Letter From a Captive Congregation

This letter was written by James LaRue to his mother. It’s a good overview of how and why the Church of Bible Understanding is a cult, about how the COBU system worked and about his own place in it. James had sometimes communicated with his family before, but until this time, he had always carefully censored himself and never told those on the outside what life in the church was really like. In part because he hadn’t truly been ready to leave it, but also because he hadn’t understood as clearly as he did now how the COBU system held him captive.

April 2, 1993

Dear Mom,

I have finally decided to write a letter to you about my life in the church. I have been meaning to for some time, but I always held off. Now that I’ve decided to write about it in detail, I realize it might be quite a shock for you to hear about it.

You may have noticed that I have not talked much about my life over the last thirteen years. You probably don’t know much about me during that time, except that I “got saved” and began working and living with a church group, and that I seem to be doing okay, but I haven’t said much more. I have been careful to present a front that everything is just fine, by leaving out information that would indicate the opposite, such as what my life is really like, what I don’t agree with in our church doctrine and with our way of life here. You may have also wondered why I never talk about getting married, or why I never say that I have a girlfriend (I’m not married and I don’t know when I ever will be, more on that later), or why I never speak of wanting to have a family and children, even though I am 35 years old now.

I’ve decided to write about these things at length and to answer some questions that you might have had, but may not have wanted to ask me, because I haven’t been very open or haven’t brought up the subjects myself.

First, a little background information. I joined the church after about three and a half years of disillusionment in my life, which began in my second year in college, when I failed to find any direction or meaning to life. Everything I had been good at doing and that I had put my trust in for meaning and identity (such as school and good grades) came to an abrupt end. From there I began searching for meaning and trying to find out what life was all about. I stopped going to college for a while and came home. Then I worked to save money and tried moving away from home and going to colleges in different places. I also moved away from home because I wanted to become independent. My last move was to Worcester, Massachusetts.

When I was in Worcester, I met a brother from the church who was out “witnessing.” My life has not been the same since, and that is a good thing and a bad thing. I made a lot of new friends in the church. I wasn’t lonely anymore. I now believed in Jesus. (I suppose I had always had some belief in Jesus all along.) My life had more meaning, purpose and direction now, although I felt distressed when the brothers advised me to forget about college. Sometimes I was anxious about finishing college, but it was easier to just forget about it. Trying to figure out how to find my way in the world had always been a source of stress and worry, and it felt good to lay that aside. Too much stress is not good, but a little stress and pressure to get your life together can be good for you. But it was 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. I began to live for unrealistic goals and ideas. I was being used to support the needs, goals and purposes of our church, instead of being realistic about my own needs and goals. 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 was a verse from the Old Testament that was often quoted here, but it may not have really applied to our situation.)

As far as relationships and marriage, we were told that a brother must be laying his life down for the entire church and be “taking the church by the hand,” and “living honorably in every way” (and be seen as living that way by everyone for a long time) “before he can even consider taking a sister in marriage.” A monumental task for someone in his early twenties. It was a teaching that would ensure a lot of hard work and tireless zeal (or a lot of effort to appear that way) on the part of would-be husbands. Actually, I believe this is backwards. The Bible says that “if one does not care for his own household, how can he care for the church of God?” This means that a man should be proving himself in a smaller responsibility closer to home, namely a wife and children, and gaining experience this way and demonstrating his ability to manage his own household affairs before managing a larger household – that is, the church. Nobody has been married in our church in the last fourteen years, including me. This, among other things, has driven many people away from here and prevents them from returning.

This is a live-in church, which means that every aspect of our lives comes under the sway of the church. There is no meaningful aspect of our lives that doesn’t come under this sway. Really, it is the sway of the pastor, but he insulates himself from any charge of direct control over our lives by making standards and rules which are binding and effective, and these rules do the work. We already know, ahead of time, that we will run up against these rules, usually long before we try anything. And who will dare to disagree with a standard of conduct that the pastor has searched out and found in the Bible? Who in a Christian community would want to be found in disagreement with the Bible? And 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. When I have spoken up to defend myself or to defend others, I quickly found out that there were certain consequences – namely, the threat of instant loss of my church membership, which also means the instant loss of my job and my place of residence. And, I would have to be gone the following day, if I wasn’t shown to the door that very moment. So, one learns his place here, though I am considering whether I still want it or not.

