1993, 03/07. Against A Backdrop Of Conformity, Anything Different Gets Noticed.
Sunday March 7. Red Hook
So far, today has been a day of laundry. Now we are straightening up the place for a meeting.
I am reflecting on how the word “fear” enters in to just about everything I do. Though lately I have also been using the word “terror.” For example, I had better get out a while and go sweeping [recruiting new people] so if and when we have to talk about our group tonight in the meeting, it won’t look like we were lazy or making “excuses.” It’s a way to avoid a confrontation over, “Could you have gotten out sweeping if you wanted to? Yes? Then you were lazy.” So the whole thing is out of fear and terror. I hate the way I am about this and I don’t like facing that this is the way I am and how fear determines so much of my actions and thoughts. And so, despite all my feelings to the contrary, I will probably put in a little time out there, just so I can say we went and then try my best in a cover-up operation to say that our group is working well together, or to say as little as possible of anything that would be incriminating.
It’s a nice March day. This isthe first day where I could actually feel spring which is almost here. I wish I could just stroll down the street or go somewhere today. I could hear the buoys ringing in the harbor. Today is the kind of day where I wish I could stop and collect my thoughts instead of always taking part in work or in some other activities to look busy. We must appear to be taking part in something valuable, useful and selfless. We could never allow someone to not do that. Why? It may have to do with hiding from ourselves what we are really up to. Or it is a way to hide from how we are people with real desires and needs. Or it is a way of hiding from reality. I guess if we go non-stop, then that means we are doing valuable work. We can’t afford to let up, or to let go of people and let them go their own way even a little, or we will lose control over them. They must be bound up at all times and be made to fear and to feel bad if they are not. They must forget themselves and that they even have any needs. We must also work to keep the others in line. The myth can’t be broken. If someone got away and relaxed and we saw that the world didn’t fall apart as a result, the illusion would be shattered. It must have something to do with keeping people under control. The work itself isn’t wrong. It is the degree and intensity of it.
The people must be bound up until they give up trying to resist or to fight against this. Then they become clay in Somebody’s hands. There is something strange about all of this. It’s not normal. But, we lose our sense of perspective because we have no outside reference points. This is all we see. It just wears us out until we give up trying.
Am I making all of this up? I don’t know. It all seems quite tangible. I would have to shut my mind off to just go along with all of this. Where would I shove these thoughts? It is a consciousness that keeps coming to me. I would have to make a “conscious” effort to kill it, but it probably would keep resurfacing – as it does now. Is it just a run-away sort of indulgence that I have allowed myself to get into, that I can’t or won’t control now? [In COBU, to have these kinds of thoughts was considered to be listening to the lies of the devil.] But too many things point to it, and also there are just too many questions left unanswered. If I don’t answer these questions, it will just be because I decided to bury the whole thing.
I read some parts of the biography of L. Ron Hubbard on tape. [I read books about cults on tape, in order to listen back on them later as I was working.] I feel so diabolical by doing this, like I am really deciding to go to war. Then I was talking to Lauren. I feel like I am up to such duplicity. I have a secret she doesn’t know about, a double life [I have thoughts that are not in agreement with life here.] A little later, I thought about Martin Luther and how he found out things by studying, even while he was in the church.
I just came face to face with Noel for a second. I was called to go to the phone to help give directions, but she was already on the phone (and also knew the directions). It is hard for me to look into her eyes or her face, though maybe, it is hard for me to do that with any woman. But also, she also knows what she has and what she can do, that is, her effect on me. I walked away quickly, after confirming the directions she was already giving over the phone. I guess I am a coward. I have been thinking about how I avoid women and how I have had a religion for the last thirteen years that helps me to do so. Really, I could have stayed, maybe even talked to her – though about what I don’t know. But I guess I could have done that, but instead chose to walk away. Well, it probably wouldn’t have been from the heart anyway, but trying to prove maybe to myself or even to her that I can, or that I am not that bad of a person. Also, I noticed she is not as pretty as she usually seems to be. [She looked wiped out. Probably under the same pressures as I was, or even worse.]
