This is Kevin McConnell’s testimony about his time in The Forever Family / The Church of Bible Understanding, from 1975 to 1976. (It was written in 2003, so some of the dates may reflect this.)
COBU TESTIMONY PART 1
Occasionally, people at my church ask me about how I came to know the Lord. Well, I can’t tell the story without explaining the background of my life before Christ and my involvement in the Forever Family, which was later renamed COBU (The Church of Bible Understanding).
I was brought up Roman Catholic and went to RC school, yet never really believed in any of it. I had a bad experience with the school and nuns and I left RC school for public school at the age of 11. At this time I hated the RC church and God, because I associated God with RC and became an atheist at that age.
Around the age of 14-15 I started hanging out with counter culture types (hippies) and taking drugs and I hated society. I started seeing the disillusionment with people taking drugs and saw it at that age as a destructive lifestyle. Around the age of 16, I asked what is it all about while casually hanging out with my dope user “friends” – yet saw them only as my friends if I took drugs. I saw “old” people (21-22 years old, well when you’re 16 years old 21-22 seems old) who were taking drugs as burn outs and didn’t want to be like them. I was asking a lot of “what is life all about” questions at that time. I felt distant from my parents, my Dad just got into AA and I wasn’t close to my parents or brothers or sister.
Well, one end of summer evening, I went over my friend’s house and we got high and went for a walk. We went past the White Castle in Clifton. Gary Kokulus, TC Roberson and Fortune were handing out tracts. Fortune got me in a corner and started asking me questions. I do not remember what she said, yet when I tried to avoid her by going into the White Castle, she said, “Your God is your belly.” I thought this was a funny expression. She then said ,“Why don’t you come out to our fellowship group?” She asked for my phone number. I thought I gave her the wrong one, yet somehow TC called weeks later and invited me to a meeting. I said “why not?” I was attracted to these counter culture types, yet didn’t know what to expect.
Well, here is Part Two of the incredible saga of life in FF/COBU land:
In Part One, I gave a background of my pre-FF days. Here is a story of September 20th 1975. This was five days before my 17th birthday. I got invited to a meeting and I went over to the Paterson fellowship. Immediately I saw all these strange and unusual people including Gary Kokulus, Jim P. (with one finger on this hand), TC Robinson, Jay Edelman, and a few others, including an older man named Butch who was an ex-Jehovah’s Witness. He was retirement age and wore a suit, which was unusual compared to your average FF “uniform.” Butch came up to me and said, “Do you believe in the existence of the Devil? Well, he is mentioned in the Bible.” I was taken back and Fortune immediately took me aside and sat down with me and started witnessing to me. It got loud with all the activity, there must have been about 12 to 15 people in the place.
Well she took me in the back room and started reading scripture about being born again. I really don’t remember what she said, yet she kept on going and asked if I wanted to receive Jesus and be born again. I knew the only way she would leave me alone was if I said yes. Well, she started smiling and got TC and they both led me in the Sinner’s Prayer and then said all the angels are rejoicing. I was confused. She then highlighted this Gospel of John and said I should memorize these 12 verses and that if I did, I’ll get this “Get Smart Get Saved” button. I thought she was weird yet went along with it.
We all piled into two cars and went to a Center Meeting down in New Brunswick. It was in the gym of a grade school. Stewart was there. He started pacing and talking. I thought this guy is strange with his “Batman utility belt,” yet noticed everyone was listening, glassy eyed. I remember Butch, the older Ex-JW confronting Stewart: “You may be able to pull this off on these kids, but you can’t fool me Stewart.” This was the only time I saw a person directly confront Stewart.
I saw Cliff and Doug Gale at that meeting. I knew them from my friend Ken, who I knew from comic book conventions because they were his brothers. They asked about me giving up comic books yet. I looked at them, confused. This was all in my first meeting.
I went home that evening. Something had changed. I started memorizing the 12 verses and reading the Bible. On my 17th birthday the next week, I bought pot and told the FF. They said I shouldn’t be doing that stuff. I tossed away all the pot and also my pot plants which I was growing in the attic. I went over to the fellowship house 3 or 4 times a week after school and my paper route. They were immediately alienating me from my family and friends. I went from being an atheist druggie hippie to “sold old” person for Jesus in less than a month.
