1991, 05/01. If Prison Walls Could Speak

This was written when I was living the Christian Brothers Carpet Cleaning shop in a basement on West 51st Street in Manhattan. We slept on the floor.

I have used the title of one of Richard Wurmbrand’s books for this entry, but there is no comparison to my experience in The Church of Bible Understanding and what Richard Wurmbrand went through in the communist prisons in Romania. But I was writing as  someone locked up in a prison and speaking about it. And there was no one in the Church of Bible Understanding I could talk to about these things and I didn’t know anyone on the “outside” I could talk to.

I also wrote about how Stewart Traill disowned his “true teaching” from the previous year. (It was the teaching of Perfectionism, that “those who are born again do not sin.” According to Perfectionism if a person still sins, they are not born again. This is an old Christian heresy that Stewart resuscitated and established among us as the absolute and incontrovertable truth. Stewart had a hidden motive behind this. It was a way for him to declare himself sinless and his actions infallible. It was also a way for him to say he had only been born again just recently and that therefore all this previous sins, such as adultery, (which only a few knew about) didn’t count, because he had not been born again till now. It was also a way for us to see ourselves as sinners who had never been born again, because for sure, we were going to be honest with ourselves and with each other and say that we had sinned again, and again. Brothers who until this time thought they had gotten saved and born again many years ago now agonized over the apparent fact that they had never been born again. And they asked Stewart what they could do about it. Stewart said that in the early church, they had disciples, which meant “learners,” those who are still in the learning stage and that we could be learners, who though not yet born again, were in training to become real Christians. What a step backwards for us! And it was yet another way for us to focus on our shortcomings and to keep our eyes off of what Stewart was up to.)  

But, a year later, this teaching had served its purpose and was no longer useful to him. During Stewart’s withdrawal of this teaching, he blamed us for letting him get away with teaching it to us. I didn’t believe Stewart’s teaching of Perfectionism in the first place, and I saw how hard he slammed anyone to the wall (including me and Ron) who had questions about it. Yet now Stewart said it wasn’t real, and not only that, it was our fault for letting him get away with it. 

Stewart Traill was a man who claimed to be the bearer of truth, but I began to realize that his teachings were subject to change without notice. (“The Only True Teaching: Subject to Change Without Notice” was the title of book I thought of writing about the “true teaching” in COBU, because if it were true, why does it keep changing? We were not supposed to question this true teaching, but Stewart could rewrite it at his own discretion, at any time. If he changed something to the complete opposite of what it had been before, we had to say we believed it. And if he changed it back again, we had to say we believed it. Not only that, we were not supposed to point this out to him, or to anyone else. I asked a brother named Andrew if he realized that Stewart did this with many of his teachings and Andrew said “Jesus just keeps showing us, clearer and clearer.” For Andrew, Stewart’s process of shuffling the deck was just a process of things becoming things becoming clearer. Other brothers also thought like this too. A brother named Roger told me that he trusted Brother Stewart, because Jesus is the head of our church and Jesus works through Stewart as our pastor, and Jesus would never lie to us.)

This religious shell game also made me realize that Stewart was playing with my life and misguiding me. How could I pin my life – and my salvation – upon the ever-shifting sands of Traillism, with Stewart Traill as my filter and lens through whom I saw God Stewart’s view of God was accompanied by belief enforcement and accusations of our rebellion and unfaithfulness. This was used to keep us in line, as cogs in a machine whose sole purpose and reason for existence was to be laborers, new convert gatherers and trainers and an uncritical captive audience for Stewart’s weekly talks on biblical confusion and uncertainty.


I drew this sketch in my notebook during a meeting. It shows a vine (like the True Vine in John 15) growing upward and free from the barbed wire on a prison wall. (The word COBU indicates what prison I considered myself to be in.) The caption asks, “Can God bring good out of evil?”

These journal pages form the background of my book, Captive Congregation: My Fourteen Years in the Church of Bible Understanding, which is available as a Kindle book or in paperback.

-*-

WHO AND WHAT I REALLY AM

It’s about time I wrote this little book because I’ve been thinking about it for some time. I’m always thinking my own thoughts.

