doing this to me. I was subject to the social dynamics of life in a community mixed with the idealistic belief in the organization I lived in, the purpose and truthfulness of it and in the leader who held it all together, and ultimately not in him, but in Jesus, who had brought me here and who, despite the current problems we were facing, would fix everything in the end. After all, he had brought me here and he was aware of what was going on and would do something about it. It was inconceivable to me that he would not. This was Jesus’s fellowship. People in cults are often idealistic. I was one of them.

The essence of what I brought away from this meeting was that things were going to change and that it was going to be much better from now on. Stewart even declared he had been making it too hard for brothers to get married, in effect, pronouncing now that relationships and marriages were available! I was happy for that, but not only that.

I could not understand why some of the former members (the who had come for this special meeting only) were saying that nothing had changed. Ronie said that nothing has changed, it’s the same old thing. Hilton, formerly one of the most “out front” “Young Sheep Brothers,” said that he came, he saw, and now he knows there’s nothing to it. Of all people Hilton would want to start over and come back here, right?

But I did not process this very well, nor did I understand what it meant. You see, I lived in. They lived out. It was inertia. The tendency of objects at rest is to stay at rest and the tendency of objects in motion is to stay in motion. This revelation by Stewart was not enough to make certain people in motion stop and come back here to stay. (Note however, there were as many as 80 ex-members who came back to stay during this half year long apparent change in the church. But the majority of the ones that came for this one time special meeting, saw and knowing the real score, left and never came back again.) I was an object at rest, I lived here. Compared to life here before and the way Stewart had been before, this was an extreme change. It was wonderful! I, formerly in chains, was being promised freedoms of a kind I had never expected to receive. I was in a happy state of shock!

Actually it was only a promise to change. Soon the chains were to go on even tighter, much tighter than they had ever been. When I listen back to the recording of this meeting, it is hard to find anything to have been hopeful about. Traill claimed to be a victim of his own teachings. He was whining about himself. He said that no one ever tried to tell him anything or tried to correct his wrong course. When a woman named Diane stood up to ask, in a reminding sort of way, if there hadn’t been a few people who did try to do that over the years, he railed at her.

The only thing I can say is what I was responding to in this talk by Stewart was the concept that he could, for the first time I’d ever heard it, admit he had been wrong about anything. He was no longer trying to portray himself as infallible. And that in hearing this, I believed things might change here.

Another comparison I like to make about the reactions of those who lived here and those who didn’t live in the church, is from a novel I read several times in COBU, called Escape From Colditz. (There is probably a reason why I like to read such books.)  During WW2, the Germans put Allied prisoners who had made unsuccessful escape attempts from other prison camps in a castle. It seemed impossible to escape from there, but on the other hand you now had a concentrated prisoner population of people with experience in escape methods. And escapes happened frequently. In coaching the men who were to go out through a tunnel they had dug, the men were given this advice. When moving across the fields at night, they were never to walk, but rather they were to jog slowly. The reasoning was simple. If someone saw them and yelled “Stop!” the instant reaction for someone walking is to freeze in his tracks.  But the reaction of someone jogging is to break out in a run. Someone who stopped might also then run, but those few seconds of inaction could cost you your life. I lived in. I was one of those walking (or standing still, if you prefer). Those living out who came for the one “all important” meeting were in motion and they were certainly not going to stop and remain here, quitting their jobs and moving in, after hearing this “important” message.  But I heard it and thought it was the most amazing thing….

I lived in a happy bliss for the next 3 months, when suddenly I woke up one day in a different state of mind, as if a ton of bricks hit me. It took me that long to process it. It was if your friend told you he cleaned out your bank account and spent it, took your girl, and stole all your stuff, but says he’s sorry. Because he’s so remorseful and in such a state of contrition – and that this was so unexpected – you are mostly thinking about his asking for forgiveness. But later, you walk away and think, “He did WHAT???” I had essentially been bankrupted and cheated out of ten years of my life by a false teacher, who now admits that, besides being the greatest victim of his own teachings (which in his case made him be rough with people – and also “made” him take sexual liberties with his female staff, I was later to find out), that some of the effect of wrong teaching has trickled down to me and that I may have been affected by it as well!

Stewart soon shifted attention away from himself by creating a major diversion. He said that one of the unfortunate side effects of the brothers getting set free is that the women in the church were extremely upset, because up till now, they had been in complete control of the men  and that they would do ANYTHING in their power to put an end to our freedom, because, as we all knew and had been taught for years, women want to be in control.  (This was never explained, other than to say that the brothers had been held down by the heavy yoke of the graceless teaching, which did not come from the women, by the way.)