To be able to understand how no one will help another person in this way and how everyone has this code of obedience and silence in the face of aggression, you would have to understand the inner psychology of our group, as well as its history. This church was once very widespread and it had a lot of members. Now it’s much smaller, with about two hundred people living in and about fifty living out, but attending meetings. So what you have are the leftovers, the survivors, who have been through thick and thin, including people who have been with the pastor for fifteen or twenty years. In the eyes of these ones, the pastor always won in every situation, trial and difficulty, or so it seemed. His invincibility had an awing-inspiring effect on them, since most of them were teenagers in their first years here. Their 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 mesmerizing – combined with the fact that these ones are survivors of all the mass exoduses in our church’s history makes them desperate not to leave and makes them willing to put up with anything in order to keep staying. Although to be fair, they also stay because they believe in Jesus and want to serve him. But things are not so simple and easy as that here.

To explain briefly about the inner psychology of our group, there is a belief that our pastor has a special revelation of scripture and a special understanding of us, about what makes us tick and what to use on us. He does an extreme amount of criticism and evaluation of us. This is always done in front of all the others, with the others acting as the audience and jury – a jury which is always striving to maintain agreement with him, so as not to be put on trial themselves. When we are evaluated in front of all the others (the pastor is like the hammer and the crowd is like the anvil you are struck against), it is very effective because these are the people we live with and work with all week. They are the only people we have contact with in our lives, so the desire to conform and to be in the good favor of these people is enormous. It ensures conformity and I am sure the pastor is well aware of that. Even when someone has a private phone conversation with the pastor and is corrected over some fault or conduct, he is expected to tell all the others what happened so they can take part in requiring him to reform. I could explain further, but let me say that intense social control is exercised here.

Now, returning to the main idea, which was how I got here. I started coming to the church regularly and soon moved in. After six months, I moved to a church residence in Jersey City.

I sometimes heard ex-members criticizing the church or read articles which were critical of us. Words like “abuse,” “false teaching” and “cult” were always used. I saw a lot of wrong things here, but also a lot of good things. And after all, my life was changing for the better. I remember reading an article in the Philadelphia Enquirer, 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 these reporters were doing the world’s and the devil’s work, and that this “persecution” was a sign that we were doing the right thing and that we were serving the truth.

Actually, when I read the article, I thought that most of it, or 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. This article also had comments by other pastors debunking our false teaching, which was something called the “figure system” that only our pastor understood, which he claimed was 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 of his claims add up to if you follow 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 figure, with a long white beard, and an eccentric version of Einstein. In other words, he is strange but not stupid by any means. He is perceptive, sharp and knows just what to do to get what he wants – including what he wants from us. As far as I can tell, no one takes him seriously in the larger world, that is, anywhere outside of this place. And if he didn’t have a live-in congregation to 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. His contacts with the outside world are few. We never see a guest pastor.

A few years ago Stewart came up with some new teachings which he said were necessary for all Christians to hear. (He says our way 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 we have the best of all possible worlds.) Anyway, Stewart made a big fanfare, telling us how he was going to visit fifty pastors and let them in on this new teaching and present it for their evaluation. We didn’t hear much about it after that, and the matter was dropped. It seems he wasn’t taken seriously, and from what I know about him, he expects to be taken very seriously. He said that one of these pastors laughed at him. So back he went to his private enclave.)

If you want to research our church, there is little information as compared to what is available about the Jehovah’s Witnesses or other large groups. Most references I have found concerning us are dated 1979 or earlier, all in books about cults. A more recent reference is a chapter in a new book by Ronald Enroth called Churches That Abuse which has the story of a woman who left our church. Her information is mostly accurate, though the picture is far from complete, because she left in 1989. It is also a little slanted, because she only talks the negative aspects of the church, which certainly are negative, without speaking of the positive aspects of it that made her stay here so long. Her story would be more plausible if she told about the negative outweighing the good, thereby tipping the scales for her and causing her to want to leave. That would have been a more accurate and honest story. This 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.

