The “New Property.”

The Church of Bible Understanding’s Philadelphia Property – also known as “The New Property.”

It first came to my attention that the Church of Bible Understanding was selling their property in Philadelphia when I came across an article in the Naked Philly Blog about the property being sold on Ebay at an asking price of 4.5 million dollars.

New Property overhead

We always had names and labels for things in the Church of Bible Understanding. In this case, the city block sized property, which had formerly been a Baptist childrens home, which the church had bought around 1988 was still called “The New Property” long after it had been bought and put to use and ceased to be new to us.

The original plan for the use of the property, according to Stewart Traill, was that church members would move into the dormitories on the property (there were two large dormitories, one could be for the Sisters and the other one for the Brothers) and work together in church businesses, such as the Donation Program, and also have meetings on the property.  What actually happened, whether by accident, or more likely by design, was that only Stewart, his wife Gayle, and the dozen or so single unmarried women, known as the “Gayle Helpers,” all moved together into one of the dormitory buildings.  This was probably the plan all along.  It was just the same living arrangement that Stewart, his wife and the Sisters had been living according to at Stewart’s house in Princeton.  No Brothers ever moved into the property and the entire dormitory wing that was to have been theirs was used as a warehouse to stuff full with the bounty (read: mostly junk) that was brought in as the spoils of the Donation Program.  Though of course, Brothers were needed to guard the New Property, so there was always a Brother at the door and a Brother walking around the grounds at night, armed with a flashlight.

So, rather than rooms housing single Brothers selflessly toiling at the work of the church, there were piles of donated shoes, books, electronics and other battered and broken merchandise piled haphazardly into the rooms according to some unknown method of inventory control. There was also a room stuffed with wedding gowns on racks, nicely wrapped in plastic covers, as if waiting silently for the day when the Sisters of the Church of Bible Understanding could finally get married.  (The last marriage to take place in the church was 34 years ago, in 1979.  Current and former church members, take a moment to pause and reflect on the enormity of that statement and what it says about Traill’s often repeated line that “This is the only way that works.”)

Traill began his divide and conquer tactics as soon as the New Property had been purchased.  Whereas advance teams of Brothers and Sisters had been able to scout out and inspect any real estate that might be of interest to the church, once the New Property had become official Church of Bible Understanding property, any Brothers and Sisters setting foot on it had to approach in a “right spirit” in order to be acceptable and worthy of entry beyond the chain link gates.  A team of Brothers and Sisters got into a van in New York City and headed to Philadelphia, but in order to make sure they were in a “right spirit,” they stopped at several rest stops along the way to speak to one another and to vote on one another to see if each one “backed” the others as being in a right spirit.  They held their final meeting in the parking lot of the New Property, and after deciding that none of them were in a right spirit, and therefore as a result, they were not worthy to enter the buildings and speak to Stewart, they turned around and went home.  The standards they had to live up to and the scrutiny they would be put under by Stewart was just too great, and being familiar with his tactics over the years, they decided that discretion was the better part of valor and that it was just better to cut their losses and return home, rather than appear before Stewart with any inconfidence or doubts about themselves.

New Property driveway

Though Stewart always publicly talked about everyone coming to live there, through various means and different wrong things he’d “find” about the Brothers, none were ever able to move to the New Property.

Brothers’ services were needed, however, to renovate some of the rooms according to “Brother Stewart’s” specifications, which included recessed lighting in the ceiling of his office, a wall of bookcases with interior lighting and glass doors as well as a large U shaped desk, and a special marble interior bathroom for his wife Gayle.  (All furniture was designed and crafted to Stewart’s specifications by our faithful cabinet-maker brother, Andrew – often with multiple revisions, re-dos and complaints over minor faults in his excellent workmanship for the pickiest and most demanding customer Andrew or any other Brother ever had to face, our very own “Brother Stewart,” a man who preached abstinence in all goods and pleasures of this life to his followers, while living according to quite a different standard himself.)  Plans for a rooftop greenhouse and private sunbathing deck for his wife to sun herself on (which she would do topless, according to some church members’ reports) never materialized.  But Brothers did break a passageway out one side of the building to build a private stairway between Brothers Stewart’s floor and the floor below that contained the Sisters’ dormitory rooms, I assume for easier access for the Sisters to be of service to Gayle, being that this small army of 10 or 12 young women were called “The Gayle Helpers,” and that Gayle must have had so many interesting projects for them to work on.