This was a double edged sword. In effect, Stewart was saying we brothers were doing well in our faith. We were strong, united, thankful for what Jesus was doing for us. Even Stewart was coming to the brothers’ meetings and sitting in just like any brother, actually appearing to hang out as if he were just one of us. During the voting, he even asked to be voted on. (We voted on which brothers we saw as doing well, and which were not doing well. Those who were not doing well were to be helped in their faith.) I can remember the extreme joy that brothers had when they saw Brother Stewart asking to be voted on. I remember him asking how brothers saw him as being in the faithful category and I can remember Jeff B.’s ecstatic joy that Brother Stewart would ask for such a thing. All the brothers felt so “encouraged.” Kevin was at that meeting, having returned from several years of extreme drug addiction. Others like him, such as Bob J. had also come back. Their health was improving too.

Ah, but those sisters. They were, as Stewart said, very unhappy about all this. They were in a rage about losing control over us. We had the upper hand now, as the Bible says, men are to lead. And they were in great anger about this, he said. So, the sisters’ rebellion was really against Jesus himself and against the laws of Christian life and the laws of nature as created by God. You know, as in Genesis. “He shall rule over you and your desire shall be for him.”

These things were not always directly stated, but this was part of the overall worldview that we adhered to. Stewart portrayed any “wrong behavior” (especially anything regarding your not liking this system and saying so) in universal and spiritual terms, so that you were either on the side of God or the devil, and that all your actions had eternal consequences, since in the end, all of humankind would be divided into the faithful (there weren’t going to many of those) and those who had rebelled against God, who would now be brought into submission, but in their case, at a time when it was too late for them to submit willingly. Their lot was to be the lake of fire, which burned forever and forever. I’m not saying that these things are not in the Bible or that there is not a final judgment. I am saying however that Stewart was a master at portraying life on that stage or against that backdrop, so that your actions had eternal consequences. Usually what had negative eternal consequences were any thoughts, ideas and actions that were not in conformity to the agenda he was promoting at the moment. Powerful stuff, and very effective.

Despite any new freedom to have relationships and marriage that seemed to have been pronounced, with this new revelation about the sisters, now I wondered how I could marry a woman who was in rebellion against God and who was trying to bring the brothers – and me – down. I saw that one sister I really liked and when I got a few moments alone with her, I could only think this about her, though I could not see any specific evidence of it in her behavior at the moment. She was not saying bad things to me. But I believed what I had been told and was so sad that I could not be talking to her in some other way, like telling her I liked her. There was some question Stewart told us to say to the women, something like, “When are you going to turn from your rebellion and stop fighting against all sound judgment?” I don’t remember the exact words, but it was something like that. These were the lines we were given to say to the sisters. With great disappointment (and also being afraid of her), I said that to her instead of telling her nice things.

So, you see, Stewart didn’t forbid marriage, but there were always these things going on that he pointed out, as if he were merely observing them and telling you about them. Really they were scenarios he created as a way to pit groups within the church against one another, such as the men against the women. During this time, many of the sisters left the church.

Within a year, Stewart shifted his attention to the “Middle Brothers” and “New Disciples.” During this time we had begun to take in a large number of people, most of them street people that we met at bus terminals and train stations. During those years, you could see hundreds of people sleeping on the floor in the stations at night. There was one night when the brothers went out and brought about 40 people to Woodruff. I was sick that night and had stayed in my room. Someone came up and said I ought to come down, because a miracle had just happened and that “Jesus has brought in a lot of new brothers.” I went down and saw this. It was like a miracle. Almost nobody new had ever come over in a long time and certainly not in these numbers. This was the beginning of an all out effort to bring new people in.

But in time, these crowds of new people began to be unruly. We never worked out a systematic way to provide any kind of care for these people. There were no facilities and we were not a shelter, rescue mission or anything of the sort. Just a cult that saw the possibility of free labor through exploiting homeless people. I know this is a little extreme to say. We brothers often tried to help these “new disciples” and read the bible with them. I got to know quite a few of them. It helped me to dispel the image of homeless people which I had before. Many of them had good lives before but through various causes, whether addictions or unemployment and lack of skills, became homeless. Some of them were good to get to know and I became friends with some of them, as many of us did.