Before I continue with Part 3, let me explain that I am doing this to get this off my chest and to explain to people who can’t understand, because when you tell most folks, both saved and unsaved, they look at you with a “deer in the headlights” expression. I am also seeing things through a 17 year old’s view back in 1975/76. If I were doing this all over at the age of 44, I would see and react totally different.
Well. last time I mentioned my first day with the FF and the time immediately after. That first month I spent a lot of time going over studies (which were known as “nuggies”) and memorizing my 12 verses and got my GET SMART GET SAVED button. I hardly spent any time with my old friends, except to invite them out to a meeting. I also never went to family functions and spent 6 or 7 nights a week at the group. My Mom demanded I only go a couple of times a week during the school week, so I used to sneak out after my newspaper route and spend at least an hour at the fellowship before my mom got home from work. Then I would close myself in my room and read my bible. If my Mom went to the store, I would call the fellowship and talk to whoever was there, TC, Fortune, Gary Kokulus or Jim P. Everyone was praising me for my “faithfulness” and mocking my parents as being unsaved and old in the flesh. Since the FF was my spiritual parents, I should listen to them. (That was both directly said and implied.)
Jay Edelman was the Paterson fellowship leader, but was moved to Belleville and Gary Kokulus was the fellowship leader a couple of months after my involvement. Tony Le Donne was from the Bellville Fellowship and moved to our group, where he became assistant fellowship leader. Gary was quiet and introspective. Tony was a guy full of energy like Jay. I remember Tony used to like witnessing in dinners while Gary liked to witness on the street or in parks. One of Tony’s favorites was the Pompton Queens Dinner. He would play the juke box and say things like, “Elton John must have been saved and be a backslider – just listen to the song.” Then he would sing it in front of everyone…”’Don’t let the son go down on me,’ he is talking about Jesus.” One time Dave R. (“Dave on Fire”) heard Tony singing as we were piling into a car and said with a bewildered smirk, “What is this space?” I always liked Tony, in fact I liked everyone in the FF and had no bad experiences till later. Once Tony was going on a job interview at the Corral on Hazel Street and I lent him my new shoes which were 2 or 3 sizes too small. He borrowed a white shirt from another brother. I think he even shaved that day. I wonder if he remembers this.
I just had faith that this was the way Jesus wanted me to live and accepted it, no questions asked. I believed that to pursue personal interests was worldly, to seek a good job and an education was worldly, that parents and the unsaved were evil and that Christians were just playing church and not really serious with God. A year later I saw things differently.
A few girls from Passaic Valley High School came to the fellowship, Cathy Lee, Karen Basales, Margie Eckman and Terry Gambarella (my wife today), along with a few guys (I forget their names) came often. They all made a confession with the Sinner’s Prayer and would usually come once a week. They used to play guitar and we would sing, yet when it came time to witness they said they “had to book.” They only stayed about a month and then disappeared. Tony Le Donne would remember them.
FF/COBU Part Four (F as in Forever Family) “The Wonder Years”/ Gary
Many of my pre Manhattan Training Center experiences were pleasant – the MTC will be in a future part. Some experiences were not so pleasant. I will share a few of both.
I was giving a chronological story in parts 1-3. This part will share an experience with Gary Kokulus, the leader of the Paterson Fellowship. Gary spend a lot of time with me going over studies. I even have my first Bible which he recommended, a small Zondervan leather Bible we used to carry in our “utility belts.” I still own it, in fact it is in my car (I can’t see the fine print that well anymore) and I still know those 12 verses.
I always loved Gary and I saw him as a role model or big brother. Gary often told me stories about where he was from in Allentown, PA and about the old FF days in that area. We used to talk about old Star Trek episodes and when Jay Edelman heard that he said, “Gary you could be Mr. Spock.” Of course, Fortune and TC laughed at this. I’m not sure if Tony Le Donne was around then at our fellowship. Tony came when Jay was transferred to Bellville. Jay also claimed that me and Gary dressed alike too, which was true. I bought work shoes like Gary and even a coat and wore a ski cap like him, so I was nick named “Little Gary” by Jay. Jay said we should start a fellowship in HoHoKus and make Gary the leader. Then it he would be “Gary Kokulus from HoHoKus.”