I don’t believe what’s going on here. I see that numbers are dwindling rapidly among the new disciples and middle brothers. There is nothing to keep them here, only promises and a rigid form of discipline. Those who can paste on smiles and act good the longest are the survivors, the rest leave.

Stewart must be very frustrated. Things never have been so low in the church and it surprises me that he doesn’t think he has anything to do with it!

[I used to think Stewart was taking his frustration out on us because there was a high turnover among the new people we brought in. Most of them left soon after we brought them in. Many of them left because of the way Stewart treated them, or how they saw Stewart treating the others. Sometimes the new converts left during meetings when Stewart was verbally abusing them or another new convert, and they were disgusted and saw no reason to stay there. Stewart always blamed this leave-taking on the older brothers. As he was beating up the new disciples, and one of the new disciples got up and left, saying he’d had enough, Stewart accused the older brothers of being the reason that person walked out.]

All I know is, if there is a problem, then somewhere there is an older brother to blame. That’s the general consensus, that all these problems are due to the older brothers’ unfaithfulness.

This really is a church for the women. They’re the only ones who seem to bear up well with this kind of life. The married women come here without their husbands, who don’t want anything to do with the place, because if they do, all they know is that they are going to get it.

[Really, Stewart was not getting on the sisters’ case while publicly trashing and beating the brothers at this time. The women wisely sat the meetings out in silence, saying as little as possible, because they knew that Stewart could redirect his rantings at them at any time.]

Now, I’ve been concluding that I’m a real glutton for punishment. I have been thinking about my life at 810 and how I went for all that nonsense, abasement and ill-treatment so readily. Being thrown into something like a death camp or punishment camp. It was bad enough to go there, but to submit to it as if it were my due, that was crazy! I learned to live there, learned the ropes. I used to wonder, as spring was coming, if I would be there through the summer and I wondered if and how I would be able to make it. There were a lot of forces on me to make me to go for that sort of life and to drive me into it.

We had a lot of “when are you going to pack your bags?” meetings. It made us worry and want to cling to this place. Be grateful that we are still here! We were disoriented. If two older brothers were caught talking together, they were instantly broken up. We were made to feel like the scum of the earth. Why didn’t I leave? I went for this readily enough. I threw myself into this new situation as if it were my new work. (It seems we are always caught up in the latest saying, the latest thing, so we can’t see the forest for the trees. We miss the big picture. Right now, it’s “Are you a believer or a non-believer?” and everybody (including me) is worried about where they will stand in (the voting on) this matter. Last week it was something else, next week it will also be something else.)

In a meeting with Brother Stewart:

Right now, we’re getting a beating at the meeting. There’s no relief, no relenting, no hope. It’s as if one’s crimes are so great that they can never be pardoned. (All this “dinosaur club” and “tree house” stuff we are accused of.) It is hard for me to believe that Stewart is trying to help us, even if he does his “correction” in a calm voice without yelling, ranting or raving. There is always something we have not done, have not faced. Brothers try to climb out of the pit and he meets them at the top with a list of requirements that they have not fulfilled, so they have to go back to square one and start all over again. There is no encouragement, no relief for would-be seekers and escapers. (Various brothers said they were taking their stand that Christ was their righteousness. Stewart said there was no sign of the fear of God, so their claims wrong, period. He didn’t say, ”Yes, that’s right, you must take your stand on Christ’s righteousness, but also remember the fear of God if you would continue.”)

I am tired of this.

(Now Stewart is asking for our opinions on what we should get into next. We give our responses, one by one…)

Yes, I am tired of this. And the truth is, I would rather not even be here. Sometimes I think a little encouragement would go a long way here, rather than hearing what’s wrong with us all the time and about the long list of requirements we have to fulfill before we can get anywhere. (It makes me want to give up.) Stewart says we can’t start this until we have done that, and we can only do that if we have done that, etc. and etc., all the way to the starting point and when we think we have found it – well, we can’t even be doing that until… Nothing is a relief. Even the best Bible study has a clause or a catch to it that leaves us out in the cold. There is nothing to set us at ease, to maybe even start appreciating what God has done and can do for us. (It’s always about what God is going to do to us, which makes me want to run.)

Now we are having a meeting about sin. Meetings always seem to add up to invective against the older brothers. I am quietly waiting for a blast because Stewart is now talking about attacking the gospel.