Meanwhile the rest of the church members lived in squalid and crowded living conditions in other church owned properties, the main one being on Woodruff Avenue in an inner city area of Brooklyn.  This huge difference between the crowded living conditions in the inner city and the more spacious and quieter living arrangements (first at Stewart’s house in Princeton and later at the “compound”) was a tension that was set up and used by Stewart to get certain responses from the Sisters.  They could stay at Woodruff in that loud and violent neighborhood, or they could escape from there and go live with Stewart and Gayle and be a “Gayle Helper.”  And the ever-present threat of not making the grade as a Gayle Helper and being sent back to Woodruff was a useful tool to use on the Sisters to get some hard work out of them.

Part of this scenario was that the Brothers in the church (who lived at Woodruff – there was no corresponding program to get Brothers to live around Stewart) were too wiped out and unworthy to marry the Sisters, and of course, the Sisters didn’t want to look for men in the “world” either, nor could they find a husband among the less worthy, run of the mill “Church Christians” who did not have the great spiritual knowledge our church had and as a result, Stewart said, these men would not be able to understand them without this deeper knowledge.  And it was so important for a man to be “able to understand her,” and to be “able to handle her.”  If not, it would not be a real marriage.  That left only Stewart, who was both able to “understand” and to “handle” her. (And from what some Sisters have said, sometimes he did quite a bit of “handling” along with that “understanding.”)

So, the Sisters in the Church of Bible Understanding were trapped into their marriageless lives, but, they could escape Woodruff and go live with Stewart, who would give them interesting and motivating things to do.

I remember many times, when I was the night guard at the front door of Woodruff, seeing the van packed full with Sisters who were trying out as Gayle Helpers, come back from Princeton or the New Property around 2 in the morning.

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18 thoughts on “The “New Property.”

  1. I have so many memories of “The New Property,” aka “The Philly Lamb House” when youth were guinea pigs for Stewart’s development of “The Lamb Course”;
    “The Rescue Mission” when “middle” brothers and sisters underwent “Retard Training” and finally just “Brother Stewart’s House.”

  2. The Philly Compound was the backdrop for some of the most intense emotional highs and lows of my lifetime. The emotional state of everyone entering the property was manipulated by Stewart, either directly through verbal and body language cues, or indirectly through written or verbal messages delivered by favored individuals or groups.

  3. I experienced the Compound when I was an “older sister,” i.e. over age 25. I don’t remember going there until I was about 30 years old, when I was part of the Donation Program. After COBU’s sale of “515” (515 West 47th Street in NYC) I had become a “live-out” or “independent,” i.e. I no longer lived on premises owned by COBU. While living in an apartment in Jersey City and attending the requisite COBU meetings, I became inspired to make donation requests for medical supplies from pharmaceutical companies on behalf of COBU’s mission work in Haiti. With my background of pharmacy college and my office experience, I was able to organize a file box of company contacts and to successgully solicit donations of supplies for the work in Haiti. My efforts contributed to the formation of COBU’s Donation Program and I was very motivated by the success.

    1. Thanks for posting these comments, Jennifer. Your work with medical supplies certainly was one of the positive aspects of the Donation Program and the church’s work in Haiti. Of course, all was not well in Utopia, and there were these other aspects of living there, which was the abuse and manipulation, which you touched upon briefly in your 2nd post.

  4. A huge part of Stewart’s manipulation and control involved his treatment of those who like myself experienced some success that we considered God-given results for our work and that we were therefore motivated to continue. I believe his unhealthy need for control destroyed the possibility of much growth and development for COBU. Some of his classic tactics included: questioning the motivation of those who were successful, suggesting ulterior motivations that other members were expected to detect and confront publicly in meetings; publicly mocking members for their perceived weaknesses such as anxiety and expecting instant behavioral transformation in meetings in order to be accepted by the group; taking away responsibilities with the explanation that the member was exhibiting pride or royal behavior, thereby periodically destroying any personal power or influence that threatened his own.

