1993, 02/02. Notes From The Gulag

In this section, I was writing about my past years in the cult and what may have attracted me to being in the cult. The title of this section comes from a free-form poem or stream of consciousness essay I wrote about life in COBU that used the metaphor of a gulag (a prison labor camp) system, which is included at the end of this page.

Today’s meditation of my past…

I realize that there were occasions (in the past) in which I decided to get serious and to study and what I went to, besides reading the Bible itself (which I didn’t get much out of at the time) were the “workbooks.”

[In earlier years in the Church of Bible Understanding, Stewart Traill wrote about ten workbooks, explaining his doctrine on various subjects, such as Jesus as the True Vine.]

(I really didn’t know about Bible commentaries and we were insulated from other teachings by the idea which was drilled into us endlessly, that “our” teaching was the only true teaching. If we went elsewhere, how could we know if what we were reading was true? How did these people know? We were told that there were so many different interpretations and views of the Bible, to the point that there was a Babel of confusing and contradictory voices. Stewart said that the “Only True Method of Bible Interpretation” was either unknown or disdained by all other Christians. I knew nothing at the time of the Church Fathers and the Reformation and of the fairly consistent views of the Bible that emerged during these periods. I only knew that “Bible interpretation” was a dark mysterious science known only to a few, reached only after years of intense study and intense faithfulness. Way over my head, of course. Through these fallacies and other circumstances not mentioned here, not to mention my own lack of desire to really know and verify (besides, we already had it all and like I said, it seemed that such matters were over my head), I was ready and prepared to accept “our” strange empirical and fragmented approach to “understanding the Bible.”)

When I read a workbook, I had the sense of learning something and “getting somewhere.” After all, various points were made and built upon, all backed up paragraph by paragraph (and sometimes even after every sentence) by one, five or even 20 Bible verses! So the workbooks were obviously supported by the Bible. Look, verses to back it up!

This is what I mean by empirical: verses were stacked up and compared. Pulled out of context and stacked in piles as references to each point, which gave seeming weight and authority to the chicken scratchings that Stewart tries to pass off as deep Biblical insights. (There is little or no appeal to history, etc.)

I would never think of reading the verses in context. There were so many of them anyway, it would take a long time. Besides that wasn’t the point. I was trying to read this workbook which was taking me on a survey of the Bible.

Empirical: Bible verses stacked up according to category and compared to one another. Bible verses marshalled together to prove a point, to build a case. “Purple” verses. Exhortation and warning verses. This taught us to look at the Bible in terms of different kinds of verses and to stack, arrange and categorize them, but not how to learn anything or to actually read the Bible. There was nothing about the context or where the author was coming from.

Examples could be: a person learning how to use tools, but instead of learning each tool’s intended use and how to use them together to build a house, merely learning how to stack the big tools in one pile, little tools in another, or all the red tools in a pile, green tools in another and making aesthetic comparisons between them accordingly.

An illiterate child, who because he can’t read or reason, instead of learning how to take printer’s letters and arrange them in sentences to print a book – instead, all he can do is learn to make piles of them. All the round ones in one pile, straight ones in another.

Of course, it was hard to get anywhere this way, and fortunately I didn’t get very far with this kind of thinking. There really was no base to build on, even though that is exactly what the workbooks were touted to be. A real Christian (and by the way, exclusive) foundation and teaching.

I never had the sense of learning anything when I read these workbooks. But they were flattering, making us feel we were privy to exclusive Bible knowledge that the whole world, even other Christians, disdained. They were written in some kind of weird hippie radical Bible talk.

We read the workbooks together sometimes. We took turns reading, calling off the references ahead of time so they could be read, then we read it religiously and then one by one we read the references.

The sisters really seemed into these things. They folded their hands and smiled and read a verse when it was their turn. I had a sense that they felt “shepherded” and satisfied (not that they learned anything though, but I guess they were “exercised”) and also that they had gotten to feed off a little piece of Stewart indirectly and vicariously. They looked satisfied. And then we went on and proceeded to the next part of the meeting!

Really, we were passed off some strange stuff, which was not really much different than what the Jehovah’s Witnesses learn, who are indoctrinated with a teaching that permeates and takes over their minds. They believe they are the sole proprietors of the right view. One of the marks of a cult, of course, is strange and hard to understand teaching. (At least to the uninitiated. We thought we understood it. The blatant contradictions? Well some of us were unaware of this. Others, well the only course our minds could take was to reconcile the contradictions somehow or to show that they were compatible. It was all reflexes anyway. Nobody really thought, or dared to. We were too seduced by flattery anyway, we would never think of double-checking God’s own teaching.)