[When Stewart talked about those who were “attacking the gospel,” I feared he would start coming after me, because when I spoke up to him at a meeting not long before, he said my observations about him were an “attack on the gospel.”]

I wish meetings could be a way out, a way to freedom; some way of starting over and making a new, hopeful beginning. Sure, it’s wrong to justify sin, but I wonder sometimes if this isn’t too much. (“Look away and desist, that I may live” is a verse that comes into mind.) There seems to be no way to freedom or to healing. No admitting what we are and getting healing or help with it. Just bam-bam and down we go. (Sure, I have leaned some things about surviving these meetings, such as realizing that the meeting only lasts a short period of time. Also, this strange thought: “What is going on here right now doesn’t matter very much.”)

The session is over, I am now guarding at the 62nd Street warehouse. I am thinking and contemplating alone here. Now, this whole lesson about sin. It totally contradicts the one from a year and a half ago about “those who are born again do not sin” where Stewart said that this verse flat out says it and that if we want to say it is still possible to sin if we’ve been born again, then we are arguing for sin!

(I remember how back then, I studied a lot of verses about “if you confess your sins” and wrote about how I think we are getting duped. I also remember Stewart pushed me off to the side when I questioned it at the meeting, saying to everyone, “That isn’t what this one goes around thinking about all day!”)

Now, after a long build up and a lot of fanfare, as Stewart presented today’s lesson, speaking about how it is hard for us to understand, he presented to us what everybody knew all along, or has already read in books by other Christians.

[Stewart now presented the idea that if a person sins, it does not prove that they are not born again. A year earlier, he was saying that if a person sins, it proves they are not born again, because the Bible says that “he who is born of God does not sin.” He claimed that “this Bible verse flat out says it and that the only reason you would not want this is because you’re arguing for sin.” He slammed anyone who tried to raise objections to his line of false reasoning. The only reason anyone would reject this teaching, he said, is because they wanted to sin – and not because they knew it was not what those verses in the Bible really meant!]

Stewart said that this is really important, but who doesn’t know this already! It makes me wonder if I am being deceived all around by him. Like that time I took a walk in the park and came out concluding that Stewart was coming down first on this group, then on that group in the church as a way of creating a diversion to keep us from seeing what he is really up to! We are always made to tuck our tails between our legs and get down on ourselves. I wonder if he is all there, or if he is losing his marbles. What does he think about dwindling numbers in his church? Is he getting desperate? His correction makes people leave, makes them quit. It doesn’t make them shape up. All the things he says about maybe we are not God’s elect makes us absolutely hopeless about our lives.

I was even thinking today, as I saw Stewart making this big production out of nothing, that eventually I will see him just as he is – really nobody important or special, just the Wizard of Oz, finally revealed behind his curtain. And all along I thought he was a big powerful person with smoke and thunder. I used to fear him so, thinking that his every thought and opinion on any matter was the gospel truth; that he was infallible and invincible in everything. He held sway over my imagination and mind. His ideas and my consideration of what he would think or say about something invaded my every thought and action and molded my entire way of life. I was careful to think and talk in terms of “Stewart said.” (It got a little awkward when I found two mutually contradicting sayings of his. Then I took the more hopeless of the two.)

I always had doubts though. Well, he is not magic. When will I ever learn?

It’s just that Stewart is ready to blast every scoundrel who gets in his way or opposes his viewpoints or just thinks differently than he does. I have learned to go underground about my thoughts. I barely speak of my thoughts with others because the Thought Police are ever ready to turn me in. We must be official with each other. But I can readily detect when someone else is expressing their doubts and I have heard many brothers say such things, or allude to them if they are not the type to directly come out and say it.

I think also Stewart could easily drive someone to jump off a bridge or push someone to an extreme. I mean, the pressure he puts on us during a meeting. I could imagine myself being brought up today. I feared it. I fear being the one who has been accused of attacking the gospel and having to speak of my actions or confess to this charge – or else get further get laid into. What if I didn’t agree and submit right away? More pressure. I could explode or say I have had enough of this and lose control.