I am now outside, looking up at the full moon. It is embedded in a faint, but huge ring. The night is still. A little brisk, but fragrant. I can hear the ringing of the buoys out in the river. It is very still. No wind. Quiet.
Our meeting is now starting with the usual, as brothers one by one, individually proclaim something about Christ and their need for him, which obviously is not bad in itself. But I also know what is behind it, except maybe when the newest or sincerest people here do this. If one doesn’t stand up and say something – well, there might be an inquisition to find out who didn’t say anything. “What about the rest?” So the thing to do is to say something quickly, so as not to be in that category.
It seems like duress on the part of older brothers like Chuck and Bob M. They blab something, then sit down. They don’t go for a repeat saying or keep talking. Everybody waits for everybody to go one by one, like we are expected to take our turn. I notice how the sisters don’t do this. They don’t seem to be under such pressure. They watch and say nothing, though one wonders if they should.
Curtis tried to push us into prayer by shouting like a marine sergeant getting his men to do push-ups.
We are now drumming up reluctant organizers. A bad start for a “no excuse meeting.” I wonder how this meeting is going to turn out.
Me, I’m full of excuses, of course. I’m sitting in the back in the farthest corner, out of sight. I choose such places purposely (obviously I am not fully there). Though I read in The Forgotten Spurgeon about how the person under the most conviction may not necessarily be the one that runs up for the altar call, but sits silently in the back. This was about a different situation, but sometimes I think this is or could be me. I certainly wouldn’t do too well up there faking it.
I like to be comfortable. I like to be lazy. I am sitting here in the back, my butt on a cinder block, my back against a sheet of plywood. It has been a long week, I feel I deserve a break. (I am writing here with a little humor now.) I am zoning out, relaxing my frazzled state of mind. I feel kind of cozy right now. I don’t want to live torn up inside all the time.
The reason I’m writing all this is because I want to keep a meticulous diary. How meticulous should it be? Should I record every thought and feeling? This is what I would like to do. It may be a way of recovering myself. So much of me is under wraps and atrophied. I don’t see why I should use censorship in that most intimate form of communication known as a diary.
A new brother, who recently left and now is returning to the church, goes on a little too long with his testimony and anxious worried ones try to get him to hurry it up or stop. There is a lot of sticking to (unwritten) rules. Brothers like Bernie (and Chuck and Bob M. somewhat), their function is to keep the lid on everything. There shall be no excess of emotion, whether a fight, euphoria, or even, sad to say, excessive gladness, which will also cause disorder. If it were me and if I were doing what those three brothers are doing, it would be because I knew that eventually it will be “audited” by Stewart and I would be held responsible if things didn’t go smoothly. In other words, they have a job to do and are anything but free. They look like they have an avenger at their heels. Maybe Bernie just needs a little help. But that anxious spirit, I have seen that before. It, ultimately, has something to do with Brother Stewart.
[The fear that was running Bernie, Chuck and Bob, causing them to try to control the reactions of the others came from their fear of what was going to happen when “Brother Stewart” walked into the meeting and decided that what was taking place was not to his liking, as he often did. Stewart would begin to call to account those he said were responsible for whatever wrong he decided to point out, and these brothers would be among the first Stewart would call out on the carpet for a beating.]
This meeting is the first time I am beginning to stand apart from our group and say, “I don’t believe in this or that.” Maybe it is the first time I have done it calmly. I am thinking, “There are many religious groups. Many have different views. Who is to say we are absolutely right?”
Now we are having a Bible study. I can’t help noticing, though I have doubts I am being vindictive, but it seems like our filter is in operation. A new brother speaks up in an out-of-it voice, possibly he just doesn’t know any better and it’s church talk. What he is saying is certainly something he heard in church (not here). He said, “God didn’t put us here to suffer, he put us here to live. Jesus is the one who suffered for us.”
This was immediately rejected by a couple of cagey ones who cut him off immediately. Then somebody said, “We need to get back to our Bible study in God’s spirit.” I guess implying that what this brother said was not part of the Bible study and was not said in God’s spirit.
