1993, 04/02. A Letter Home.

This is the first letter where I “broke silence” and told my mother what was really like to live in COBU. It was a major first step, considering I had been there thirteen years and never told her or anyone on the outside any of what I truly thought about the group and what goes on here. Before that, I had only written letters which were carefully self-censored.

This self-censorship has to be considered in two ways. I was not going to let on to someone outside the group that there were problems here, but also until this time, I hadn’t “broken.” Until now, I still believed in the ideals of the fellowship, considering it to be a good system (and that perhaps we were just encountering some temporary problems), so in that sense, I wouldn’t be talking about what was wrong with the way things are here. It was only that there were some bad people who made life rough for me, Jim G. being the prime example. (He was the one who threw me out of the Rescue Mission in 1983, though everyone joined in the pack, and in one mass welling uproar, demanded my expulsion from the church grounds immediately without recourse to any kind of defense, though only moments before they had no such thing on their minds. Within moments, they had turned into a lynch mob and I was summarily removed from the church grounds at 11p.m. with no advance preparation. I was allowed one phone call (only after I requested it) and I was escorted to the phone room by four of the more physically fit brothers, all of whom seemed very nervous and on guard, as if they felt I would become suddenly violent and they were going to have to fight me and forcibly remove me from the house. I had never been violent and had no plan to do so at that moment.

(I even remember remarking to myself the fear in these brothers–somehow I had room within myself for some humor in a dark moment. Perhaps it all happened so suddenly that I didn’t have time to think about what was being done to me.)

In a way their reaction was real, in the sense that it pointed to what a normal reaction on my part should be, because it was certainly wrong to do this–at least give the guy a day or so to make preparations. But now I had suddenly turned into a dangerous outsider and was to be given no consideration–other than the phone call. Perhaps if John D. (an older brother who had his own independent house, in which “live-out” brothers lived) had not said it was OK to come to his house, I would have pressed for something a little more fair.

The closest I ever got to this kind of letter was when I wrote her after another event just like this.  I had been able to move back into the Rescue Mission just a few days after I had been thrown out.  I was soon thrown out again, during another witch hunt.  This time I was not able to go to John D.’s house.  I had walked around Philadelphia looking for a place to stay.  I tried a university area, where there was off campus housing.  I was able to convince a couple who owned a rooming house that I would have money at the end of the week, when I got my paycheck from my job (I wasn’t working in a church business at the time).   I wrote to my mother, telling her I had been thrown out for not pulling my weight (which was not the actual reason) , but even that had been carefully worded, so as not to make it seem I was thinking anything bad about the fellowship or the people in it. I did not describe the situation that night, how you could be in a meeting one moment, and then the next moment, people were shouting that you should go right now.

I still continued to come around to the church when I lived out.  I eventually moved back in, about a year later.  I still believed in the group and its ideals and could not envision living apart from it.  Even when I lived out, I still went by myself “witnessing” and visiting people I had met, bringing lessons.  Also, I did not believe I could get married unless I lived in, because I would not be trusted otherwise.  Even the sister I liked told me, when I tried to talk to her once, that she did not trust me because I was not living in and united and working with my brothers.  Such a desire to conform to the group in general, and to be desired in return by a woman he likes is a powerful force on a young person.

-*-

And, now, on to the letter:

April 2, 1993

Dear Mom,

I have decided finally to write you a good long letter. I have been meaning to do so for quite some time, but always held off.

Now that I’ve decided to write some things in detail, I realize I might be setting you up for quite a shock. Or who knows, maybe there will be no shock at all.

You will notice that I am very reticent about my life and activities over the last thirteen years. You probably don’t know much about me except that during that time I “got saved” and began living with and working with a church group, and that from my talk and the short notes I write you every now and then that I seem to be doing OK, but I don’t say much more. In fact, I have been very careful to present an “everything’s OK” front by selectively leaving out information that would indicate the contrary, such as the general course of my life (what it’s really like, that is), the things I don’t agree with doctrinally in our church or our way of life here. You may have also wondered why I never seem to speak of marriage, or that I am engaged or will marry at some time (I’m not and don’t know when I ever will be–more on that later) or why I never speak of having a family of my own or children, even though I am 35 years old now.