This can get very tedious. I have seen many on the stand before like this. The pressure is: submit or else. It is like stepping off into the unknown or to death itself if you disagree and persist in it openly with him. You are alone. No one will come to your aid.  Oh, the thralldom he holds over us. I have noticed how the new and middle brothers are backed into a corner. Now, it is good that the wilder ones have left, but many good ones have left too. I think the new and middle brothers don’t know what to do with Stewart and are held in sway also. He holds such control over our minds and our persons. They are in fear of him and don’t know when he is going to come down on them, and for what. So they’re trying hard to be good. They also are pretty quiet now, just a broken down remnant. In fact, the whole fellowship is breaking down. (I also think that the sisters are in a “grace period” where Stewart is not coming down on them for their wrongs.)

A question I have is: does this guy really know what he is doing with our lives? (I remember coming to the Rescue Mission [in 1983, as a middle brother], and how I thought this man was going to take care of my life and that he had a plan for us. But really he was elsewhere. I wonder if I am still doing the same thing and I am just putting my life on him, when he is not really there for me. He did say once, about the older brothers, “I would just as soon they all were gone.” Then, I think of leaving, but I have fears, such as seeing a sign that said “Judgment Day, Summer 1991.” Because I do think of getting away from here and living just one good summer. But at what price? I think of leaving from time to time, especially during these kinds of times.

[I saw a sign on the side of a bus about a movie called Judgment Day. It made me feel terrified, as if it were a message from God!]

Why are we still here if Stewart wants to get rid of us? Well, the reason that exists in my mind is that we are the economic backbone of the fellowship and that without us, the world don’t go around. But, he won’t say that. He just heaps more guilt on us and makes us feel lucky to still be here. No way would he ever say we are needed to keep things running. I think Stewart likes to live the way he does (in a mild state of luxury) and that without us, he couldn’t do it. For all his talk of being able to get it together, without us, he would have to go live in a middle class suburb or in a warehouse and just have a small business for himself. We supply all the labor and money so he can ride atop everything in the fellowship and have many more conveniences than he could ever have alone (while he beats us). It is a strange symbiotic relationship – at least the economic end of it – and he does leech or live off us in a way. (Though you might say it is his right to get his living by preaching the gospel. But we are practically locked-in slaves. It’s not like it’s a free will offering. He would be gone in a minute, nobody would be around if it were by free will. He needs things to be like this.)

Possibly also, more than the economic reasons: who else would listen to his sermons except our little band? Nobody else would put up with his rantings against us. We all have blind trust in him. But why are those who question treated so ruthlessly? Does he have something to hide? I think that as the church continues to fold up, there will be more treachery and desperate behavior – both on his part and ours. We all (at least us) are ashamed of this place and want to hide it. And I wonder if he takes it out on us. (Remember, he never lets his feelings or anger show. Everything is done in calm tones.)

We never discuss this. Stewart never tries to level with us. We never try to level with him. We all know the outcome: that it’s all our fault. So why get into it? It seems there should be an amnesty for older brothers and a chance to start over. Right now, nobody can. But, who does this amnesty come from? From Stewart? He can’t really bestow that anyway!

Why do I live in the shop (and devote most of my time to working in Christian Brothers)?

[At this time, I was living in the Christian Brothers Cleaning shop on West 51st Street with several other older brothers, sleeping on the floor at night and getting up before the sisters came to work].

Beside the immediate reason that I don’t want to live in Woodruff again and want nothing to do with Philadelphia, this is a depraved way of life! Why do I go for it? I am a real glutton for punishment! Here I am, 34 years old now, I willingly put up with this living arrangement. My life is spent making money for the church, for people who don’t appreciate me one bit and who consider me to be scum. (Though I act like it, right? I ask for it). The rest of my time is spent trying to get a little diversion or interests done – trying to read, to “educate” myself, or shop a little while soliciting or look at trains in Grand Central Terminal. And I feel so bad for doing that or for drawing a little bit, as if these things were a part of my life that has escaped the dominion of the thought-cult and I must feel guilty for it. But anyway, this is no life. Why do I go for it?

At this point I began thinking about how I really need Jesus to save me from all this. How to say this, without getting official and writing a paper that I am just doing by rote and will never read again?

[We were supposed to write our “My Need for Jesus Paper” which usually had all the official-sounding and self-incriminating things in it. I was saying that I needed Jesus to save me from the way of life in COBU, which is something that I could never write in my “Need for Jesus Paper,” which we were required to show to others on demand.]

