1993, 01/01 (c) The Next Session at the Meeting: Insults and Nasty Names

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

The weekend meeting of Church of Bible Understanding members with Stewart Traill at the “New Property” in Philadelphia continues:

We are now in the preliminary moments before today’s session. Brothers are cheerleading like crazy, in an obvious attempt to stave off another session like the one we had last night. The ones who have the most to lose are shouting most of the ridiculous and desperate things. They must show (to the others) that they’ve turned and repented. Or at least, they want to get something moving, so we won’t be sitting here in silence when Stewart walks into the meeting. They are desperate to avoid the pain of another grinder session. It does get unbearable.

The brothers have petered out and the sisters are talking now, calmly and about realer things. It’s too bad that brothers have to be motivated by avoiding Stewart’s punishment. It’s like, “No, please! Not another electroshock treatment!” That’s about the level they’re on. It is the fear of man. They’re so desperate, so blinded and obsessed by it. The sisters spoke much more appreciatively of Christ.

[The reason I thought more favorably about the sisters than I did about the older brothers at this time was that Stewart was always railing at the brothers, and he was being lenient on the sisters. This caused me to believe that the sisters were more spiritual and more honest than we were. But really, Stewart was leaving them alone for the time being and not abusing them at meetings so much.]

We are going over the Thankfulness Chain now and various ones are explaining it. Andrew jumps up and starts speaking. It’s a hard life doing things like that in order to save himself, mostly from stuff that’s not real anyway, just fantasy fears in the theater of his mind.  Sisters are like night and day compared to the older and middle brothers. Andrew is desperately blabbering the correct catechisms, but the sisters are explaining and TALKING about things. Andrew is like a one-dimensional cheerleader, impersonal, out to lunch.

Stewart has been talking to us in the last two sessions about having our minds under control versus being elsewhere. He says a certain percent of each one of us is elsewhere. This certainly is me. I might be as much as 90% elsewhere at this moment and I probably am all week, maybe 60-80%. But at meetings especially, I am gone. (To the point of bringing things to read or write, such as this journal. I can write and look as if I am taking notes. It’s acceptable behavior because my body looks like it’s doing the right thing. A lot of people sit and write during meetings, writing down everything Stewart says, or as much of it as they can get down. I wonder if they even read the stuff after. I wonder though, if writing like this might actually bring me a little more into the meeting, rather than drifting.)

It’s hard for me to believe that this man is trying to help me. He does a lot of pounding and “thundering from the pulpit,” but he is not involved with us personally. It’s more like Stewart is working with material. Manipulating, probing, bending, pushing, heating and cooling. He is talking to us on an irrational and impulse level. Guilt, debt, obligation. Holding the threat of punishment over us. Nobody will talk to him and he doesn’t talk to us. (He talks “at” us, or “over” us. Or even “about” us. He talks to people in the third person in their presence, not wishing to actually speak to them. He speaks in pejoratives.) I have the feeling of being picked up, shaken, put down. It’s all involuntary and there’s not a thing we can do about it. If we try to resist or disagree, it just gets worse, so nobody does. So everybody just sits here and goes through it, getting chided and admonished.

(Part of our “job” is to saddle and stifle anyone who gets out of line about this. Here, or all week. And to instantly detect any grumbling on the subject.)

I, and maybe we, feel like a dog with its tail between its legs, getting beaten. The more Stewart beats, the more we withdraw. (We whimper and cower with our tail between our legs. We’re all about gone now. It’s starting all over again and it will go on unless he changes tack and lightens up on us.)

Another irrational meeting. It’s like a game, as in Games People Play, or a ritual, or something. The more Stewart beats us, the more we go under.

Now Stewart tries to draw us out by getting us to give one-word answers to his question, “What is the most appropriate thing that should be on your mind right now?” This is like kindergarten or regressive child behavior. (I have been reading some psychology lately.) We go through regressive behavior at meetings (we become less than rational adults), where he chides and we become withdrawn and catatonic. An outsider might be able to see this better. But when you’re in it, it’s all-encompassing. It’s hard to see why Stewart puts up with it (I think he helps it along quite well) or how he has the patience to go through a whole session like this where there is a room full of adults undergoing regressive behavior. Evidently he thinks there is some benefit to all of this. He says that we forget a session like last night’s as soon as it’s over. I don’t see why I’d want to remember it. I just wonder if there is a better way.