Believing that honesty is the best policy, I’ve decided to write out some of these things at length and answer some questions that you might have had, but possibly figured on not asking because I didn’t seem too open or didn’t initiate the subjects myself…

I suppose that first a little background information is in order…

Back in 1980, my life was pretty much in disorder. The immediate circumstances at that time was that I had just come back from what was supposed to be a semester abroad in “school” in London, but was really a series of nightly drinking binges and disappointing relationships with women. Even my four year friendship with Mike (who was there with me) fizzled out and came to an end. Really this was the culmination of about three and a half years of disillusionment with all of life in general which began with me at Drew University, failing to find any direction or meaning to life, dropping out from there and generally having everything in my life shattered and everything I had either been good at doing or put my trust in for meaning and definition of self (such as schoolwork and good grades) brought to an abrupt end. From there I began groping around for meaning, trying to find out what was life all about, etc.

I never really told you then and probably couldn’t have really explained it anyway at the time, but what happened in the middle of my second year at Drew was that I got hit with what amounted to a ton of bricks and never fully recovered. (I could explain that more fully at some other time.)

After I dropped out I would work to save money and try moving out and going to schools in different places. Really I was desperate to move away from home, part from shame of failure, part also from the normal desire to grow up and get it together and be independent. (Though a wiser choice would have been to stay at home and go to school.) Also, in moving away I was desperate to avoid what I perceived was a bad situation–namely our family life. (Really, it wasn’t that bad, but that’s how I tried to deal with it.)

My last “move” was to go to Worcester, Massachusetts, because I knew a girl there whom I had met in London. I would have actually never have gone there, but I quite literally had nowhere else to go, unless I rented a room in a rooming house in Pt. Pleasant, which seemed lonely and a little scary. I realized I also was wearing out my welcome in the house I was in at the time, the one Mark and Todd had rented for themselves for the winter, into which Dad, then I moved into, uninvited. So, up to Worcester I went.

I never expected anything to come of my friendship with the girl, whose name was Denise and nothing did come of it. But what she had planned and had offered was to rent a house. She and another girl would live on the first floor. I could live on the second. (There are many such two family houses in Worcester.)

Later on, I pieced together why she was so eager to make such an offer. She even put me up at her father’s apartment (her parents were separated) until a house could be found. Seems she was trying to make someone else jealous or doing some kind of payback to her life-long boyfriend. And I was the bait! Can you believe it?!

The house never came through anyway, but thanks to her father putting me up for a while I was able to locate a place to stay. I went to a nearby college and found an advertisement by two guys wanting a roommate and lived with them for a while. They went to the college. I told them I was between semesters and deciding what to do with my life and school. We got along pretty well.

Then, I met the church – or rather a brother out “witnessing.” My life has not been the same since and that is both a good and a bad thing. (I could go into detail, but it would take up a lot of paper and I would lose the immediate point. I could at some other time describe my life here over the last thirteen years, where I went, what I did. It would take quite a bit of time.)

I met a lot of new friends here. I was no longer lonely. I now believed in Jesus. (I suppose there had always been some grain of belief there all along.) My life now had some meaning and purpose and direction. Although I was a little distressed about being advised to forget finishing college. I would get desperately anxious about going back and finishing school, but it was easier to just forget it. It had always been such a source of stress and worry about how I was going to find my way in the world.

In many ways I became like a kid again. I can see how this was a result of a lot of life pressures being taken off my back. One shouldn’t be too stressful for sure, but a little stress and pressure to get it together can be good for you. It was so easy to forget everything I had been so concerned about and to defer all important life decisions indefinitely into the future! “Jesus” was now taking care of me and everything else would just “work out.” And I began to live a life of very unrealistic goals and ideas, where I was being used to support and provide the needs, goals, and aims of our church, rather than being realistic about some of my important needs and goals.

In fact we were often encouraged to “seek the welfare of the city you are in (that is, our church) and in it you will find your own welfare.” (This is a verse in the Old Testament. But it may not have really applied to this situation.)

With regard to marriage, we were told – among many things, some true, some that would boggle your mind – that a man must be laying his life down for the whole church, “taking the church by the hand,” and be seen that way by everyone, and doing that for quite some time before he could even consider taking a “sister” in marriage. Quite a monumental task for someone in his early twenties. It was a teaching that would insure quite a bit of zealous work and tireless zeal (or plenty of attempts to look that way) on the part of would-be husbands.

