“…from what you have said about the Church of Bible Understanding…it may have begun as something from the LORD, but gradually you find that it has changed its course…as you’ll find in all these cultish or semi-cultish groups…some person began to dominate the whole thing. In other words, instead of holding fast Christ as the head a man became the head” (Steven Kaung 1).[1]

 

Today, the Marvel Cinematic Universe is the largest movie franchise, judging by its box office revenue and number of films.[2] Superheroes were also beloved in ancient times, when they were instead called “demigods.” People have always loved superheroes  — including the young people of the ‘70s, many of whom were reading Marvel’s Bronze Age Superman comics. During the upheavals of the ‘60s and ‘70s in America, young people longed for leaders to bring peace, love, and happiness to their lives. No wonder they loved superheroes.

But all superheroes have their villains.

Enter the cult leader. Many cults did and do take advantage of the inherent human desire for someone to save the day. One ex-member of a ‘70s cult, Steven D. Zurcher, puts it this way: it starts with “a charismatic leader over young impressionable people.”

Stewart Traill was just such a charismatic leader — although he didn’t look much like one, as noted by Larson.

 

His usual appearance has been a shaggy beard, stringy hair circling a bald forehead, military fatigues, Converse All Star yellow sneakers, a chain of brown leather pouches, a dozen colored, felt tip pens in his breast pocket, and a large round pin proclaiming “Get smart, Get saved.” This is hardly the image one would envision for a revered spiritual leader who likens himself to Elijah and hints that he may know the exact hour of the Lord’s return. But then Stewart Traill, ex-atheist and former second hand vacuum cleaner salesman, is not a typical messianic cult leader.[3]

 

The desire for a superhero, so prevalent in the ‘70s, manifested in large followings for leaders like Traill. He launched “Forever Family” in 1971 before changing the name to the Church of Bible Understanding. COBU is widely understood, today, as a cult. Everyone, from the writers of Seinfeld to Larson’s Book of World Religions and Alternative Spirituality, recognizes it as such [4] [5]

But Steve and Melodi, in their early twenties during the late ‘70s, did not understand. In 1996, the New York Daily News was still writing about the cult’s attraction for young people:

 

State and local probers say the “church” which lists a second Manhattan address and three in Brooklyn in the past recruited teens as young as fourteen, many of them runaways, to clean for the glory of COBU coffers. “Members . . . worked for cult businesses and lived in the most tragically impoverished and almost inhumane conditions,” said [Arnold] Markowitz, who has tracked the sect for 15 years. “If you were recruited and had a job on the outside, you had to tithe 90%.”[6]

 

Steve and Melodi both encountered the cult soon after becoming Christians, when their spiritual knowledge and foundations were still being built. Both had been living on their own, doing drugs with friends, when they experienced something new — something real. They met their super hero, Christ.

“One of my friends stopped smoking and drinking with us and all of us thought he’d lost his mind,” Steve says. “We went to talk sense with him.”

But Steve’s friend ended up leading him to Christ.

“I started reading John and the Holy Spirit just came into the room and illuminated the whole gospel for me. I would sit at the kitchen table reading and crying.”

He spent time with a group house of young Christians, and, for a while, the experience encouraged him. He loved the times of prayer and Bible study. But his friend also connected him with a group house that was part of the cult, the Church of Bible Understanding, and the church leadership decided he “needed” to go to Philadelphia to learn more and grow. His girlfriend gave him an ultimatum: “Choose me or Jesus.” He thought choosing “Jesus” meant going to Philadelphia, so in 1977, that’s what he did.

So the problems began: Traill came into the picture, eclipsing the glimpse of Christ that had turned Steve’s life in a healthy direction.

At first, Steve didn’t question any of the proceedings. After his previous life, the regimented routine of the Church of Bible Understanding might have felt more stable. He described the routine that he experienced later, at the New York location of the cult: “We went to work, then spent three hours a night evangelizing on the streets of New York. Then we’d come back for a meeting, talk about it, pray, go to bed, sleep for five or six hours, then get up and start the day over.” Steve still says, “I think it was part of God’s plan for Melodi and me to be locked up in that cult. It kept us alive. Our former lifestyles could have killed us.” Even today, Steve clearly still feels the pull of Traill’s morally grey, yet still villainous plans for saving a generation from chaos.