  5. In my case, after having a long period of success with medical donations, I was told I was being a “queen,” largely because I took ownership and responsibility of that area and did most of the work myself. At a Donation Council meeting at the Compound, this diagnosis was given of my behavior and even though I did not agree inside, I agreed to give up the medical donations and make phone calls for food donations. It was never a good idea to go against the diagnosis of the group; such reaction would only go downhill in terms of treatment by the group. I soon found myself calling bodegas from the yellow pages trying to get food donations with little success. What a waste!

  6. I also had some experience being a “Gayle helper” at the Compound. During my period of motivation and acceptance while on the Donation Council I tasted the sweet fruit of COBU group acceptance, a rare, unpredictable and usually shor-lived state of grace. During such times all group members act happy to see you and because Stewart seems to like and trust you, the members are much more likely to “back” you in a meeting vote that week. The feeling is that life is good and you have finally “arrived,” however there is an undercurrent feeling of “waiting for the other shoe to drop,” and the uneasy knowledge that others are waiting for you to fall from grace. Oh happy day.

    1. Jennifer, I think that anyone new to the group, or who had returned to it after being away for a while got “love bombed” (as it is called in other cults) and they could do no wrong, at least for a while. Whenever someone who had recently returned to the group spoke up at meetings, Stewart acted as if their comments were really helpful and the general view among us was that this Brother or Sister had rededicated to Jesus and was doing really well spiritually. Then as you said, the other shoe would drop and Stewart would sack that person (usually over some inner spiritual fault, such as “pride” that he said he had discovered with in them) and that person was thrown back into the pack of all the others living under oppression and guilt.

      Until I began to understand this, I was always mystified why New Disciple Brothers could seem to be doing really well for up to a whole year, even helping to lead meetings (usually by beating on all the others), when suddenly, Stewart would pull the rug out from under them and berate and abuse them publicly. I later began to understand that this was part of his breaking process. Those who were not willing to put up with the abuse (usually long character assassinations in front of everyone else) left at this point, and those who stayed were the ones who were useful, because they’d submit to Stewart’s special brand of abuse and harassment that was ever-so-effective in wringing long hours of work out of people in exchange for nothing but a place to sleep on the floor and something to eat (and 10 dollars allowance) and just hoping that they’d be considered worthy enough to be able to stay here and not be thrown out.

      It’s true what you say too, about anyone having taken charge and responsibility of an area (and willing to stay on top of it and manage it), that they’d be removed from their positions because they were now “celebrities” or setting themselves up as kings or queens in their jobs. Gee, most organizations would love to have highly motivated people who had extensive knowledge of their areas of expertise. But there is some other motivation going on in the Church of Bible Understanding, which I liken to a zero sum game. Stewart Traill gets it all, and those who work for him (or for the church, as we had to say) get as little as possible. At this present time, he’s got the mansion in Florida, and church members sleep in warehouses. Religious teachings, such as “giving up your life in this world” are used to enforce this way of life.

      What a disappointment to have to go from your success in calling for medical donations to calling bodegas to get small food donations. What other non-profit organization would do this to those who work for them? (Though it is disputable if COBU is a non-profit in reality, though it is on paper.)

  7. My Gayle-helper days in the S&G Photo business were in 1986.During this time Stewart also had a Mad Scientist operation going as well, with the object of reclaiming silver from used photographic fixer solution. During that time I was working for a large publishing house and was able to get several expensive chemistry textbooks for Stewart by requesting complimentary copies from the editors. Stewart called me “Book Woman.” I remember quoting the verse, “Ask and you shall receive,” after which Stewart had us find Scriptural references for the Donation Program. Once I asked an editor for a set of chemistry encyclopedias for “my brother” and I could not answer him when he asked what college my brother attended. Stewart and Gayle laughed when I told them this.

  8. I spent some hours with DeeDee working for S&G photo to program and update their inventory database.Around that time I also served on the COBU Board of Directors. One of the worst parts about being on the Board for me was that each of us had responsibility for particular COBU-owned vehicles. Knowing little about vehicle maintenance, I was responsible for getting a van up to par., which involved calling around to the varous COBU households in NYC to find a brother willing to go to a junkyard and find an automotive part. Only certain sisters had the stature within the group to easily get a brother to do such a thing. I was not one, and I remember being scolded by one for franticaly calling around trying to fulfil this responsibility.