The two lines below are a few things Stewart was saying to us at the meeting:

“The issue is gratitude, do you have it in any form?”

“You do the same old stuff. You don’t have sense to try another basis. You don’t say it is hopeless.”

And this is what I was thinking about it:

(I think it’s hopeless sometimes, but I’ve got to get up and get going again. I don’t just want to give up and go to hell. But I also realize nothing works. I wish I could just give up, and let go and let God. But, there’s always “work to do.”) I just wish there was some Good News. Not just in the air, or in general. But for me. Sometimes I wish there was no such thing as God, or that I could live somewhere else in some other kind of life. (But I can’t erase my track record, the black flight recorder box.) Of course, it’s acceptible when Martin Luther speaks of how at one time in his life, he wished there was no God. Or, in his Commentary on Galatians, Luther speaks of the law and that when the law is sent to slay a man, he sees death and the law, and he wishes there was no God, because the law can only produce blasphemous thoughts. That doesn’t seem so bad, when I see it in print, but it’s not so great to be that way. One reason being, the kind of life that such thoughts indicate. I am supposed to be really glad for God, what with living in a Christian fellowship for 12 years and all. I am even to the point where I don’t even want to hear about Jesus, or his death on the cross, though I will read about it in books.

Of course, I try to think maybe it’s the way it’s being presented here, but I’m sure I’ll never get away with that. Also that it’s because of the dull institutional life here. It’s always nice to read a Christian book, to enjoy reading it and to like what I read. At least it gives me a feeling of doing something spiritual rather than reading about current events or sociology or about technology. It’s like going to the car wash. It gives me a better feeling. (Maybe this is how I beat myself with the right stuff, getting cynical toward myself, doing inwardly what I get outwardly. Cooperating with my interrogators.)

It’s not that I don’t want to be here. Though I certainly react badly to certain types of meetings. The idea that if I stand up [to speak my mind, not in total agreement with what Stewart is pushing on us, giving my reasons and rational explanations], I’m just a so and so, and besides I have nothing real to say. I don’t doubt that I’ve done a lot to get this way, though I think that Stewart’s treatment of us is not right.

[My comment about “I’ve done a lot to get this way:” Stewart used our wiped out and wretched condition against us as a reason why we could not say anything about how he was treating us and why would could not disagree with anything he said.]

I should have gotten married when I was 25. I was always afraid to marry “wrongly,” but the people I see who left and got married and now live out and come around sometimes to meetings, don’t look any worse off for having made the choice to get married. Maybe it was a delusion. I was lead astray. You are what you believe.

[Steart said that that getting “married wrongly” (which ultimately meant getting married without his approval, which he never granted anyone) would mean our spiritual deaths. I believed this in my earlier years in the church. Now I was looking at these ones who left the church to get married and I realized they didn’t look spiritually dead.]

Now in the meeting again. This time, Stewart is teaching without using “pressure.” I do wonder how many are listening. Stewart refers to [middle brother] Dave S. as the “Fatman,” speaking about him in the third person. Then he calls upon him, “Right Fatman? Answer Fatman!” But Dave doesn’t answer. “Oh,” Stewart says, “now he won’t answer! Due to holding out!” Really, it’s probably because Stewart is calling him Fatman and he doesn’t want to answer to that. I don’t blame him. I’m surprised Dave took this long. He used to answer to it. Dave knows he can’t stand for himself up and say “Don’t call me that.” He knows it would only get worse. Sitting there is a minimal way of resistance. This is the idea of Stewart’s use of insulting names that I was thinking about. How one becomes half a person or only part of a person. And Stewart is letting Dave, and everyone else, know that. It’s a method of humiliation and abasement, of control and subordinating people. It seems required that people here be treated this way. Is it inherent in the system?