Gary wasn’t a dynamic leader like Jay or Tony. Seems as though people didn’t accept Gary as leader because he wasn’t dynamic like Jay Edelman or Tony Le Donne, both of whom seemed to just burst into hyperactive energy. I was not one for witnessing like Gary, although I did it as a good Christian. Some of the good experiences with him and the group where when we’d pile up in our black station wagon and go to malls, Van Saun Park near the Bergen Mall, and other parks and on the streets. It was a great time fellowshipping.
Once a week we used to go to Carvel and Gary would treat us to anything we wanted there. Gary nicknamed it “brown night” because we were really getting into our browns that evening. I remember TC saying I’ll get fat eating this. Of course when she stood sideways she didn’t cast a shadow. These were some of the fun experiences. Gary also used to go to the Egg Platter Dinner on the corner. I never went there. Something about that place was unclean (dirty) even by FF standards.
Well, one time at a Center Meeting in New Brunswick at the college (or New Burns-wick, as we nicknamed it), Dave Rizzetto asked all the fellowship leaders to stand. He interrogated each one in an accusing tone, “When was the last time you led someone to Jesus?” Well each one got up and said their thing. Gary got up and looked down, ashamed, and said “Four months.” Dave then asked a lamb to stand. “Do you see____ ? He has only been saved one month and he led____to Jesus. That’s more than all the fellowship leaders combined.” Well I really hated Dave for intimidating Gary and the other leaders and then I started to wonder, are we really concerned about people and their salvation or just getting numbers for the FF? When Dave and his wife Joanne visited our fellowship, Dave always took Gary aside and went into a room and you could hear him getting loud with Gary. I never knew what was said, yet Gary always looked beaten up (verbally) afterwards. While this was going on, Joanne was helping herself to the meager amount of food we had in the refrigerator. She wouldn’t talk to me, as if it were beneath her to have a conversation with me.
Gary was also the one to tell me I should move to the Manhattan Training Center. I thought if he said it, it must be the right thing to do. More on that later.
COBU/FF Part 5. “The Wonder Years”
This part isn’t really a chronological sequence of events in 1975-76 during my involvement, yet rather just some things I remember. The next part will be about the Manhattan Training Center.
After getting into the FF, life was routine – witnessing until all hours of the night, meetings, calling people and such. It’s hard to remember any significant events. I do remember a few people who became members from our witnessing and getting them into the Paterson fellowship, such as Flash (Gordon Turley), Mike Bove and Rich Whitley. Another person who lived in Paterson was Alan Paradise. He was a little shy and worked at the Pickle King, packing pickles down at Railway Avenue.
Food was a real issue at Paterson. Seems as though we ate macaroni and cheese or spaghetti three or four nights a week and of course the famous peanut butter and jelly on white bread sandwiches. TC Robinson or Fortune had a poster of the Little Rascals eating peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and made little GET SMART GET SAVED button and put them on everyone in the picture. Usually the refrigerator was empty. If we had money we would eat at a diner.
I went to the Big Meetings during this time, including the meeting where the church’s name was changed to the Church of Bible Understanding. This was in King of Prussia, PA. I also think we went to one in Wilmington, Delaware and Brooklyn. I remember going to a Big Meeting during the Bicentennial celebration on July 4th, 1976 and another where the Stewart Trail introduced the Manhattan Training Center and his color code literature used by COBU for the “official catechism.”
One unusual thing was that I was temporarily the fellowship secretary. Usually this was done by a sister, yet some groups didn’t have any sisters living in or who were there long enough. I helped Fortune and TC and Jeanette was the Center secretary. I do not remember specifically much of what was written down for records except how many people our fellowship led to Jesus that week, how many got the GET SMART GET SAVED buttons and how many we brought to meetings. Everything was on file cards and I was supposed to compile them. This only lasted about a month.
