1993, 01/21-23. Cultivating An Air Of Degeneracy. Dirty Buildings and Tired People.

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

January 21

Eye contact with M. again. This is not intentional. It happens a lot. I wonder if she is going to “mention” this to someone. It takes two to tango.

[I made eye contact with a sister. Our eyes met and we looked at one another briefly. This had been happening often with her. I worried she might say something about this to the other sisters, or even tell some brothers on me. But I noted that she had been looking at me, so she was just as “guilty” as I was. The look exchanged was spontaneous and was mutual attraction. But, in COBU, there were no relationships. I always thought this was because relationships could not happen at the present time, because there was some level in our training that had not been reached, or there was some crisis going on in the church.

Some of these crises were when Stewart accused all the older brothers of being rebels and in danger of being thrown into hell at any second, so who could think about relationships at this time? Maybe later. Stewart constantly accused us, courtroom style, saying that our spiritual condition was grave because we were rebels, cheaters and con-men. And that life was short, so were supposed to break up everything about ourselves, because we were were going to die soon and lose it all anyway.

We got most of Stewart’s “teaching” at meetings at the “New Property” in Philadelphia. I often thought of the New Property as the “constant crisis compound,” because that was where we assembled together in front of Stewart to hear about the desperate crisis situations we were facing. Sometimes there was a new crisis, or a new accusation of our unfaithfulness every week, and we lived in a constant crisis mode.]

Some new brothers were trying to bounce me by saying the “right stuff.” [They were running the latest Stewart phrases and teachings on me, to see if they could make me uncomfortable, just for the fun of doing it.] I didn’t even want to answer their questions. I wonder if new brothers are discovering the power they have and how they can make people move in strange ways by saying the right stuff, with a joking attitude. They can say you were avoiding answering them, but when pressed they can say, they were only saying this or that right thing. Well, they haven’t felt it yet themselves. They haven’t felt any real correction, under the whip.  By the time they become middle brothers, they won’t do that anymore.

[After these new brothers been here a while and moved into the middle brother category, they will have experienced Stewart using the same techniques on them and they will be weary of it and will not think it is funny anymore. And they will not entertain themselves by seeing how high they can make someone jump by running Stewart phrases on them.]

These new brothers have found a unique pressure point: “I can goof on you, but if you disagree with me, you are disagreeing with Stewart.” (Or with Jesus.) I found it hard to say anything to them. I kept fast forwarding to some imagined meeting where these ones bring up which older brothers were talking back or who wouldn’t answer the proper questions. And there will nothing I can say, because they are backed as the new brothers who are doing well in their faith. And my attempt to discount what they are really up to would be seen as an attack. [It would be seen as an attack on the new brothers, an attack on the truth, and an attack on Stewart.]

I feel as if I can’t go on. I feel like laying flat on my back. I sent George out for coffee. I feel like just getting up and walking away, down the street.

I prayed. I had a sense or an image of Jesus holding me up. The statue in Penn Station in Philadelphia of the angel holding up the man flashed into my mind. If this is really how I am, then I ought to pray accordingly.

Station Angel

[This is the statue of the angel holding the man in Penn Station in Philadelphia. It was made to commemorate employees of the Pennsylvania Railroad who gave their lives in World War Two.]

I am at least nominally in Jim O.’s “so-called group.” The word from the council in Philadelphia to us is, “Are you being urgent to get in a real group or just not bothering?” The spectre of going to Woodruff and staying up long hours is looming in my mind. I imagine going into the meat grinder, living at Woodruff in a round the clock burnout lifestyle until I drop, with weekly evaluation meetings with Stewart.

[Stewart called our groups “so-called groups,” meaning that, as opposed to the new brothers and the few older brothers who were “backed as being faithful” who also had groups and were at Woodruff Avenue, the rest of the older brothers were not considered to be faithful to Christ, but we should also get into working groups in order to “prove ourselves.” Any message from the council was really a message from Stewart.]

I have a hard time getting my work done. I can hardly work at all.

Friday January 22

At Remington again [A job site]. I walked in over the Brooklyn Bridge with [new brother] Antoine. When I was at the midpoint of the bridge, I thought of how I have nothing with me. All the things I own aren’t here. (And all the things I’ve read, I am not thinking of.) I thought of how a person can exist on almost nothing. But I should watch out for a phony nihilism, doing that for no purpose.