Actually, I believe this to be backwards. The Bible says that “if one does not care for his own household, how can he care for the church of God?” Whether this is written to the married or unmarried, or both, the idea I get is that one should be proving himself in a slightly smaller responsibility that is a little closer to home, namely a wife and children, gaining experience this way and demonstrating proficiency in managing household affairs before managing a larger household – that is, the church.

It is a fact that nobody has been married in our church for the last thirteen years, including yours truly. This is a fact, among other things, that have driven large amounts of people away from here and prevents people from returning.

Remember, this is a livein church (more of which later) which means that every aspect of one’s life comes under the sway of the church. In fact there is not a meaningful aspect of one’s life that doesn’t come under this sway. Really it is the sway of the pastor, but there is a way in which he insulates himself from any kind of charge of direct control over our lives by making standards and rules which are binding and effective and they do the work. One knows that he runs up against this or that rule, usually long before he tries anything and who is to disagree with a standard of conduct that he (the pastor) has searched out and found from the Bible? Who in a Christian community would want to be found disagreeing with the Bible? And, there is a way in which we all “help” each other along in this by going along with it. No one wants to risk anything in order to defend another person from this and there have been times when I have spoken up to defend myself or others. I quickly found out that there were certain results – namely the threatened prospect of the instant loss of church membership, which also means the loss of job and residence. And I mean, I’d have to be gone the next day, if I wasn’t shown the door at that very moment. So, one learns his place here, though I am considering whether I still want it or not.

In order to understand the above, about how no one will help another person in this respect and how everyone has this code of obedience and silence in the face of aggression, you’d have to have some understanding of the inner psychology of our group as well as some of its history.

(To explain this a little, this church was once rather big, as compared to now, in membership. Now it’s comparatively very little, about two hundred living in with about some fifty living out but attending meetings. So what you have is the leftovers, or survivors, who have been through thick and thin, including ones who have been with the pastor for fifteen or twenty years. (I have never known him personally as they did and I have always kept myself at a distance from him.) To these ones, the pastor would always win in every situation, trial, difficulty – or so it seemed. This invincibility had quite an awing effect on them, since most were here as teenagers in their first years and this sense of awe at his amazing powers has never waned, at least for those who have stayed. So they are quite bought in. This awe – which is almost mesmeric – combined with the fact that they are “survivors” of all the great mass exoduses in our history makes them desperate not to leave and also willing to accept just about anything in order to keep staying. Though it would also be unfair to say they didn’t stay because they believe in Jesus and want to serve him – but things are also not so simple and easy as that here.

To explain briefly the inner psychology of the group, there is the belief that our pastor has a special revelation of the scripture and of us – about what makes us tick, what to use on us. He does a lot of criticism and evaluation of us. This is always done before all the others, with them as the audience, or jury – a jury that is always striving to maintain agreement with him, so as not to be put on trial themselves.

When you are evaluated before all the others (he is like the hammer and the crowd is like the anvil you are struck against), it is very effective, because these are the people you live and work with all week, really the only people you have contact with in your life, so the desire to conform and be in the good favor of these people is enormous. It insures conformity and I am sure the pastor is well aware of that. Even when someone has a private phone conversation with him and is “corrected” over some fault or conduct, he is expected to go tell others what happened so they can take part in requiring him to reform.

I could go on with further descriptions, but let it suffice to say that an intense form of social control is exercised here.

Now, returning to the main idea, which was how I got here. I was soon coming to the church regularly and soon moved in as well. In about six months’ time, I moved down to a church residence in Jersey City. (That was in 1980.)

I would occasionally hear from ex-members criticizing the church or read articles concerning us. Words like “harshness,” “false teaching,” and “cult” were always used. I saw a lot of wrong here, but also a lot of good. And after all, my life was changing for the better… I remember reading a lengthy article from the Philadelphia Inquirer, which was an “exposé” on our “cult and its leader.” This article was kept in the house and passed around. We weren’t prohibited from reading material that was “hostile” to the church, although we were told that such reporters were doing the world’s or the devil’s work, and that such “persecution” was a sign that we were doing the right thing and were of the truth.