Another memorable event had to do with a girl named Miriam who was from Rutherford. She had an older brother Pat and they went to the Belleville fellowship. I’m not sure of her last name. She had a purple birthmark over one of her eyes. Pat was a nice guy and a self-proclaimed drug burnout. I remember this because I had my 12 verses memorized in two or three weeks and he was in the FF for over a year and still didn’t know them. I asked why and he said it was from being “burned out.” One day Miriam ran away from home and couldn’t hide in Belleville, so she came to Paterson for a day. Gary K and Dave R thought it would be best if I drove her over the state border, since she was wanted by her parents and the police were looking for her for running away. I was 17 years old, so I couldn’t be charged for kidnapping since I wasn’t an adult. I transported her to the Staten Island fellowship on the Staten Island ferry (this was when autos were allowed on the ferry).
Seems as though a lot of stress was happening in COBU over the summer of 1976. I was never involved in leadership or in behind the scenes activity, so my status was sort of lamb. The next big event was going to the MTC which will be part six of my adventure.
FF/COBU, Part Six, “The Wonder Years,” the Manhattan “Draining” Center
Here is the continued adventure of my FF/COBU experiences. Up until now things were going sort of “normal” in Forever Ever Land. I was happy being part of the fellowship existence in Paterson with brothers and sisters such as Gary Kokulus, Tony Le Donne, Fortune, TC, Jim P., Karen Stahara, Gordon (Flash) Turley and the rest. We had a routine of witnessing and driving to meetings and picking up people.
Well in the summer of 1976 as the USA was celebrating its bicentennial, things started changing. Some people were relocated to various fellowships, the “official” name change to The Church of Bible Understanding and the opening of the Manhattan Training Center, or Draining Center as I called it in a previous section. The general attitude of most brothers and sisters was one of hopelessness and despair. Understand that I was 17 and not involved in behind the scenes stuff, so all this was my perception as a 17 year old zealot lamb.
Well, first day of my high school in 11th grade, I came home all depressed, thinking “these kids are so lost and worldly.” I had a conversation about this with Gary and he mentioned that he thought it would be best if I moved to the Manhattan Training Center. This was about 3 weeks before my 18th birthday. If Gary mentioned jumping off a bridge I probably would have done it. I went home and packed up all my stuff in three milk crate size cartons, brought my 10 speed bike, left a note for my Mom. I convinced my older sister and her drunk boyfriend to drive me to Manhattan from Clifton (about 10-12 miles) and rolled up my pennies from my penny jar. I had enough for the toll and I gave my sister a few rolled pennies for gas. The toll taker looked at me funny when I went through the Holland Tunnel and I remember her saying “What’s THIS?” when I handed her three rolls of pennies .I said “Money.” She gave me a dirty look. This was before they had the “No Pennies” signs. The toll was $1.50, now it is $6.
Well, I moved into the Jay Street loft and was living in the basement. Most people had an area of about 7 by 2 feet for all their stuff. Brothers lived on one floor, sisters on another. The place was a total organizational disaster and it made the downtown slums look like a palace by comparison. I remember Primo living in the basement, pacing up and down the flight of stairs, angry with the sisters who worked in the office over something. He was so annoying, nasty and rude and was a leader too. One day he left. A brother said he backslid and a sister said, “Oh, he will be back. He has done this before”.
I also had to keep watch at the door for an hour shift from midnight to 6 a.m. We had two brothers watch the front door as security and we took shifts. One brother would wake me up and then I would watch for an hour and then wake the next brother up. I think now were we on guard duty to keep people out or brothers and sisters from escaping. Most of us suffered from exhaustion and sleep disorders because we were only sleeping less than three or four hours a night.
A week or two after moving to the MTC my friends from Clifton visited with another person. This guy was actually a priest in street clothes. My friend gave it away when he called him “Father Jim.” Immediately I became defensive and shut them off. They told me that my parents wanted to see me and that I owed my parents an explanation of what I was doing and that they wanted to have an 18th birthday party for me. I agreed to go on the weekend. Jeff Seif said maybe I shouldn’t go and warned me that my parents and friends would try to keep me. I mentioned I didn’t want to stay. He asked if a brother should go along. I said it wasn’t necessary. I spend a day doing errands with Jeff in his yellow VW bug. Jeff was one of the good, more sincere leaders at the MTC and he seemed to actually have a genuine concern for people. (If anyone knows his e-mail address I would like to forward this to him.)