I’m sitting in a van while the brothers eat in a Chinese restaurant. I spend a lot of time doing nothing. My time is usually spent traveling to work, working, and a lot of wasted time in the office or waiting for things. The most I try to do when I get the time is try to read, walk and sometimes draw a little bit. Once in a while I think of doing research or searching for resources, such as translation agencies or other language services in order to find a lead for work. But, really, what am I able to do?

(This diary is a way of filling up the time, or using the time, an adjustment. But I don’t get large blocks of time in order to do anything. When I’m snatching my moments here and there, it’s hard to do or to build anything. I never get much opportunity to step off the daily grind in order to think things over or to reorder my thoughts, priorities and plans. But, I can try to list them in the back of this book as a way to be continual about them, to remember them and to chart my progress, if any.)

Another thing I’ve thought is, that even after all the reading I’ve done, I’m still here. (At the moment, I’m writing this in a van full of equipment, parked outside a restaurant. In other words, I’m still doing the same thing, in spite of whatever projects I’ve had, in spite of whatever I’ve thought I ought to do.) Also, it’s not like I’ve done a lot of reading anyway. It just seems that way. I wonder if I even read a half hour a day. But somehow, I have the feeling I’ve done “heavy” reading on a subject. There’s not much time for reading, really. Life is centered around work. Sometimes I can fit something in or take it along, but I can never really get unhooked or be free to pursue something entirely different, if even on the side. But I hope to make an effort to do so. (I can never be free to pursue something while working either. I may listen to a tape or two, but I feel as if my hands are tied. I never truly consider new possibilities. In many ways, there is no context in which to even consider the question.)

Saturday, January 22

I walked to South Ferry from Red Hook. A nice distance. I am getting used to this. I am guarding the Staten Island house today, mostly recuperating, relaxing and doing nothing. Doing nothing in a way that is relaxing and restorative and not just wasting away the hours in work or generally waiting around. It’s quiet here. I ate well.

Greg B. is here. (He has been here a few days with the flu.) I was talking to him about his family. I was doing some general reading, which is easy to do here because there are newspapers and magazines laying around and an atmosphere that is conducive to it. Why do we “have to” live in warehouses and dumps anyway?

[The Staten Island house was a real house, not a warehouse. Women who were divorced or separated from their husbands, often because their husbands left COBU, lived there with their children. Although croweded ,the living arrangements were more normal. Having a guard shift there was refreshing. It was a way to get away from warehouse living. I was not friends with any of the sisters there, though some of them showed their appreciation by telling me that they were glad when there was a brother to guard the house, because they felt safer.]

Supposedly these warehouses and Woodruff are way stations for the people we bring in off the streets, and that is why these places can’t be carpeted, painted and kept up. (Even with all that concentrated manpower and idle hands.) You get the idea that this is the normal, or even idealized Christian mode of living, with a total disdain for superfluous things and the outward trappings and comforts of “wordly” life. But certainly no one wants to come live with us, except for the (mostly) street people we bring in. For many of them, it’s a step up. But, the ransacked look of (almost) all our properties must telegraph a message to all newcomers, giving them an idea of what we’re all about, or even communicate a certain expectation to them about how it’s going to be, or how they are to be. Which might be, “We only care about the soul. Don’t ask for anything else, because you’re not going to get it.”

I mean, without being cynical, what does it say? It is a loud message. Sloppy, run down. Cultivate an air of degeneracy in your life, if you are not that way already. Otherwise let everything about yourself fall away, degenerate and atrophy. People, it seems, just couldn’t have any respect for us. The older brothers and older sisters learn to have and to show a certain obliviousness to it all. We foist it on all newcomers. Take it or leave it. It’s intertwined with the message we impart, with Christ himself, since there’s never any effort to change it.

I feel I have to become a “living Woodruff Avenue.” To look in my outward appearance and actions the way that place and other church locations look. Let everything slide, never do or fix anything. Let everything go into decline. Never fix the plumbing or paint the walls, unless it gets so bad that it’s a hindrance to my round of daily activities. Then I will, or can, do something about it. (I have a feeling of being bad for going against the current.) Then I can “justify” it, saying, I need to fix my appearance, I think I could close more jobs that way. Or, if I don’t start exercising, I’ll never keep my weight down, this is getting pretty bad.