  9. Being part of the Donation Council or Board of Directors was an Herculean task apart from the responsibilities. It’s funny, but in my mind the various facilities have run together and I realize as I am writing that many of these activities actuallly occurred at “Stewart’s House” in Princeton. I trust that no-one will judge me too harshly for this mistake. I was envisioning the frequent trips to attend the Council and Board meetings and I realized we were driving back and forth from Princeton We would arrive home in New York in the middle of the night only to wake up a few hours later to go to our “jobs in the world.” Thankfully I had a lot of sick time accrued at my job because sometimes I was just too worm out to make it to work.

  10. Perhaps my first experiences at “The Compound” actually began when I returned to COBU after a 15-year hiatus, in March of 2002. I had a personal Christian revival and reached out to COBU because they were the only Christians I knew. As James so rightly pointed out, my status as a joyful, thankful newcomer allowed me once again to experience a period of grace and acceptance within the group. In February of 2002 Stewart and Gayle had been in a severe auto accident in the Bahamas and Gayle was still hospitalized in Florida “in a coma.” I went on a road trip with some Gayle helpers to a camera show. In my state of grace I could not understand why the Gayle Helpers had such a difficult time relating to Stewart, and would not call him. Stewart seemed to me a kindly white-haired gentleman similar to Father Christmas and he was gentle and friendly toward me. I felt so fortunate to have reached this coveted state of acceptance.

  11. Months later Stewart led a meeting at the Compound, asking the question, “Why do the women hate Gayle?” He was famous for leading off meetings with questions that required us to spend hours trying to figure out the answer, then stunning us with his supposed wise lesson at the end. The answer to this particular question was something like: Gayle’s accident caused the other women to realize their own little worlds could be shattered as well, and of course each of us had our own little comfortable fantasy world going that had to be confessed and destroyed.

  12. Gayle was transferred from the Florida hospital to the Philadelphia compound, where a large room on the ground floor had been prepared for her. It was painted light blue and maintained spotlessly. A hospital bed was obtained through a donation.COBU sisters cared for Gayle around the clock and I was part of that team for part of the summer. Some of the sisters had nurseing training and they would make sure proper procedures were followed. Documentation was made of all medication and activities. Gayle’s care was evaluated very highly by her medical professionals. Gayle was immobile and unresponsive at first, and required tube feeding and complete personal care, all of which were provided by the sisters in shifts. As far as I know, none of the sisters received any monetary compensation for their services.

  13. I was in a unique position when I returned to COBU in that I had been laid off from a job so I was available to work full time for COBU and its for-profit business, Olde Good Things. In 2002 I learned that there was a rotation system in place whereby brothers and sisters moved from one location to another and provided full-time services for the church and the business. Locations included Haiti, the Philly Compound, New York City and Scranton, PA. I did not go to Haiti but I went eveywhere else. My times at the Philly Compound were my favorite because they were physically the most comfortable and spiritually the most elite. I spent a good couple of weeks in the computer room working on one of Stewart’s Bible Study projects, helped care for Gayle. I was part of the “in crowd” at the dreaded weekly meetings when all members convened in Staten Island or New Jersey for hours, going over every possible aspect of their business and church existence until 2 am. These meeting always involved what I now call “the teaching of the week” which would culminate in at least an hour self- and group-judgement during which everyone present was required to place themselved in a category with relation to the teaching. The judgements were catastrophcc in nature, consiting of completely black and white thinking, for example “Are you an enemy of Christ or are you X Y & Z?” It was imperative that your spirit, delivery and wording be believable to the majority or you were doomed to the loser category. Each individual was required to speak up, even if they were not “live-ins” but occasional visiting members. As a person in a blissful (though sometimes apprehensive) state of grace, I could not understand why anyone would not be able to pass these simple tests. Everyone believed in Jesus, right?

    1. Jennifer, I remember those “teaching of the week” meetings and those sessions where we made our claim and voted on one another in relation to where we stood according to this week’s teaching. The general pattern of the categories were always: 1. Who is faithful to Christ / the new teaching. 2. Who is somewhere in between. And 3. Who is rebelling against Christ / thumbing their nose at the truth?

      Few would claim to be in the faithful category, because of the testing and scrutiny they’d be put under about making such a claim. And no one wanted to be in the last category, because of the abuse and harassment they’d get for claiming to be a rebel against Christ. So most put themselves in the middle category, in order to be safe. Therefore you could claim that you had been striving to follow Christ, but that you had fallen short in certain ways, and at the same time, you didn’t have to claim to be an enemy of the cross. So, what you got was a whole room full of adults undergoing this regressive behavior and claiming to be much less of a Christian and a person than they really were.