Actually, when I read the article, I thought that most of it, really all of it was true. It seems that these “people of the world” – although they didn’t have “spiritual sight” like we did, were awfully perceptive. There were also comments by other pastors debunking our false teaching, something called the “figure system” that only our pastor really understood and that was claimed to be the “only true interpretation of the Bible.” In other words, all other Christians were wrong – except our pastor, although he would never quite come out and say that. But that’s what this and many other claims would add up to if you followed them out to their logical conclusions.

Our church is called the “Church of Bible Understanding.” The pastor’s name is Stewart Traill. In appearance, he is a cross between a Moses type, with the white beard and an offbeat Einstein type. In other words, he is offbeat, but not stupid by any means, but instead, perceptive, sharp, and knows just what to do to get what he wants – including what he wants from us.

The fact is also, as far as I can tell, that no one takes him seriously in the larger world – that is, outside of this place, and that if he didn’t have a live-in congregation whom he could manipulate and control, there would be no one he could try out and use his teachings on! He is also a recluse, spending a lot of time in his library. I think his contacts with the outside world are few. We never see a guest pastor.

A few years back he came up with some new teachings which he thought were necessary for all Christians to hear. (His view, in general is that ours is the only way that works. But this place is so run down and falling apart and the people are so lifeless and dull, that I’d hate to see a way that doesn’t work, if it is really true that what we have is the best of all possible worlds.) Anyway, he made a big fanfare, telling us how he was going to visit fifty pastors and let them in on it and present these things for their evaluation. We didn’t hear much after that and the matter was dropped. It appears that he wasn’t taken too seriously, and from what I know of him, he expects to be taken very seriously. It appears that at least one of these pastors laughed at him. So back he went to his private enclave.)

If you want to research our church, there is comparatively little information to what is written about Jehovah’s Witnesses or other large groups. Most every reference I have found concerning us in book form is dated 1979 or earlier, all in books about cults. A more recent reference is in a new book by Ronald Enroth entitled “Churches That Abuse” which contains in two of its chapters the testimony of a woman who left our church. (Her name is Beth D___, but in the book she is referred to as “Betty Donald” since the author withheld the actual names.) The information is mostly accurate, though the picture is far from complete, since she left in 1989. Another thing is that it is slanted, in the sense that she tells of only negative aspects, which certainly are negative, without speaking of the positive parts that made her stay here so long. Her story would be more plausible then if she had told about the negative parts outweighing the good and thereby tipping the scales for her, causing her to want to go. That would have been a more accurate picture, more honest. This, I think is what is happening to me, though sometimes I think the scales were tipped long ago and I just have not acted on it. It’s not an easy thing to do.

The chapters in Churches That Abuse that are about The Church of Bible Understanding can be found at these links:  Chapter 4, and Chapter 6 .

How did the scales tip for me? I think through several sources of disillusionment – or maybe just eye openers. Three in all, I think, and this process started happening for me in a strong sense, in 1989 as well.

(Previous to that, after about the first year here, I remember wanting to leave. A lot of people did. These were the “backsliders.” At all costs, I didn’t want to be a “backslider.” It was a sort of reverse pride. Also, I had nothing else to do, nowhere else to go. On the positive side, I also believed in Jesus; believed he called me here, liked and respected some of the work, etc. But by 1987 or so, I did just want to go, but I thought I was guaranteed a place in hell if I did and that this was the only place I could ever follow Christ in. The abundant testimony of the thousands of backsliders added to this. And no one believed their stories that they had “found Jesus” in another church!

You may remember when I started visiting Dad regularly in New Jersey back then. Besides taking a break from the city, I was actively checking out the idea of moving back there, though I wouldn’t admit it to myself. Dad sensed it quite well, though I never told him anything of the sort. He would always say, “Well, I know you like what you’re doing, but if you ever want to change it, you can always come back here.” He said there was a room for me, gave me a key to the house, said to come any time and said there are always good jobs listed in the papers.)

So, with this little bit of information given, I’ll proceed to more recent events.

In 1989 our pastor had said he had been teaching wrong for all these years. He made a big confession at a meeting, saying that he had made it too hard on us, made it too hard to marry, etc. It was a long talk, sometimes a little theatrical. Surprisingly, no one jumped out of their seats or got angry. Part of why this is so may be that nobody was surprised at that and we all sort of knew already, so such ideas were no shock, though it was novel to hear him admit that he did anything wrong. Especially to hear him say his teaching had been wrong. We all knew he made marriage too hard. It was always what you would hear in our carefully guarded private conversations.