So, I see a filtering device at work. That brother did have a point. I think he was right. Jesus did suffer for me so I didn’t have to suffer. He did it to save me. He did something I couldn’t do myself, to save me from a certain kind of suffering.
But, things must run in their proper course. This brother’s comment was “off,” so it was immediately thrown out. So was the brother. He asked if he could say something a little later and was told no. (Perhaps I don’t have complete information. Maybe he is a troublemaker?)
We are afraid such statements would lead to taking advantage or the easy life. But, what about an overabundance of suffering talk? Is that overdoing it? What if it isn’t God’s balance? (This is what Stewart has taught us. I see how we and our minds are rigidly controlled. We immediately notice when something a person says does not sound “right.”)
But, then again, what would you rather hear? A new brother who doesn’t have his theology straightened out, or Chuck with a flowery fast-talking speech, hitting a selection of all the right stuff and ending it with, “Does everybody else think so?” with a knee-jerk chorus of “Yes!” as a response from everybody in the room?
We studied Luke 14, about people who made excuses when Jesus called them to leave everything and follow him. There was considerable harping on the part about leaving our families.
I am probably making God angrier at me for thinking this, but, I think we have our own self-serving unbalanced view. [I thought that I was making God angry at me for having thoughts that our church was not honest in its practices.] We talk up the leave your family bit because we are a live-in group. Some brothers really take it to the extreme, a total separation. One then basically sends messages back to his family about Christ and seeks to influence them toward the good way by staying here and being a good example here, and never visiting them. Stewart tells us that this is the only way to help our families. (But that could alienate a family.)
Sometimes I think we have self-serving doctrine. Certain things in a Bible passage will be talked up, but it won’t seem quite real. But there will be a status quo, a proper consensus. These teachings come from Stewart, whether or not the brothers are interpreting his teachings incorrectly or going overboard themselves, since they are capable of making mistakes. But, who would dare say anything? If a person did, he would only would be considered to be a dissenter and a troublemaker. These brothers believe these things, or say they do.
[We had a selective reading of the Bible, where things like leaving your family and forsaking all we have were talked up at the expense of other concepts in the Bible. No one ever talked about the man whom Jesus healed and then told to go back to his family and tell them all God had done.]
Something doesn’t seem right, to say the very least. Like someone is putting one over, that there is “a cavalier disregard for the facts.” What do I do about these little doubts that I register about Stewart’s words, actions and teachings? Question them, while running under the bolts of the wrath of God for doubting his only true teaching?
[God’s only true teaching, as given through Stewart Traill, which is the basic premise which people who stayed here accepted, and from which all else here flowed.]
This is what I run up against, or imagine I run up against, when I do this. There are people here who just want to have their faith and their beliefs decided for them, and to accept that there is punishment for disagreeing or departing from these teachings, whether for themselves or for others. This offers them a feeling of security. The idea is that something is so true that they will be punished or incur extreme disapproval for departing from it. (“He who forsakes the way will be severely disciplined” – that is God’s word. ) It is all so nailed down, so authoritative, including this potential punishment, and everything is already worked out for us, therefore it seems firm and solid. Certain brothers really stick to it, I can feel it.
 The verse I was quoting here was Proverbs 15:10, which says, “There is stern discipline for one who forsakes the way: whoever hates reproof shall die.” This was my fear, which was now diminishing as I became aware of the truth and realized now that COBU was not the right way, or God’s way. Yet, this fear still lingered in the back of my mind. What Stewart taught us, and what I had believed for years, was that God would severely discipline me if I left COBU. I could expect to die a horrible death, or if not, to have an extremely destroyed life. Maybe after all that, Stewart said, God might let me come back – if he wanted me back. ]
The problem is, I have trouble believing a lot of this, especially what relates to community life and all of Stewart’s “kill it, forsake it” teachings, and his latest statement that we are slaves. These things seem carved out to achieve a decided effect, one that I have doubts about. Stewart has a plan for us, believe it – or else. There is a lot of push and punishment behind it. Often, I feel like I am on an anvil and the hammer is coming down on me over and over again. The anvil is our communal lifestyle, the way we are hemmed and boxed in and can’t get out. Stewart’s teachings, which are designed to fit the anvil, are the hammer. There is some overlapping, what is the hammer, what is the anvil. But, this is one of the descriptions I thought about to represent life here.