      I came to realize over time that these meetings were conditioning sessions to get us to act this way. To lose confidence in ourselves and to abdicate our responsibility and authority over our own lives. And that ultimately, that the purpose of the meetings was to break us down and make us weak. And to show us once again that we knew nothing and that we needed Stewart to show us everything. After a week of hard work, going to the meeting, only to hear that what we had been doing all week was just games and rebellion, cheating and trying to have a double life (typical Stewart Traill accusations). This was very discouraging (as I imagine it was intended to be). But we could recommit ourselves and promise to work hard for the next week. And part of that hard work was getting on everybody else’s case and running around and repeating the slogan from this week’s meeting. (Not the slogan from last week’s meeting, which was forgotten – woe to anyone who said “All I need is God’s love for me” if that was a slogan from last month and the latest and only slogan you were supposed to be saying “every five minutes” was “I see that the rebellion in my flesh is very strong.”)

      Then we got to the meeting next week and went through the same process, all over again. I was amazed that no one seemed to realize it was the same pattern each week, a religious ritual. But in COBU, you lived in the here and now. If not last week, certainly last month was forgotten. You were tired from the treadmill of cult life, which included long hours of work and long meetings till 2 in the morning. Maybe as far forward you could see was the meeting coming up next week and the anxiety you had about how your were going to be seen and voted on by all the others when you got there. You owned no property, had nothing in the bank and didn’t have a career track other than your position in a COBU business (nor did you have a relationship, a spouse, or children) so the kind of practical long-range planning that would go along with those things was not a part of your life. Perhaps you thought about your future, but this was in an abstract, distant kind of way. Like, am I still going to be living like this when I’m 50? (Some still are.)

      I think Stewart may have taken over the title that formerly belonged to the devil, which is “The Accuser of the Brethren,” who stands day and night before God, accusing the saints. I think he did a pretty good imitation of that in our lives. In fact, another aspect of the meetings is that they were supposed to be like the Last Judgment, with the church body assembled before white-bearded Stewart Traill on his throne (or standing behind his cheap, and likely donated, podium), judging the Brothers’ and Sisters’ performance and spiritual condition. And rarely did anyone pass the test.

  14. James, over time I believe COBU’s self-judgements became much stricter, with no middle ground allowed, beyond taking note of how many were convinced of your sincerity if you placed yourself in the positive category. As a person newly forgiven by God on the basis of Jesus’ sacrifice alone, I was living in a state of simple gratitude and motivation to do whatever God wanted. In such a state of mind it was easy to be confident and to be voted on “the right side.” It seemed like everyone else was needlessly making it way too hard on themselves and they could snap out of it at any time. In fact, group members on the “wrong side” were often singled out and presured to change on the spot during the meeting.

    It was not until after I had been on the receiving end of some spiritual “blunt trauma” that I understood what it was like for those hopeless-acting folks. One hint of mistrust or correction from Stewart brought everyone’s attention to that individual. Stewart was like a shark circling, ready to attack at the smell of blood. Like often said of dogs, he could smell fear and attack. Once he himself established there was a “problem” he would manipulate the rest of the members to turn on and distance themselves from the victim.

    This happened to me at the Philly Compound/New Property during a meeting of the sisters (with Stewart present). The effect was devastating and I was literally speechless. Any attempt I made to say how I was reacting, how their treatment was affecting me, was met with heavy-handed, jeering, doubting comments like, “What happened to Thankful Jennifer?” and “You can dish it out but you can’t take it!” I felt that this was the “downfall” others had been expecting, and that I was now officially mistrusted.

    It fell on me to snap myself out of my state of dismay and panic in order to be accepted and believed. When I could not do so within seconds, they warned me I was heading for the lake of fire! Wait, they all trusted me earlier that day! This was when I started re-learning the hellish side of being in COBU.

    I fled from the Compound soon afterward. I am thankful that in my desperate, despairing prayer to God, the Holy Spirit enabled me to discern that COBU was not a healthy place to be, that it was bad for my mental health, and that it was ok to leave.

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