But there was a job to do and Stewart did not see anyone of them as someone to know. Yes, there were Bible studies (to give on the subjects promoted by Stewart) but Stewart, despite his attaching all things to eternal consequences, was not a person who was very concerned about anyone. I gradually came to realize that the church was merely an income gathering vehicle to support Stewart’s lifestyle, and that gathering in new people had economic purposes. He sometimes said so himself, that we should gather more people so as to have more workers. Christian training was ultimately a way to beat people into submission and to winnow out the unwilling and keep the ones who would be docile and trainable. Doctrines such as serving others and giving up your life only served as reasons to give up everything to serve the machine. People were expendable. If they didn’t want to, you could always find someone else. The church also was Stewart’s captive audience and a stage upon which he could play the part of The Great Bible Teacher. The basic script, the underlying plot which never changed, although there were various changes in cast and dialog, was that he was the only true Bible teacher, now and for all time, since no one since the time of the apostles knew the truth. Sometimes he would cast doubt on whether Paul (who, with the exception of the 4 gospels, wrote most of the New Testament) knew what he was talking about. Sometimes Stewart would let us know that all the others had been wrong, and not since the time of the apostles – since it had been lost and forgotten in the intervening centuries – has this been revealed, and then go into some convoluted teaching about “faith is godly thinking,” and that no one else knows this. I understood then that if he thinks no one else knows this but us, and that if he has only told us just now, that up till that moment, that he considered him self as the only one who knows this thing that has been forgotten since the time of the apostles. And the reason he gave for it being lost is not because of human forgetfulness or the Dark Ages, but that it was because Christians had been rebellious. Rebellion was a major theme in Stewart’s teaching. He was the faithful teacher in a rebellious world – and in a church whose members were constantly being called on the carpet for being rebellious as well. If one group of the church wasn’t rebelling at moment, another part was – and that’s why there could not be relationships.

I came to understand in my last years there that if one were to accept Stewart’s claim of having this great insight, it put you in extreme obligation to this teacher, because he was the only teacher who knew the truth. His being the only one had something to do with God showing him, so now the ante was raised to eternal proportions. Not that God doesn’t want to show others, but they are all rebellious. And God does not reveal truth to rebellious people, so those other teachers, even if they knew a little, were not going to be entrusted with any deep (and life saving) revelation from God.

And if this teacher, who was able to see these Biblical truths, saw the truth that you were rebellious – or said you were rebellious – it was incumbent upon you to accept the cure he was proposing to escape that condition, since all the other blind teachers (other than Stewart) neither saw this about you nor could they help you with it. And if this teacher had demands on your life, and time? And if he, while not saying you could not marry, saw and spoke on the conditions within the church – and more importantly the conditions within you (such as rebellion) that were preventing you from being married, wouldn’t you accept those reasons and try to work on the cures for those problems so you could eventually have marriage? And ultimately, Traill held the keys of life and death, heaven and hell. Yes, Jesus did, really, but you needed revelation, especially in these last days, and the implication was, Jesus was only showing these things to Stewart. You couldn’t receive revelation on your own because you were rebellious, so Jesus was not going to show you anything. But maybe if you admitted your rebellion and accepted these cures as proposed by Stewart, you might have hope. That is why it was so hard for me to believe that God might be showing me something. For example when I read the Bible and it didn’t match what Stewart said, or if I doubted the solutions to the problems Stewart said we had. I sometimes doubted the if the problems he said we had were real and even more so, often considered the cures he proposed for these problems to be as worse than any disease he said I had.

This has been a long digression but it helps set the stage for things that follow, in order to put them in the context of the events taking place at that time and of the belief systems attached to them.

The new people were often unruly, and in many cases it was our fault. There was a meeting at the New Property in Philadelphia when they took over and it looked like a riot might take place. There were several men walking around with boards. It must be noted that Stewart was not a coward in all this. He did not flee the room. No one did. We tried to contain things. Stewart had great knowledge of human behavior, as manipulative people do, since it is not by accident but by design, that people are controlled. Although many feared this crowd that was about to go in to a rage, Stewart probably realized that in any crowd there are only a handful of people who are stirring up the rest and that most of these people, as rough as some of them might appear to be, were just regular people who would not want to fight or hurt anyone. He realized who the trouble makers were, usually the ones with something in their hands, and directed the biggest and strongest older brothers to “talk to them,” which mean surrounding them. If these brothers had pushed or tackled any of these guys, the others might have been incited to riot. But through the careful use of talking about “helping people” he was able to manage the crowd. The rest of the people really had legitimate gripes about their treatment, but were not violent people either. Their part in this whole scenario had been mostly that of shouting.

It was also good that we had Christian beliefs. If this had been a prison scene and we acted like guards, it would have gone down very badly.

Stewart was also careful to play both sides of the crowd and let the new people vent about which Older Brothers had been mean and who always mistreated them. Though most of these brothers were the leaders who carried out Stewart’s orders and policies on the new people. It was more convenient to have them seen as oppressors for the moment, in contrast to Stewart, who appeared to care about them and let them voice their dissatisfaction – and was wisely playing the crowd in order to let them vent safely.

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