I went home for my 18th birthday party and my friends ganged up on me, and called me “brainwashed,” “Jesus freak” and mocked the Church of Bible Understanding. Of course, this made me more defensive and all the more want to go back to the MTC. My Mom was in tears and really couldn’t understand what I was doing. I left that evening, not knowing if I would ever go back home and convinced that my family and ex-friends were going to hell. I “borrowed” some snacks and a new bar of Irish Spring soap. I’m not sure now I got back, if my family drove me or a brother from the MTC picked me up.
When I got back I was sad for my family and uncertain of my future, yet “sold out for Jesus.” I talked about it on the way to our weekly Saturday morning community showers down on Bowery Street by the old CBGB club. When MTC brothers found out I had a bar of soap, it was like gold and I shared it with everyone.
Part Seven of my FF/COBU. “The Wonder Years” and “Escape from New York”
This seems strange writing this around this time of the year, because in a few days in September will be the anniversary of getting into COBU on September 20, 1975 and the Manhattan Draining Center in early September 1976.
The last time, I mentioned going to my parents’ home in Clifton, NJ and seeing my family and friends for my 18th birthday. At that time, I had every desire to stay in the MTC and be “sold out for Jesus” (or whatever the cliché term was that we tossed around at that time). Well, the last week of September or less than a month of being in the MTC, I changed my mind. I enjoyed witnessing in Washington Square Park and even led a young girl to Jesus. The conditions were bad, yet it wasn’t the physical conditions that annoyed me.
If I had to say what turned me against COBU, well I can think of several issues. Once I was on the subway with a sister escorting her to a job interview. I fell asleep on the subway, since most people averaged less than three or four hours a sleep nightly. I missed the stop, so we had to get back on another subway. Well, she gave me dirty nasty looks and when we got back she told everyone that I fell asleep and everyone was on my case. I said to myself, “This isn’t right.” Next, a brother was caught masturbating and was told to stand in front of everyone and confess his sin. I said to myself, “This isn’t right.” Next, I wanted to go the NY Museum of Natural History and was told that is worldly and if Jesus came back, would you want to be found at the Museum of Natural History. I said, “This isn’t right.” Next Primo (our floor leader) was getting nasty at the brothers and left to go back home someplace in NY and I thought this guy is nasty and our leader, “This isn’t right.”
Well my second job in less than a month while at the MTC was a job in Long Island City making $2.40 an hour as a welders assistant, clearing about $76 net a week. The Fellowship gave me $10.00 a week, out of which $5.00 was for my subway tokens. I said, “This isn’t right.” I remember sneaking a Spiderman comic and reading it on the subway, also brothers and sisters were bumming quarters for coffee, phone calls and such from you, so you were lucky to have $2-3 spending money.
Well, this guy Rich who worked at my job was either in COBU or a COBU backslider, an older guy probably around 30 or so. He lived in a boarding house by himself and wasn’t living in the fellowship. I complained about the situation and he told me why don’t you live in a boarding home, so I thought, hey why not? When payday came I went back to the MTC and got my knapsack, put a few of my meager clothes into it and never told anyone at the MTC my plans. This time I was living in the Spring Street loft, having moved out of Jay Street a couple of weeks before. I got on my bike and rode over the 59th Street Bridge (yes, I can’t believe I actually did that) to the boarding house. I had $10.00 left because I only worked a 4 day week that week, so my check was only about $62.00 after my deposit and one week’s advance. I think it was
$22 a week for the room, in not such a nice place, yet upscale compared to the MTC.
One of the first things I bought was dog flea shampoo. I had lice or bugs in my hair and figured this shampoo is good for dogs, so tried it and it worked. So I had no TV, no radio, and no money and lived in a boarding house. I was bored yet felt relieved I wasn’t in the MTC “hellhole.” I visited Cliff Gale’s brother Ken who lived in Manhattan. He was the first person I contacted, since he was in NYC. The following week I went home to visit my parents. I didn’t go into details with them, yet I could tell they were glad I was out. This was early October, about 5-6 weeks after going into the MTC.