When is a person not a person? When he is hooked up to a machine. Stewart is just letting you know he doesn’t think too much of you and also that he owns you. He operates that part of you that is useful to him and throws away the rest. When he does this, Stewart is not only letting you know what he thinks of you, but he also letting you know what you are (from here on in). You thought you were (your real name), a whole person, albeit with problems. Stewart lets you know you are one-quarter of a person. A certain problem or attribute of yourself becomes you. A characterization. A re-shuffling and redefining of your (very) self. (Since Stewart is something like our Lord, the creator and definer of our universe, it becomes very important and inescapable.) You are trying to talk to Stewart about something, but the output that is coming back to you is that you are a dog or a goat or something else and it’s very demeaning. Because, as I’ve said, Stewart is the source, or the sun in our universe. You come here and he redefines you. It’s a stripping process. Like in boot camps, where on the outside you were something. There were many parts to you and your life. You had a certain self image. But now you are referred to as “dog face” or “slime” or some other insulting name having to do with the sexual organs or other bodily functions that is very demeaning. And don’t try standing up to the sergeant to set him straight about who you are, or that there is more to you than that and how this is not right to do. That is grounds for a beating and more punishment by the very fact that you have disagreed with your superior.

It is demeaning. Let me try to describe it, since this is one of Stewart’s essential modi operandi in dealing with persons here. Abasement, redefining. Always a handle and the upper hand and control against a person’s will. Dealing with the will, breaking it. “You are my toys, my laboratory rats. Don’t get smart, don’t be recalcitrant.“ The willingness to undergo this treatment by many here truly amazes me. “I will work on you – not with you. I am your boss, your Lord.”

You are trying to talk, “I am a person. This is what I need. This is what I think.” What comes back is “No you’re not. You are a (caricature). This need is nothing. You are nothing. You and it are not legitimate. And I’m letting you know your place right now.“

Stewart only deals with us in terms of dominance vs. subject. And in the terms of the stated goals of the church and its current plans and the church’s teaching. God’s will must be done, but I’m sure this is an unnecessary way of treating people. It makes them into docile machines. Maybe they conform because they have no way out. God must have some other way of breaking down self. Is the self even to be broken down? What about just submitted?

Like that time with Cimarron [a new brother], when Stewart kept referring to him as “Simian.” What Stewart wasn’t going to do was get his name right. Cimarron kept telling him how to pronounce his name. Stewart seemed oblivious, though I’m sure he wasn’t. This was a classic example. Simian means “monkey.” Stewart was playing on that. Cimarron was trying to talk to Stewart about something on a substantive level, facts and figures. (Can I leave to visit my family? I need to see them.) Stewart was calling him a monkey, like sticking out his tongue and giving him the Bronx cheer. Sure, Cimarron was proud, but Stewart could have just answered him. If the idea is to get people to stay here, we shouldn’t push them out the door. Maybe Stewart didn’t want to take part in Cimarron’s pride. I just wonder why it was necessary. Later, after Cimarron quit, Stewart talked to everyone about people using their families as an excuse, and said, “This is your real family.” But he could have been more gentle, especially with a person who is obviously undecided about the life here. But, Stewart certainly wasn’t going to have a direct talk with Cimarron.

[This episode seems to show that Stewart Traill was racially prejudiced, because he was calling a black man a monkey. COBU members were not prejudiced and many didn’t know that simian means monkey, so this went over their heads. They probably thought Stewart was calling him “Simeon” (a biblical name) as a way of mildly disrespecting him as a way of showing he was not taking part in Cimarron’s “games.” (That is, that Cimarron was using the pretext of a family visit to take it easy and have some relief from COBU life for a few days. In COBU, no one had a legitimate reason to visit their families. They got accused of using their families in order to do their own thing.)] 

There is a sense that once people enter these doors, they have voluntarily given up their rights. Like in mental institutions (as in Ervin Goffman’s book Asylums), if a person is an inmate here, he must be the kind of person who belongs here and can be treated a certain way. Once you step in, the rules apply, including the rules about family visits. (I can understand rules about no smoking and no drugs.) Cimarron either sensed or was directly told he can’t go see his family, and that they must come here to see him. Or Cimarron may have gone there once before and was greeted with suspicion upon his return.

There is the sense of, you step in and the gates crash down behind you. There is no flexibility. I’ve learned to live with it.