Of course, maybe it is all true, maybe it is designed by God just for me, if I would only submit to it. But it sure seems horrid.
The meeting continues. The messages from Stewart come through. This causes an extreme anxiety on my part. I tried to just forget it and sit back from it, and to keep a rational mind. Why do I have to be bounced around by this all the time? Swayed back and forth by any word Stewart says. Hiding in our foxholes in terror. I feel I am supposed to jump, and to now to be concentrating on this message, to polarize my thoughts around it, and to be concerned with how will I look in front of the others according to this message.
We are now going through groups. The sisters are sitting as a critical committee judging the groups. The nervous spongy voice of Bob M. is now giving reasons why things are the way they are in his group. It is a courtroom and an inquisition. Brothers talk about their groups and the sisters notice the discrepancies in the group members’ stories and point that out and say, “What’s the real story then?” Groups are reluctant to speak out. They probably can sense this, but are unwilling to say it, or don’t quite realize what is going on. But they react to it in a certain way.
Cynthia is offering helpful suggestions, but she is an exception to the rule. It may be my own prejudices, but Cynthia and a few others, such as married live-out sisters are more gentle, real and pragmatic. But the so-called Gayle Helpers are critical and correcting. Talullah and Noel seem to be in the forefront of the razor-lips section. But nobody will point this out. I notice that Chuck will then chime in by saying something positive to compensate for it. In other words, Chuck sees how critical these sisters are being, but won’t say it. So this means there is much communication going on in the indirect, subliminal radio waves. Chuck will probably not even face the fact, even to himself, that he sees this going on.
In my case, I would be decimated if I tried it. (I guess Chuck knows the score as well then.)
If this reaches us and they review the Red Hook groups, I will basically try to weather it out by doing the usual filibuster [stalling for time] and giving as little information as possible, so that it is not obvious that I am really not saying anything, giving only information that is not incriminating. Never inform on yourself, it is a big mistake. (I can’t really say anything because I am not fully there, might as well admit that. Really, I would love to give it to somebody like those sisters.)
But, this Princeton Sisters thing existed way back when too.
[These were the sisters who were gathered around Stewart to be his personal helpers, although he called them the Gayle Helpers, meaning they were there to help his wife on projects. The sisters I mentioned above, Noel and Tallulah, who were being so critical, were “Princeton Sisters.” This is not what Stewart called them, but what the brothers called them, because they lived with Stewart in his house in Princeton, before they and Stewart moved together into the same building at the COBU’s new property in Philadelphia. ]
These sisters are a cut above everybody else in our society and the distinctions are strong. I always think that in the end, if there finally are marriages, they will suffer because they have kept themselves distanced form us and that older brothers would choose the older sisters who are here in New York. For example, Paul would go for Veronica and not for Noel. How would anybody ever access these sisters? Who, of the brothers, really know them?
I am going on and on, but this is just what I wanted to do. This is also my weekly review. Look, I know I am not faithful to Christ. That comes through on the writings on these pages. Why I am hiding or afraid to admit these things to myself?
[According to these teachings, nobody could measure up, and Stewart always proved to us at every meeting that we had not been faithful to Christ, despite our best efforts all week.]
I suffer for my own foolishness. I have to face this, though somehow facing this doesn’t seem to do much. Maybe it is the idea of the long rocky road to repentance, salvation or acceptance, when I can really know that I am okay, like Bob M. seems to be doing now. (Though I was thinking that Bob could be on the trash heap in a matter of days, at any time. So why put my hope in that?)