Just like at Woodruff, we couldn’t fix anything until it got bad enough. The skylight in the roof had been leaking for years. There were half-hearted attempts to put buckets on the stairs during rainstorms, though usually, if buckets were set out, no one would empty them later. It was just something someone did before rolling into bed at night.(When you work all day fixing and cleaning other peoples’ houses, you don’t have time or don’t feel like fixing your own. Besides, we couldn’t get time off from the church business if we wanted to, unless it becomes a crisis.)

But, when nature and the power of the universal solvent had finally worn through the plaster, rainstorms were depositing white gunk all over the stairs. Now, it had to be fixed, because buckets could no longer contain the fallout. Greg S. was commissioned to come and repair the skylight, which he did, with such skill and a level of professional ability that there has not been a leak since. But, why couldn’t this and myriad of other things have been done before? (Your right mind tells you they should.) Answer: they had not (yet) become a crisis, where something had to be done, or else. So, for years, the bathroom floors at Woodruff have begun to sink and give way, but, no one has fallen through yet, so we’re not going to fix them.

But, you see, this is how I feel about me too. If it reaches a crisis, okay, then something can get done about it. Otherwise, let it ride. Besides, it seems such a monumental effort to do anything, to break free from the inertia of daily life, or fit something in somewhere. I never really think or plan. My effort goes to keeping up with the treadmill I’m on. There is the weight of inertia, but there are also the sticky “moral” questions and issues that come into play:

“Is it okay?”

“Is it an idol?”

“Why do I really want it?”

“Hey, you’re gonna die soon, so what’s the point of it?”

“Is this really going to make you happy?”

“Okay, so you finally get it. So your life is going to be better, right?”

[The above lines were what we heard from Stewart when we talked about our needs and desires. I had internalized these concepts and this cult-induced thinking left me incapacitated and unable to make decisions.]

I never had to think of or deal with such things before. The whole thing folds back on itself and on me. The weight, force and sheer attritional effect of it is what causes that “Woodruff / Red Hook” way of life. The force of gravity is at work. This is what makes it so hard to do anything. This may be one of the cruelest aspects of our life here, the closest to the laying on of burdens too hard to bear. Because it is sold by the others here. If it is sold, then it is being touted as being superior to other ways of life.

One of the gentler modes of selling it, promoting and enforcing it is the mocking, which is a form of peer pressure, when brothers mock me for having a clean(er) or sealed off area to live in. Or for having individual, private interests and activities. It’s also sold just by us living this way, which makes me guilty for promoting it by example. Think of the weight that is put on sisters and newcomers by our lifestyle. But they don’t say anything. Besides, it’s “sacred,” because it is part of the officially sanctioned way of life here. Brothers sometimes say that it’s an unreal way of life, but continue to live it. Besides, we can really get in trouble for speaking this way. It’s taken seriously! First, the reproofs come in the form of the “What are you really here for?” and “What’s the real issue anyway?” mode, but it can escalate from there.

I hadn’t meant to digress. It seems like these thoughts are just in me. That’s what this book is for, to collect these things so they’re set down in writing somewhere. Sometimes I try to write in Solzhenitzn’s style of mild sarcasm to make it more writeable and readable, and so it’s not merely a bitter tirade.

I just went out to park a van. While doing that, I passed the school field with its little running track. This gives rise to thoughts about how I don’t run now, and even to thoughts like, it was bad or wrong to do. Then to, how in Chinese brainwashing camps, American servicemen were brought to the point of confession and conversion, having been made to feel that their previous way of life and our government were evil. Not that they really believed it, ultimately. But the constant bombardment of counterinformation produced an effect that was binding and lasting, as long as they were in that situation.

That leads to another major question, about what I believe and why. How much of any conversion I have and any renouncing of my past life and activities is genuinely from the heart and how much is due to the constant pounding of the same themes, and due to our isolation and me being overwhelmed by it? I have read about the Great Awakening in American history. There were many conversions, but many were of doubtful sincerity and of short duration. They happened due to the pressure and the heat of the moment. They used to have “protracted revival meetings” for days, staying up late at night. Conversions were produced, though sometimes becuase of people giving into the pressure. So I wonder about any remolding and “new” attitudes I have. You could say that our life is one big “protracted revival meeting.” Finally, I give in. But, is it real? Those people could go home to their farms and shops. But we live in it.