What started me on this, was Dave being called Fatman and the memory of my own abasement. Stewart has referred to me in the third person in my own presence as “The German” or “The German Student” and also to my face. I’m trying to talk, but this is coming back.  It’s not so much the name, which is not bad in and of itself, but this limited characterization of me. Some other names Stewart uses on people are the “that voice,” or “that face.” I understand the use of synecdoche [1], the use of a part to describe a whole, but this is for a metaphorical, poetical, or even descriptive process, not for the abasement of persons. Anyway, this is the tip of the iceberg (about such things and life and dealings here and almost seems ridiculous in itself). I just wrote it because a journal is to collect thoughts and current subjects that have been on my mind. To work them out more clearly and record them for future reference so I can remember what I thought at the time. It’s also a way to fight against oblivion, against being a nothing, a brick in the wall, a face in a conformist society. Like what I read about Japanese society, where due to its highly ordered structure and sameness, people keep diaries in order to be individuals. They can’t change their society, but they can withdraw into their thoughts and be individuals.

[1] Synecdoche means using a part of something to describe the whole. Examples of synecdoche are: to travel “by rail,” when really there is more than a rail, there is a train. Farm “hands” are laborers, but there is more to them than their hands. “Put to death by the edge of the sword,” means to be conquered by an entire army, not just the sharp part of a weapon. Stewart took a part, or a single aspect of a person (usually negative), to caricaturize that person, in order to put them down. I was the German Student because at one meeting I said that I feel like I was on a treadmill and that I have no time for myself, not even to study this German book. I had the book with me in the meeting and held it over my head, speaking in a frustrated voice. I said, “I even feel is it wrong to study this.” Stewart said that I should not be studying it at all. Later in the meeting he called me “German.” I said, “My name is not German, it’s Jim” He said, “Okay, German.” From then on, he mentioned me in meetings, “Tell your German friend to think about that.” Charles, one of the new disciples, used to call me German, but he was bestowing a badge of honor on me, because I defied Stewart sometimes and that made me cool with the the new people, because they were not bought in like long term members were. I liked it when Charles called me German, after getting over the initial annoyance the first time he called me that.]

I have begun to pay more attention to this meeting. Before, I was out to lunch, hoping to avoid another unpleasant meeting. Now I’m plugged in. Stewart has asked a Luther type question. “Is it possible to get more grace by getting into more sin?” It is, I am sure, a trick question, but also a hopeful one. The older brothers have perked up a bit. It reminds me of the encouraging things Martin Luther wrote about. I don’t need another one of Stewart’s tedious expository lectures on the subtleties of Greek verbs or the technical workings of grace. I need help and a way out.

But this question Stewart has asked, I know it is a trick. He is not giving all the information, but withholding some, so we can debate it out. Of course, a slightly imprecise question fosters debate.

Now, what I was saying before, about turning inwardly. It is, or seems, like a way out. I must go inward for freedoms. Such as walking to work and the enjoyment of that. (It doesn’t cost me anything, you know the cliché.). And various things I study.

[The paragraphs that follow are about how I was wishing to return to the free time and the ability to do things I had before Stewart started the intense treadmill life of work and disciple making, about four years before this.]

I miss limited freedoms I had, before they were curtailed. The long and regular hours running and walking in parks throughout the seasons. Travel to the shore and train rides up the Hudson. Those times in the parks were much more than exercise. It was blue skies and wind. Warm air, or maybe cold. The crunch of leaves underfoot. The smell of fall, early nightfall. Of running…running…endlessly…I don’t want to stop… Freedom…outside…open space…movement…escape from the city and the routine. Any autonomous choice. My thing. Not required, not prohibited. I could do something of my own choosing, an activity of my own. I miss this. It’s been about three and a half years.

Sure, someone would say, you choose. Yes, I do, what do you mean I have no choices? But there are things I can’t do anymore. I suppose I could bend these things into my wood floor work schedule, after a night job. Maybe Paul would wait in the van while I ran a lap around the reservoir. Why not? You see, I had the feeling I need all my time for God, in the sense that I need to use my limited free time for study, otherwise I would slip back. And that I needed to pray more. (I could have prayed instead of gone running. And, it takes a whole hour to go about getting a 15 minute run.) But it didn’t help.