I do seem to have a resistance or reluctance to join in. I just sit back here and think that all of this is ridiculous. That if I did run, I would have to run according to the rules, which seem to be a real hindrance. The truth is that I hate this place and everything here. I can’t stand it. It is like a jail. It’s as if a person must go into chains in order to serve Christ. (Also to run according to someone else’s rules, imposed on us, almost as if the truth is that we were really serving him. Stewart dictates our lives. I am a 35 year old man and can’t even make any meaningful choices in life, such as moving, marriage, etc.)
It’s like the power to live a life has actually been taken away from me. There is only one acceptable course to run – or I don’t live at all. This discouraging thing has been going on since way back. I think at some point, I woke up to realize what it was all about, or I realized it little by little, but it had a strong hold on me. I also had nowhere else to go. Also, I knew people here, which was all important. Like what was going on when I lived in Jersey City, when I first came to the church. This also was a place to live, which I needed. Maybe this is merely excuses, but I want to be free to write at least somewhere my true thoughts without censorship.
With what was going on in Jersey City, I should have left there. It was weird. Yet, I was strangely drawn in to the fights, the debates. It was a fight you should walk away from, but you are emotionally involved and want to stay and prove your point. I was very involved in that bickering life. A whole scenario of life was given to me, the life in the whole fellowship I mean. Soon I started to get the hard bumps, learning that there wasn’t any marriage, dating, male/female friendships here. But I think one of my reactions was to dig in and work harder, maybe because Stewart presented work as the way out, or the way to success. My mind was taken off real life and set on some distant goal, a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow that was always promised but never arrived. And my life became one of unreal goals, and anything but normal.
What really is the point of all this? An entire Sunday meeting spent on reviewing our groups. Group by group, person by person. Does anybody remember any of this when it is all over? This really is a bunch of people who have no idea of what they are doing. They never stand back and ask themselves, “What is all this for?”
Reporting on each brother in the groups. Ones say various clichés and lines to them or to everybody in the room in general. Maybe that is the way of dodging this, just be one more bland occurrence, don’t do anything out of the ordinary or make a scene or take anything personally, which could lead to a scene.
There is a lot of blabbering back and forth. Advice-giving that nobody remembers. This is like cutting out paper dolls or counting beans. A mass exercise in self-indulgence. Something like a work group, that instead of building something, sits around and counts their tools and arranges them according to size and color. They even sit there and count their nails and screws.
Some sisters made some points, even some things similar to what I wrote. Then, after the sisters made their points, Anthony shouted, “Does everyone agree?” A chorus of “Yes!” was shouted in response. What is the purpose of that? Why did Anthony say that? It was to throw out what the sisters just said. That was the function Anthony’s shout after some sisters went to real issues, however falteringly.
With that question and that shout, the page and what had just been written on it was ripped out and cleanly erased from everybody’s minds. I don’t think that Anthony was too aware of what he was doing. Maybe he got nervous that someone began to hit the mark and it made him a little uncomfortable to be just sitting there. But, it is a nervous reaction. The group’s reaction in response to his question was equally knee jerk and compulsion.
Something is going on here, something unconscious or under the counter. It’s not a conscious reaction. I keep thinking of what Anthony did as an erasure. This, I suppose, is group dynamics at work. I wonder how much mass suggestion and hypnosis can be used to describe this or is related to this. What am I really taking in at a meeting? Watch for the subliminal cues and messages.
I see several kinds of things going on in meetings, both the conscious, directly worded information which I can identify, and also things like Anthony’s eraser. If it wasn’t “erasing,” it certainly was “Okay, let’s move on, let’s get out of here!” But Anthony was playing on the “call and answer” habit we have here. Brothers are expected to answer or they are dull or not showing the proper spirit. (A similar example is our “Greetings in Jesus” salute.) It was like Anthony ran up and kicked over the game board. Little brother didn’t like what big sister was doing.
So, a lot of things are left to operate free in the dark. What do you expect in a meeting where nothing real is being accomplished? (What may have been accomplished was that everyone felt they got to help out and everybody feels better if they are checked up on, and got to express their opinions. They feel like they were working at something.)