I don’t know how to do this, because I think all of this is just things I make up and Jesus can’t save you from fantasy problems – or at least, this is what I should say. I actually think these things are real, but that I can’t get help for it. Or, if I go to the official lines, that’s all it is, the official lines. But, these are the things I really think.

I have no family, no wife or child. (That is another dominating idea in our cult, that these things are no good. They are “things of this life.” We have dominating thoughts that control our lives, or the lives between us, though we think our own individual thoughts. The social climate is strictly anti-marriage. You better not even think of it. I also never contact my own family.)

-*-

The following notes were from my business notebooks. I wrote down scheduled jobs and leads I got while going door to door, but I also wrote down my own notes and quotes I from books I was reading.

“Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

There are two reasons why this quote by George Santayana appealed to me. Stewart Traill said he had started over, yet I saw him doing the same things all over again. So, instead of believing false promises, I should remember what happened last time. I also read in a book about the Jonestown cult that a sign with these words was visible above Jim Jones’s chair in a photo taken after the Jonestown suicide.


The copyright information for this photo says: “this image depicts a non-reproducible meeting...”  I hope so!

Is it going overboard to compare Jonestown and COBU? COBU is usually included in any “List of the 10 Most Dangerous Mind Control Cults.” Also, while I was in COBU, reading about Jim Jones’s cult and other cults helped me understand more clearly what was happening to me. I understood that we might not die in a dramatic mass suicide, but still, the terms, conditions and group dynamics in COBU were similar, if not exactly the same as in these other cults. (When we served Kool-Aid at the dinner break during meetings in Philadelphia, some of the new disciples said to one another, “Don’t drink it!”  Even though they were just joking, do you think they were a little suspicious of us and that they though we were a cult like Jonestown?)

Thoughts:

It is essential that we follow the leader. The whole system is based on it. We must believe everything Stewart says. No individual differences are permitted. The whole system would fall apart if this were allowed. It relies on crushed and bound persons, who are totally yoked to the machine. Individuality must be crushed and subdued, or it would arise to question.

God created me and arranged all circumstances in my life, including these circumstances and he is the one to whom I will give account at the end of my life. Why then all this worry about this man?

“Ignorance breeds monsters to fill up the vacancies of the soul that are unoccupied by the verities of knowledge.” – Horace Mann.

This above quote appealed to me because I realized that my own ignorance of Christian doctrine made me vulnerable to an uncritical acceptance of Traill’s teachings. I began to study.

“You are seeking salvation here by eating cabbage soup and you think you are righteous men! You eat gudgeons, a gudgeon a day and you think you can buy God with gudgeons!”

The above is a line from The Brothers Karamazov. The father was speaking about his son’s life in a monastery. A gudgeon is a small fish. Was I trying to find salvation by living this monkish life in COBU? Was I going to buy God off and earn salvation by denying myself things and living a Spartan life?

“In the majority of cases, people, even evildoers are much more naive and artless than we generally assume. As indeed we are ourselves.” – Fyodor Karamazov, quoted in The Brothers Karamazov.

Enquiry: Method of question and answer of which the first stage consists in reducing the interlocutor to helplessness: the admission that his existing views upon the subject in question are completely mistaken.

The above is about the Socratic Method from the introduction to Plato’s Symposium. I noted how Stewart Traill was able to throw a questioner into confusion through the use of rhetorical questions and other tactics.

“Time destroys all false opinions, but it confirms those which are formed by nature.”  – Cicero

I was looking for answers that had stood the test of time, not esoteric revelations given by a cult leader to worn out and dirty people in a midnight meeting in an old warehouse in Brooklyn.

“Do you believe what you believe? Does what you believe actually draw you closer to God?”

The above was a quote from ex-member Tom P. on a postcard he sent to Chuck, one of the older brothers.

Most of this will be forgotten by tomorrow, but it keeps plaguing me, recurring. I might as well set it down in as concise form as possible.

The above was my own realization, not a quote from an author. I wanted to write down the things that kept coming to my mind about life in COBU.

* What are my talents?

* What are permissible interests?

* Can I really marry?

* To what degree do I owe anybody anything and what do I own the church, vs. what must I render to God? (Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s.)

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