Besides, I can pray at many points during the day. I can listen to bible tapes. Now I had the sense I was wasting time when I did things I wanted to do. I didn’t have that before, when there were plenty of empty hours to fill and I liked filling them my way. When “things changed” here, I resented the new brothers as an encroachment into my time, and the church business also. I think I could have continued jogging just as before. Even if someone were a counselor, extremely occupied with people and doing it totally willingly, he still should be able get time for himself in order to wind down and not feel harnessed. You see, this is how I felt, that I was suddenly constrained and harnessed. Confused too. I was out in the park running, but thinking “I should be back at the house, helping the new ones and laying down my life for them.”

But I wondered why I had to be strapped down and had to stifle myself in order to help someone. Totally tied down and unable to move. I was never consulted if this was how I wanted to use my time. I was just saddled. “God’s will despite yourself.” Maybe it is only our view of God’s will. I am referring to how I see other Christian programs, like David Wilkerson’s ministries, where a person may be dedicated to God’s will, but yet be treated well and considered to be a multi-faceted person who has other needs and desires. There are other compartments in my life, such as family.

But here, there is no such thing. If we are workers, we are subordinated and thrown into the pot. We live with, work with and spend all our time with the new people. We are glued in. If they are not allowed to go anywhere, neither can we. There are no shifts, no taking turns. I think this is not allowing for the human condition. (This “doing God’s will” teaching just knocks everything down.)

If we don’t do this, our service not considered to be real. We are acting better than them, setting up a hierarchy, a double standard. All of us must be thrown into the same pot. It’s unreal. We are helping these people, so we have to live with them and live like them. We have to restrict our movements. But Stewart doesn’t live like this. I would often think there were double standards, but on a higher level. We, at least outwardly, were zealous. But, it was a kind of idol to do this. It was our way of doing it. (Not like the way other churches do it.) Wearing ourselves out, night and day. No thought for our actual human condition. It was all or nothing. Wear ourselves down – ourselves, our place, our business. Everything in degeneracy. Maintain and fix nothing, whether objects, properties or humans. Everything is just supposed to be able to take it non-stop. It is one of the ways we attempt to suspend the rules of reality. (I can’t take it. I never could.)

Some brothers seem to be zealous to live like this, in a strange mechanized way, glad to shelve everything about themselves, thinking they can push themselves through life on a witnessing and disciple-making program. I have thought many times in my life, that if I just witness or do Art Shows [COBU’s style of evangelization and recruting using a series of pictures to explain being born again] all the time, everything in my life will work out from there. Lay it all aside, and just do this. This is famous with us. We have had many such programs. Everything else about our lives is supposed to not exist. But it eats at me. This stuff ate at me all the time. I was “bad.” I was not supposed to care about these other parts of me.

Everyone seemed to have a martian indifference to earthly things. This general idea sums up my last four years of existence. It was a very strange state of mind. A crisis maybe. It was on my mind all the time. Increase our work hours (till I’m screaming), and disciple-making all the time. Meetings where Stewart told us that we were to be broken up and destroyed in effect as a person. And I was wondering if all these teachings were more to create a certain effect than that they were real Christian teaching. I wonder if the teaching of Christ should be free from borders (ours that is) and not tailored to promote the lifestyle and needs of a live-in community. And not to be given out in lots and parcels, rather than across the board. That is, Stewart left out teaching about marriage and the opportunity for it, possibly because this and other subjects are not the avowed aims of our institution or are not yet touched on because a certain order or plan must be met first.

In other words, I had the sense I wasn’t free, and that my freedom was removed in a subversive way and that things and choices which God leaves free to the individual are hindered or prohibited. That no church has a right to usurp these choices or to shield an individual from these choices. I felt deceived, that I was not being dealt with straightly, or not filled in on all the details, and that I must rot away while Stewart ponders the origin of the universe. I had the feeling I was merely a pawn on Stewart’s chessboard, and that I wasn’t even going to be consulted about the choices and options in my life. Choices and options? What about God’s will!  And the idea that nothing here is wrong, or could be. (But this was right after Stewart told us everything he had been teaching was wrong until now!) That blind obedience. But my mind had been opened to the possibility that Stewart could be wrong [1] and I couldn’t erase the awareness of this. So, if I had a question, then question I did. (Of course, it was over selfish matters, so I had a bad feeling about it). The possibility I referred to above is that something could be wrong. So I was armed with this idea. I was no longer quite as naive. I began to not trust Stewart anymore.