[It was flattering to believe we were in a group that had the only true teaching of the Bible. Sometimes, even in my earlier years here, I was skeptical of that. Yet this concept, our pride in it and the fear of it (of losing it by leaving COBU, or the fear of disobeying this teaching), I was coming to realize and face was part of the many things that held me there in thralldom.]

Also in cults, the true teaching is the exclusive property of one group, which is usually headed by an authoritative person whose word is law and truth. All the marks of a cult. This would pique my consciousness at times, but I wasn’t willing to deal with it. It was just too much to deal with, that this could be a cult, because that would mean I was in it, that I was in a cult!  (It’s too hard to admit, so you just sit there, or work harder at it. Too hard to admit I wasted 3, 4, 5 years in a cult.)

Of course, Stewart we had “the cult” among us. Those church members, usually not identified, among us who were carrying on cult behavior in an otherwise ”right and true church.” In that way, we could accept that there was a cult and that Stewart actually was a cult leader. He did sort of look like one, but, no, it couldn’t be! Not me! Only weird people end up in cults and they go out every night recruiting and sweet talking and seducing other people to join.

And besides, cult people are weird, gone over the edge and never really recover for the rest of their lives, even when they get out of the cult they were in. They need deprogramming, showing that they can’t liberate themselves from a programmed mind. Their minds are actually lost, taken over, or maybe transplanted.

It was too much to face. How could I be so stupid? My pride won’t let me admit it. Also, this means I am affected by this even now, ten years of baking in the cult oven or incubator. Even if a person doesn’t come out perfectly programmed, they are still pretty cooked and very out of touch with reality.

The effects remain in me today in at least these ways:

1) I don’t really want to face what I really think (about everything, including my own views and convictions), what I really see and how to deal with it (whatever I do only could be “wrong” anyway), plan for my future, only the names have been changed to protect the guilty, and Stewart is still a cult leader.

[By this I meant that Stewart Traill said he had been off course before, so yes, in the past I can accept that COBU was a cult, but things are supposed to be different now that Stewart said he had changed. But now I saw him back to his former practices even more than ever, after a temporary show of humility and change. Now it was even worse and the locks and chains were on us tighter than they had ever been before.]

I AM VERY AFRAID to FACE WHAT I REALLY BELIEVE and to DEAL WITH IT! (Though it keeps coming to me day after day and won’t let me go!) I’m afraid to write it out, examine it and face and consider the implications of it. Even though it is banging loudly on the door of my consciousness. (I try to shove it under the rug, for fear of others discovering that I think this way.) I want to keep the door shut. It’s just too much to think about.

2) I don’t want to face that these ”marks” are still extant today, though in many altered ways.  [This place still had all the marks of a cult, even through Stewart said he had changed.]

3) I don’t want to think for myself.

4) I’m willing to put up with anything.

I am afraid to deal with it because I’m afraid I’ll go off the deep end when looking at it and lose control of myself, which seems to be a cycle. I have been trying to repress all these thoughts for about five months (since the last time I got corrected and I got an “ultimatum” for saying things to You Know Who). 

[I told Stewart Traill that I thought his repentance was sincere, but that I saw him take it back and now he was back to the way he used to be, and even worse than before. Of course, now I realize I was deceived about Stewart’s supposed change and promises he made. He had never changed for the better. For saying these things to him, I was put on a “three day sudden death,” which meant I would be put out of the church if I did not show signs of repentance. I had, as brothers said (prompted by Stewart who asked those present at the meeting rhetorically if I were doing this), “attacked the church and the reason why we are together,” which besides meaning that to speak to Stewart in any other way than agreement with him, was an admission that we were grouped around Stewart as the only true and infallible messenger of God and we must be obedient to him. By use of this accusation, Stewart made the others present feel that I was “attacking” them too, because he said I was attacking the very church, which implied that I was attacking its members, and the brothers rose up indignantly and were denouncing me. Then Stewart asked (so it would look like the brothers, and not Stewart, was doing it to me), “So what should we do with him then?” The brothers went to work instantly and decided I would be given a thee day sudden death. This punishment was often used for new disciples who were violent and disruptive.

This was painful at the time, but in the few minutes I had been standing there, I felt I learned more about the church than in all the years I had been here. I learned that the church would put me on the street instantly, without any compensation or severance pay. I learned that the concept of “speaking the truth to one another for their own good” (which I learned from Stewart) did not apply to the one who taught us about this. 

I also learned just how valueless or expendible I was there, or could become, and that I no longer had security there and could no longer trust that I could stay here for the rest of my life, because the church and its leader, which claimed to be concerned with my highest and eternal good, cared little or nothing for me. I was overcome and intimidated by these tactics at the time, and I went under for a while, but it changed my thinking about COBU and Stewart permanently.