How did the scales tip for me? It came about through several sources of disillusionment, or maybe just eye-openers. (After my first year here, I sometimes considered leaving. A lot of people left. These were the “backsliders.” At all costs, I didn’t want to be a backslider. It was a kind of pride on my part. Also, I had nothing else to do and nowhere else to go. On the positive side, I also believed in Jesus. I believed he called me here, and I liked and respected some of the work our church did. But by 1987 or so, I really wanted to leave. But I thought I was guaranteed a place in hell if I left and that this church was the only place I could follow Christ in. The abundant testimony of the thousands of backsliders added to this belief. And no one believed their stories that they had “found Jesus” in another church!)

You may remember I started visiting Dad regularly in New Jersey back then. Along with taking a break from the city, I was checking out the idea of moving back there, though I wouldn’t admit it to myself. Dad sensed it, though I never told him anything about it. He always said, “Well, I know you like what you’re doing, but if you ever want to change it, you can always come back here.” He gave me a key to his apartment and said to come any time and said there were always good jobs in the papers.)

So, with this little bit of information given, I’ll proceed to more recent events. In 1989, our pastor said he had been teaching in error for all these years. He made a big confession at a meeting. It was a long talk, which was sometimes a little theatrical. He said that he had made things too hard on us and that he made it too hard for us to marry. Surprisingly, no one jumped out of their seats or got angry. Maybe nobody was surprised at that. We all sort of knew already, so this was not a shock, though it was novel to hear him admit that he had ever done anything wrong, especially to hear him say that his teaching had been wrong. We all knew he made marriage too hard. It was what brothers always talked about in our carefully guarded private conversations. Maybe another reason there was no great shock was that he wasn’t admitting to any moral failures (like sexual misconduct or robbing the church treasury), 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 here.

(Author’s note: I found out after I left the church that Stewart Traill’s sexual immorality, or rather his getting caught by his wife, was the driving force behind his “confession” at this meeting in 1989, though he never mentioned anything about it during the several hours he spoke to us, or any time afterward. Stewaret had illicit relations with several of the “Gayle Helpers,” the young women who were said to be members of his wife Gayle’s staff. Some brothers have also told me that Stewart had a door installed between his rooms and the sister’s quarters to access their rooms at night. Apparently things had gotten so out of hand that Stewart needed to do some damage control, and this was the reason for the Grace Meeting in 1989, in which he portrayed himself as a victim of his own teachings, which had left out God’s grace as their cornerstone.)

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

Shortly after Stewart’s confession, 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 that, as before, no one could ask him any questions. When I did ask him questions, I was quickly rebuffed and categorized as a troublemaker. (As were some others.) In his repentance speech, he lamented several times that “no one had the moral courage to stand up to me and to question me back then” (actually some did try) and he said, “Why didn’t anybody tell me?” (Why had no one told him he was teaching in error.)

I quickly found out what this man, who said he 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.” These last three years have been a living hell for me. I avoid all meetings whenever I can. I am here in body, but not in spirit.

Over the last year, I began to study heavily about Christian communities, off-brand Christian groups, cults, and 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 beginning, there have been a proliferation of groups like ours, all 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. Two books I have found of particular interest and help in describing the processes that go on here are Maren Lockwood’s book Oneida: Utopian Community to Modern Corporation and Raymond Franz’s In Search of Christian Freedom. Franz was a leader 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, Franz’s clear and concise explanation of the inner workings of their organization, the suppression of dissent, and the 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 sort some things out.

Of course, I am wondering how you will respond to this letter. I await your reply. I would ask you however, to send your letter in an envelope and not to use a postcard if you are going to comment on this. I’m not saying that mail is censored here or that letters are opened, but anything out of the ordinary here gets noticed and a few comments on a postcard about how “it sounds pretty bad up there,” if read by somebody could make life difficult for me and I would be questioned about what I was doing and asked about what I told you. (Really, I should have told you long ago and I will tell you more in my next letters.) Writing this letter has helped me, because it helps me to be able to talk to you. As I said, my previous letters were always short and I mostly listened to you talk when I called you, because to go beyond “Hello, I’m fine, I’m keeping busy and the weather is fine,” would mean telling you these things, which I was reluctant to do. I am hoping this letter is not going to cause a severe reaction on your part, but if you have questions, please ask. I will be glad to answer.

With love,

James

c/o Christian Brothers

175 Coffey Street

Brooklyn, NY 11231

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