I have come across several things in my reading lately, similar to the “Why do you believe what you believe” line.

[Ex-member Tom Pierron wrote “why do you believe what you believe, do you even believe what you believe?” in a letter to Chuck, who was an older brother. I fished the letter out of the trash can, which was where Chuck decided it belonged, and I read it. Tom’s comment to Chuck about “Why do you believe what you believe?” struck a chord within me and I thought of it sometimes.]

One of these things was from Dietrich Bonhoeffer (who is someone people like to quote in order to give weight to their own assertions, or as an invocation, almost as if to a patron saint, as we have a habit of doing with John Bunyan), but the question is a pressing one and it helps to articulate my own worries. It was, “Do you believe 100% of what your church teaches? Your eternal welfare depends on it.” It was about the need to study for yourself. I usually try to smooth over this. But these questions come in like barbed arrows from other directions.

So, that is question #2. Generally put, why do I believe, or do I believe what I say I believe, and why do I convert to things? Is it because of genuine belief and consent, or due to outward constraints, forces, expectations or even threats? I suppose no one really converts or believes due to inward consent alone without outward motivators. That is part of life.

But what about when I am in a compression chamber situation in which everything is overblown and distorted beyond the normal degree to which they should be confined? I begin to doubt the validity of my own consent when I figure a large measure of it is due to a whip and a bat over my head, or being intimidated and forced into a mode of life where even to question is regarded as a crime and a disruption in the clockwork of things. I’ve never known, or at least not recently, what it’s like to not be in such a situation and whether I’d freely choose to believe without it. Though actually, it was less constraining here in the past, and still I believed everything, hook, line and sinker! I never had the sense I was being forced to believe. (Though the no-marriage was tough.) But, I never tried to question back then, so I don’t know what would have happened.

I had a dream while sleeping earlier today. Jay was leaving. It was at a meeting. But before Jay left, he said he wanted to tell Stewart off and he did, and was swearing at him. Stewart just held his head down. I had the sense, not that Stewart was bothered by this, but that he was merely waiting, as he often does in situations, then acts. But Gayle began crying, over the sense of “things have come to such a pass,” and what such behavior signifies on the part of a brother and not because her husband was being defamed.

The part I played in the dream was that I reached out and touched the back of Jay’s chair and said to him, “You should make that right. Even if you do leave, you should make it right before you go. This is not right.” But I was also afraid of what Stewart would do to me for sticking my neck into the situation and involving myself. I was now on the line as well. It would certainly be remembered that I had done similar things, and I was looking at Stewart, wondering if he was going to do anything to me.

Things like this could happen. Things could get to such a pass, because there is no safety valve for such thoughts and emotions. Someone could build up to such a point, until finally, there is a big blow out, where it all comes to a head. Such persons, the dissenting ones, can be rounded up, reported quickly and brought to a swift trial. They must back down and swallow it. The result of this attitude toward enforcing uniformity in thought and in properly deferential attitudes toward our pastor could cause a person to hide these attitudes rather than being open or discussing them and even challenging (even in what one would think are acceptible modes or methods). Fearing punishment or ostracism, the brother would hide it, but not forget it, until his emotions became a seething cauldron of anger. Until he was no longer in control of himself or thinking rationally.

But maybe it could have all been avoided. Many societies allow forms of dissent that serve to dissipate anger. Sometimes a person feels that as long as he can air his views or openly wonder about things, that he is satisfied and wishes to do no more, because he is not opposed to his society and he wants to work for its benefit as well. (In the United States, we have political satire, editorials and political parties.) As long as a person can talk freely, without receiving a knock down or being held under suspicion, this is enough.

But when there is totalitarianism, where people must tow the party line, or else, and must say the correct things (praise and agreement) to the “chief,” then dissent breeds underground – at least for those who haven’t developed the ability to turn their minds off because of, “what do such little things matter anyway?” When there are constant crackdowns and questions about one’s character. (And your character is presented as always having been in question, but only brought into play as a result of you airing your viewpoints). There does seem to be a climate of fear and of barbed wire here. And, it all does seem unnecessary.