I have the feeling that what I am taking part in is not rational. Meetings serve a certain kind of purpose in our fellowship. You might call us a “meeting church.” This whole night has been like a circus. The brothers are trying hard to put on a show. There are those who are conscious of that. A lot of others think they are doing the right stuff. And others may wonder why they have to do this, or they feel strange about the whole thing.
Once in a while, the sisters say something real, after we’ve gone through a long filibuster with the groups, after we’ve talked about how we haven’t been sticking to the basics and how we haven’t been talking about Jesus himself. But people get trained in these unreal discussions and unreal activities. Arranging flower pots and finger painting. Where the outward form of what we say and do is the most important and it doesn’t even matter if something real gets accomplished or not.
God must be angry with us, with the whole church. We lose our ability to see this, because, this is all we see. There is no outside point of reference. The Bible can mean whatever we say it means. It can serve our own purposes or reinforce our behavior in an endless loop that seems to confirm itself with its own evidence.
If a visitor came, he wouldn’t be able to understand this. Brothers and sisters string jargon together in a way that sounds acceptable to us, but is unintelligible to anyone else but us. Maybe this is another degree of our separation from outside contacts.
[Our strange religious jargon was yet one more degree of separation from the rest of the world, because we talked in a way that no outsider could understand. We had our own meanings for words and phrases, and our own reactions to them. I saw this as another way in which I was trapped and isolated from the real world. The only people who understood what I was talking about were those with whom I lived.]
I will try to reconstruct some of this talk here:
“Well I see our group as really striving to lay down our lives to build up the new ones in God’s spirit by suffering according to his will. Starting with myself I fully intend to get on all my brothers to live in the spirit every second me first as an example fully there shaking myself no excuses to see our group be successful really growing in Christ.”
[This is an example of the typical thing the brothers shouting back and forth at one another as they made their commitments, stringing cult lingo together like that. I counted and there are 16 different Stewart Traill “teachings” in the above example, such as “really shaking myself,” and “me first as an example.”]
Then, there are occasions where everyone gets going and begins to do it, one after another. It usually includes one central catch-phrase that is common to all.
Thos of us who are in the Red Hook practice groups are now standing up to be talked to. As we were called on to speak and we stood up as a group, someone shouted, “Okay. But really urgent!” which means everybody wants to get it over with, but that still doesn’t mean it will go quickly. This whole thing is a charade.
I must stop now. I have to keep my wits about me.
Our group was questioned. I got away with merely saying something like, “We are doing the works end of it, going through the motions, but not checking on how each other is doing.” I felt better after saying it, but don’t know if it was because it was all over or because it was a piece of honesty in the light. If I knew I could confess my sins and get set free without punishment, I think I would rush forward to do it.
Also, I liked the way I handled it. I didn’t grovel or confess. I might have thrown them off with what I said. Maybe because external works vs. the inward things is an issue with all of us. Maybe it wasn’t the usual jargon. Why, “works” sounds like Luther! But, I know I can carry myself well in some situations, though I barely did it (though possibly it was a sham). I spoke more from what I am instead of in completely religious clichés. I wish I was totally free and able to speak about a lot of things.
I noticed that there was a hesitation after I spoke. Nobody really touched it. I guess I am a nobody. I think also I may be vastly different than a lot of people here. (That has happened at different times in my life.) Maybe also I have developed this web of intricate thinking to help myself survive here. One must do something. What are my achievements really? I know some languages and I fit that into my life. I know how to read books and am developing a way to access information. I do almost all of this secretly – so, I know how to live a double life. I know the ropes; I know how to adjust myself to living in this organization. There is a certain good feeling from being able to do that, which may come from loosening my chains a bit. Maybe if I had known before that I could do this, it might have helped me three years ago when it really hit me like a ton of bricks.
[At that time, three years before this, Stewart confessed some faults and started over (The Grace Meeting) and got even more involved our lives than ever before and our lives became extremely intense and I lost all or most of the limited freedoms I had in the church.]
You can read the next section of the journal here: The Hammer And The Anvil.