[1] My mind had been opened to the possibility that Stewart Traill could be wrong, after his confession of certain wrongs at the 1989 “Grace Meeting,” and now I allowed myself to question everything, after initially believing that everything would change. I saw Stewart being the same as before, and now I could not stop questioning. This questioning eventually helped me to leave COBU.]

I am going on and probably not making my point. The point is that whatever we were told to do and believe, was God’s will for us. But also, if Stewart says things were wrong before, couldn’t they be wrong now?

So this, rather unexpectedly, has been a brief description of life since January 1989. I guess this is appropriate for a January 1993 meeting, four years after. But also, somewhere, something in me changed, and I went under and accepted all of these pressures that were placed upon us over the last four years.

This place really is like a cult. Though in my readings and searching into these things and my comparative research on cults, communal societies, religious sects, institutions and organizations, I found that the word isn’t “cult” or even so much “communist” (as a cause for the way things are here), but the fitting word seems to be “institution.” “Cult” is insufficient as an explanation. Though we share many characteristics with cults. (Such as exclusivity, isolation, a leader who has the only right view, control over members’ minds and restricted movements.) Many of these can be explained by the fact that a cult is an institution, but there are haunting echoes in this subject. Communism explains it a lot too, it is middle ground. But, I am not backing off in saying that this place is really like a cult.

Stewart is our filter, through which we “receive” God’s will, and any other view of reality. I am well aware of the fact that Stewart is like the sun in our solar system. He gives light and definition and form to everything. This is the function of a pastor, but here, maybe it’s distorted. It’s too much. We don’t think for ourselves, for instance.

This touches into to the area of Stewart’s isolation from other pastors. (Is it deliberate? Why?) I have been thinking of how he works on us. It is “I. S. E.” Isolation, Social Control, Exclusivity.

I.)  Isolation. We are kept from all other influences. From other sources of information, including other Christian people and contact with other groups.

S.)  Social Control. Stewart corrects us in front of each other and uses us on each other. He relies heavily on such leverage. This causes resentment, as I become aware of such things. I am not supposed to say he does this to us. I wonder if anyone else realizes it. It may be sharp and wise for him to do so, but it is cheap.

E.)  Exclusivity. Stewart is the exclusive pastor. He and whatever he says, does and proposes to us. He is magnified, God-like in our minds. Any other influence, such as other pastors or other teachings, are distant blips on the horizon. He is the world to us and he makes a world for us.

[The paragraph below is about what was happening at the meeting:]

Stewart is now speaking about those who are playing on the edge. Isn’t that me?Certainly is. Could these thoughts I have be part of that playing on the edge? Could be. But maybe I have never worked these thoughts out, I never decided if I want this. Besides, this is part of my reality, my life. I never deal with it consciously. It’s hard to believe God’s grace is sufficient.

[I wrote the long passage above at the meeting, looking as if I were taking notes. While writing, Stewart began talking about brothers who were “playing around on the edges.” This meant being anything other than fully devoted to the COBU way of life and belief system. Stewart must have been aware that people had doubts and misgivings about this way of life, so his comments would be an attempt to create guilt over these individual thoughts in order to rein people back into line. I certainly questioned if my thoughts about what was wrong with Stewart and COBU were merely playing on the edge or playing with thoughts that the devil was giving me, in order to deceive me. I questioned it when on my own, and when hearing it from Stewart, I got worried. Yet I stuck to my thoughts, because they seemed so real. And besides, even if I tried to push these thoughts away and to tow the party line, these thoughts always came flooding back to me, in clear, concise form. This shows the inner battle of the mind that cult members experience. It also shows the cult leader’s awareness of that battle and his attempt to counteract it. And the fact that there are people who have remained in COBU all these years shows that not everyone can escape from this grip, even if they have doubts and misgivings about the COBU way of life.]

You can read the next section of this journal here: Lives and Minds Under Control.

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