“We” have chosen the more dictatorial, communistic way of life. I suppose that when one speaks for God, he does not have to ask for others’ opinions and views of his words or of himself. (But we have to ask for other’s opinions of us. Stewart often says to us, “Do you ask the others what they think of you?)

This absolute dynamic has always been here. Stewart is the absolute teacher with the absolute truth and absolutely no questions! We are totally isolated, under one man. This is the strange thing I feel. (All the time.) When I sit and observe at Sunday meetings. (This is the only time we’re in direct contact with Stewart and he is working on us. We are “in his presence.”) When I see this man and what he is doing, it seems abnormal. I start asking myself, “What is this?” Even though I have been here so long. I can get so used to things that I no longer see them. Him, alone. He’s the absolute authority. (Alone with us in this little rat cage. If we have a question, what do we do?Who are we anyway?) But who backs Stewart up? God and scripture, at least this is what we should say. But, where are his peers? Maybe he does contact others, but we never see them. A teacher of Greek and Hebrew came one time. But Stewart never introduces someone to us, saying, “I am working with Mr. ____.” (I have some ideas on why Stewart is alone, but I won’t elaborate now. The basic idea is, either no one will submit to him, or no one really takes him too seriously. Or he doesn’t want to.

[Stewart Traill didn’t want to be in contact with other pastors or be accountable to them. However it is debatable whether Stewart is a Christian pastor. But I thought of him as a pastor at the time, and that therefore he should act like one and also work together with his peers.]

I get the idea that Stewart is not well-received in the Christian world. Of course, even if they are 75% phoney, there have to be genuine ones.

[Stewart often said that 99.999% of all other Christians were arrogant and were refusing to serve the truth. At least he “admitted” they were Christians. Essentially, this left .001% of Christians that were faithful, which by way of implication, meant that only Stewart Traill, and perhaps a martyr or two in some foreign land were faithful and true Christians. The faithful certainly did not include any one of us, which Stewart was always ready, willing and able to prove at nearly every meeting.] 

Stewart’s aloneness, or apparent aloneness, serves to reinforce the image that he is one of the few, if not the only pastor, onto the truth. He can’t traffic with all those phoneys. This also serves to enhance his image in our eyes.

I talked with Bob D. a while on the phone. Then I was reading a photography magazine. It made me think of getting a 35 mm camera again. The magazine had a review on film types. It made me think of the film I used to use. I stepped outside. The night sky was filled with my favorite kind of clouds. I stood there a few moments to watch them flow by. Again, it seems difficult to put anything into my life. Why can’t I get a camera? I could fit it in with my new habit of walking. Must money, or the lack of it, be such a worry? Must it define my life? A 36 exposure roll of slide film with developing would probably cost 20 dollars, so what? Also, there is the chance of theft from new disciple brothers, but must that also define my life? Am I living at the poverty level, not out of conviction, but necessity? I could fit a camera under my coat, taking it along on selected occasions. I could relearn the basics of photography. Also, those “pseudo-moral” issues come into play. Let’s say I get a camera and I take slides of skyscapes. And I get a projector, to look at them sometimes. It is a hobby, looking at the beauty of nature. Should a Christian do this? Is it a waste, superficial, a fraud?

[Stewart Traill’s taught that “all of this life is a fraud,” and this applied to everthing in this life. I was thinking of taking up an old hobby, photography, and taking pictures of sunsets and cloudscapes, but even that was a fraud, even if it was God’s creation. I remember around 1991, when wheeling a carpet cleaning machine down a sidewalk in the Bronx one cloudy and wet autumn day, weary from the constant treadmill of cult life, I passed by a tree whose leaves had turned a vivid red. I paused to admire it. At once, I heard a voice in my mind saying, “It’s a fraud.” Confused and unable to sort out fact from fiction, I continued to believe Stewart’s teachings about our need to deny all things pertaining to this life – though I did at least highly suspect these teachings themselves to be fraudulent.]

For normal people, even Christians, none of this is not an issue. Doing these things is  about on the level of getting a cup of coffee. I have to do all this strange backtracking. I don’t live this life of abnegation by conviction, but by compulsion. I don’t even believe in it.

You can read the next section of my journal here: East Is East And West Is West, And Never The Twain Shall Meet.

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