Possibly also a reason why there was no great shock was he wasn’t making admissions of moral laxity (like sexual misconduct, robbing the church treasury, etc.) but only admissions of false views of the Bible and making standards of conduct that were too high (for us) to follow. So, there was nothing to get a serious gut reaction or disgust over. Yet, it was a landmark meeting, and it seemed like things were going to get better.

About three months later, I began to get angry. Sometimes I’d find it hard to control my rage. I think it took that long to realize what had happened to me! I would think of “Brother Stewart” as something like the Wizard of Oz, who had fooled me with smoke and mirror tricks. Then one day, I pulled the curtain back to find a sorry old man. I had been duped all these years. (Actually it was him who pulled the curtain back, but after that there was no stopping my suspicions and I began from that point on looking at him with a critical eye.)

To finish this – this letter is getting long – shortly after this time, it seemed to me that he was soon up and running again on some other tangent, with the same “believe-it-or-else” attitude and no one could ask him any questions. When I did, I was quickly rebuffed and categorized as a troublemaker. (As were some others.)

In his repentance speech he had lamented several times that “no one had the moral courage to question him back then” (actually some did try) and would say, “Why didn’t anybody tell me” that he was off-base.

I quickly found out what this man who had been recently humbled by God thought of somebody trying to tell him anything! I guess it’s only God who can tell him anything. I was also quickly labeled with derogatory nicknames. It’s not the names themselves, but the message that he is not to be meddled with that irks me. The message is clear – “keep quiet.” In short, these last three years or so have been a type of living hell for me. I avoid all meetings whenever I can. I am here in body, but not in spirit.

I am going to wrap up this letter with this as the last page. Over the last year, I have begun to study heavily about Christian communities, off-brand Christian religions, cults, institutional and organizational life – all in a quest to see just where we fit in Christian history in general and in American Christian history in particular. It seems that since this country’s inception, there have been a proliferation of groups like ours, claiming to be the sole repository of truth, usually centered around a single dominant male leader, often living separately in their own communities, such as the Shakers, the Oneida Perfectionists, the Shiloh Community, the Jehovah’s Witnesses, and others. The two books that I have found of particular interest and help in describing the processes that go on here are Maren Lockwood’s book “Oneida” and Raymond Franz’s “In Search of Christian Freedom.” Franz was a top member in the Jehovah’s Witnesses who was “disfellowshipped” for speaking his mind. He was trying to help make some things right, but that doesn’t seem to have mattered to his fellows. And although we don’t have any strange “1914” prophecies or refuse blood transfusions – still, Franz’s clear and concise explanation of the inner workings of their organization, on the suppression of dissent, on ever-changing revelations of truth that must not be questioned are an accurate description of life here, though on a smaller scale. These books have helped me to sort some things out.

Of course, I am wondering how you will respond to this letter. I eagerly await a reply. I would ask you though, to write me in a sealed envelope and not a postcard if you are going to make any comments on all this. As you know a postcard can be read by anybody. I’m not saying that mail is censored here or letters opened, but things out of the ordinary get noticed here and a few comments on a postcard about “it sounds pretty bad up there,” if read by somebody could make life difficult for me and I would be watched and questioned about what I was doing, did I tell you anything, etc. (Actually, I should have told you long ago, and will tell you more in subsequent letters.)

What a thing for me to write on or near your birthday! I had meant to send another card, but in the long run, maybe this is better. Your last postcard reached me twenty days after you sent it. Maybe due to the weather.

This letter has helped me in some ways, because in doing this – writing as I am doing and what I have written about – makes me able to talk to you. As I said earlier, previous letters were short, or, on the phone, I would mostly listen to you talk, because for me to go on anywhere beyond “Hello, I’m fine, I’m working a lot and the weather’s getting better,” I’d have to start telling you these things… which I was reluctant to do.

I am hoping this letter is not going to cause a severe over-reaction on your part, but if you have questions, feel free to ask. I will certainly be glad to answer.

With love,

James

c/o Christian Bros.

175 Coffey Street

Brooklyn, NY 11231

(718) 243-1433

-*-

This letter can also be found on my website called The COBU Essays, which also contains other letters I wrote as well as essays about life in the Church of Bible Understanding that I wrote while I was still in, and after I had left.

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