I always came back to this point and the need to speak about it publicly and to tell Stewart what I thought about him. If this had not happened to me and if Stewart had made a show of acting as if he were taking into consideration what I said, or even if he had answered that he did not see things that way and gave his reasons, but said that I am free to say what I wish, I might still be there today. It was the underhanded way in which I was silenced (temporarily) by threats and an ultimatim that made me see that Stewart was not the truth seeker that he portrayed himself to be.]

Because, really, I can’t handle this stuff. And if it’s true (what I think I am aware of), it’s really weird. Especially about how we are roped in and trapped and what this does to me when I go along with it consciously but don’t say anything. This repressing myself and paying lip service to things I don’t believe because I’m in terror of being thrown out. What is the damage on my psyche incurred as a result of playing “Yes Boss, Yes Master” to things I don’t believe, out of fear? What is the damage due to the repression of my person and intellect as a result of kowtowing and playing the part of a sycophant to people of lesser intelligence and ability in order to stay alive. Of not being all that I am and was intended to be, in the name of humility. Of not being a 35 year old man, but a slave. Because any form of disagreeing is considered to be “fighting for self” and pride. And any of my own decisions or desires are regarded as the same. (As is not putting my life in this world to death.) The whip will come out if I disagree with either the top dog or with any of his toadies!

What price am I paying for all of this fear? At what point will I (if I do) reach the point where it would just be better to blatantly be what I am and to receive the punishment for it, and that this would be less damaging to myself than playing the part of the fool. All I know is that I am willing to be an obedient member in a society based on terror, intimidation and ultimatum! (It takes law and punishment and a handle on our guilt to make it work. No one would choose this way of life freely.)

Lower and lower I get pushed, without resisting! (Warehouse living, workslave, my body and conscience ensnared by laws, rules and statutes.) I even bind myself, by extreme censorship of word and thought, through circumspection and abstaining from any form of conspicuous consumption of the normal lawful enjoyments of this life and of “things indifferent.”

(Am I serving the “beast” with awe and wonder?)

Is this God himself abasing my pride, or am I just an abject fool? Or maybe I died and lost my will to live long ago.

This isn’t the real me at all. So what’s the value in all of it? I haven’t been too willing to deal with the future, but now that I think of it, how long do I wish to go on with this? Where will it end if I do?

I can’t abide this way. I desperately need the Bible and a survey of other Christians’ lives and their thoughts to see if there has been any precedent for this.

[I wanted to study Christian history to see if anything like what I was facing in the Church of Bible Understanding had happened to others before. I wanted to learn about the whole sweep of Christian history, to learn how Christians had lived throughout the ages and to compare their ways of life to our way of life in COBU. If this really was God’s only true way, then I might find examples of others living this way in the past, because God is the same yesterday, today and tomorrow. If this were a legitimate way, I wanted to see if previous examples of it existed. I was to learn that previous examples of this way did exist – in other cults and strange religious sects.]

I need Christ and to draw near to him for light, relief and help!


Sitting here in the wood floor shack with a little free time. Lately, a lot of thoughts have filled my head about our life here, about the church and Stewart. It’s all the same stuff, I guess. I just can’t seem to suppress it.


Life now seems a more than frazzled,

all of us now living in a degenerate decline.

Me now, living in a utility closet,

a step down from the hovel

that I had previously occupied.

Made to feel bad somehow

because I have it just a little bit better

than the slobs who sleep out in the open

or on carpet mats on the floor

with no privacy or walls about them.


We live fragmented lives

all our various parts, as humans

with many drives, aspirations and desires

cut to pieces and shorn off

only to get down to what really matters.

Barriers have been broken down

that separate person from person

walls that gave spheres of identity

and prerogatives of individual choice.

Private property, personal time,

choice of activities, individuality of thought,

all swept away or thrown

into the collective pea soup of communal existence.


There are those of us who try to ponder

and make an effort to understand

(those of us who are not yet brain dead

or have lost the will to live)

if this is the carnage

of a failed utopian experiment,

or is it a collection of sinners

in the hands of an angry God?

There is a lot of evidence

for both.


Prison camp life goes on

institutionalized degradation

lived out in dirty warehouses,

enshrined as a way of life

in the legal codex and doctrine,

a way superior to those around us

in the sinful world and in the easy life

of the decadent worldly churches.


You can read the next section of this journal here: “Whenever Jesus Talked To Someone, He Was Putting Pressure On Them.”

These journal pages are part of the source material for my book, Captive Congregation: My Fourteen Years in the Church of Bible Understanding, which is available as a Kindle book or in paperback


One Response to “1993, 02/02. Notes From The Gulag”

  1. Michael Montoya Says:

    well written and accurate for any ex-member to appreciate. You capture
    in words what we all went through. Thanks

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