I contacted Terry Gambarella at that time just to talk. She was an ex-COBU person and we needed to talk to each other. It is difficult to talk to your old friends because they think you’re nuts. We started dating. Next January will be our 25th wedding anniversary.
The next part of my testimony will be about post-COBU and interaction with old members. This is the last part of my testimony which is probably the hardest to write.
My Post COBU experience with COBU
I moved out of the Manhattan Training Center in October of 76 with the help of a brother who was in COBU yet was living on outside. This seemed strange to me when he told me, because I assumed no one lived outside the group. I think his name was Rich. He was older, in his early 30’s, yet to most of us in COBU that was old. He was a little overweight with thick glasses and spoke with a sort of lisp. He told me of a boarding house a few blocks away from my job where I could rent a room and I got my stuff, put it in a my small knapsack and rode my bicycle, which I kept on the 2nd floor in the Spring Street loft, across the 59th Street Bridge to Long Island City. Yes, it was scary.
After a couple of weeks living in a room in a boarding house with no contact with anyone with the exception of my friend Ken Gale (Cliff and Doug Gale’s brother) who lived in Manhattan, I realized that going home to live with family and seeing my ex-friends was right. Yet going home was hard, because for so long I saw them as evil or of the world. My Mom was happy to see me. She noticed I was a little more mature, not bad mouthing her and taking my responsibilities more seriously and more grateful about little things. My friends still thought I was strange. I caught up on all the music and TV shows, such as Saturday Night Live, which I never seen before. Unfortunately I got back into drugs too, yet realized this was empty. I thought this Jesus stuff was real, yet there was no way I can live up to God’s expectation for my life, so I gave up on God and religion to do my own thing.
Shortly after moving back home, I contacted Terry and Margie who used to visit the Paterson Fellowship. Terry and I started dating and after a few months we talked about getting married. During this time I was getting calls from either people in the Paterson fellowship or from the MTC. My parents would intercept them and hang up. One day I got a call from Gary Kokulus. I really don’t remember what he said, yet he invited me to NY to visit him. This was around April or May of 1977, less than 6 months after I left. I somehow agreed and Terry and I went together. He was really friendly and sort of understood why I left, yet was saying things such as how COBU and the MTC have really changed and are more organized and more together than 6 months ago. He talked about how they recently opened an orphanage in Haiti, about the new carpet cleaning business, “Christian Brothers Carpet Cleaning” and showed me the machines and the workplace and baby nursery. I really don’t remember its exact location, it was somewhere in NYC. He seemed happy to see me, yet spoke in typical COBU jargon. He handed me a color bible workbook and a couple of issues of their new publication, The Lambs Ledger, and then asked, “Well, what are you both doing for Jesus?” I couldn’t answer and was stumbling. And then he said, “You really need to be serious with Jesus. You should come out to the Big Meeting we’re having next week.” I think I told him I would call him, or he called me.
I went home and was actually thinking of going. Terry said she wouldn’t speak to me again if I went, and we fought about it. A few days later I talked with Gary and told him I wasn’t going and he said, “Are you letting Terry decide? You need to be a man like Abraham, Sarah called Abraham ‘Lord.’ Does Terry call you Lord? You really need to be serious with Jesus.” Well, I got off the phone. I never talked to him again and felt really bad, yet realized somehow this was my last encounter with COBU. A few months later I rededicated my life to Christ at my Mom’s Baptist Church in Clifton. It was hard because I had a COBU mindset regarding Christianity. Yet it was a beginning of a walk in the right direction.
A few years around 1985, after I was married and my daughter Sarah was around 5 years old, somehow I met Fortune. It may have been through the carpet business because we were in the process of moving and looking for flooring, I’m not sure exactly. She came to our coffee house at the Baptist Church and told me Gary died in a car accident when he was pushing a vehicle off the road. Yes, I miss him and would have liked to talk to him today.
Most important is that God is in my life and I know that His Grace is ever present and never lets go of us.