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.
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.
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.