Speaking in 1987 to a group of former COBU-members, Steven Kaung explained some of the cultural and spiritual context that may have given rise to cults that appealed to so many young people:

 

. . . it began roughly 20 years ago. That was the time when all these young people wanted to be free[;] then out of that came the young people who wanted to find authority. First of all you find this JESUS movement and things like that, and a subculture began to develop and people just wanted to be free with no authority, no organization, throw everything away. But then a reaction came in and as a result of that you find the different groups. For instance the Children of God is one of them . . .  The result is the people who are in that group begin to lose their individuality. They cannot make any decisions because they are not supposed to and they don’t want to because if someone can make the decision for you it takes all the responsibility away from you and that is easy.[7]

 

Traill successfully created the illusion of a safe space for the young people, setting himself up as a biblical superhero, using the prophecy about the return of the prophet Elijah in Malachi 4:5-6.[8]

In Philadelphia, Steve and the other “lambs” (new converts) or “sheep” (advanced believers) lived free of charge in gender-segregated fellowship houses and worshipped in meeting houses. The leaders provided meals, and Steve reminisces, “We used to pray together, all at once, in the meetinghouse and it would sound like a ‘rumble’ to outsiders. We had very enlightening Bible studies.”

One of the “brothers” owned a coffeehouse and got Steve a job delivering coffee and bagels to office buildings. Later, another brother gave him a job at a construction company nailing 2 x 4s together. Steve incorporated himself into an assembly line, working on a little piece of a job every day. The craftsman did the skilled labor. Steve turned his checks into the “fellowship house” and received an allowance of $2 a day or $5 a week.

But soon the COBU leaders started sending higher-ranking brothers and sisters (called “guardians” by Larson) out into the fellowship houses to assess the health of the lower-ranked.[9] These leaders decided to send Steve to New York City for more training, in early 1978 — and that’s where he stayed until 1981. He was “kicked around to various houses in the boroughs, such as Queens, but he was sent back to “Hell’s Kitchen” (in Manhattan) every time.”

Melodi was recruited in a similar way. “Mom was brought in from Ohio,” Steve says. He agrees to give me a rundown of the details, since Melodi prefers not to talk about those times.

 

“The leaders there assessed her and decided she needed to be sent to New York. They put her on the bus with a few bucks and a bag of chips and she arrived very starved and hungry. There, she met other brothers and sisters who assessed her according to a ‘color’ system. If you were judged to be ‘black’, you were put into the ‘Trip’ apartment, where you were not allowed to commingle with the rest of the members. You didn’t live with them. The other colors were brown and orange; if you’re brown, you’re in the flesh, a bad person. If you’re orange, you’re one of the examples. It was very harsh.”

 

The cult perpetuated other harsh teachings and practices, more typical of a villain’s lair full of hazing lackeys than a superhero’s “batcave.” Rather than practicing healthy techniques, learning to use helpful tools, and building a supportive network of friends, this cult worked its members day and night, practiced public humiliation, and fostered an abusive culture of criticism within the “family.”

In New York City, Steve witnessed and experienced the “spiritual abuse due to legalism” cited in The Concise Guide to Today’s Religions and Spirituality.[10]  He worked in the church-owned carpet cleaning business. “I was out with my carpet cleaning machine . . . in Harlem . . . and I was mugged . . . I got back to the brothers at the end of the day to turn my machine in and told them what happened. They said I must not be taking Jesus and my life very seriously. I guess when I presented it, I didn’t have the spirit they were looking for. It wasn’t at all an uplifting, encouraging kind of thing.” Instead of encouraging Steve by reminding him of their faith in their superhero and his power, they diminished both with their legalism.

Steve says that, over the course of his stay in New York, “the screws got slowly applied and if there was any challenge to the authority, he [Traill] would have the other older brothers take you down. Then you started thinking maybe he is Elijah. Your discernment got shut down. And that was when you become a cult member. . . . He had a good sense of human nature and was able to isolate you from your family and former friends. ‘To follow Jesus’, of course.”

Traill also isolated Steve and other young members from their families. Larson explained that Traill “challenges his converts to break off all familial relationships on the premise that those over 30 (excepting Traill) are too spiritually hopeless.”[11] As a case in point, Steve’s sister invited him to her house for Christmas one year when he was staying in New York. Steve asked the guardians if he could go see her, and they said that wasn’t a good idea. “She started to cry because she knew that it was a cult thing,” Steve said.

Villains usually kidnap people; superheroes rescue and reunite those people with their loved ones. Stuart Traill’s COBU clearly fits one of these arcs better than the other.

COBU guardians, and perhaps Traill himself, used other tactics to convince the “lambs” and “sheep” to stay in the fold. “Those who have left the commune report having been intimidated by suggestions that backsliders may meet a tragic end,” Larson tells us.[12] Steve confirms this. First, the guardians would convince members, “there’s a higher knowledge in the cult. There may be Christians outside, but they have a lower understanding. We called them ‘Church Christians’. But you’re responsible for what you know. And remember what happened to what’s-his-name. He got his head caught in an elevator and died.”

Eventually, Steve and several brothers started attending other Christian gatherings like the Grace Crusades by Wayne Monbleau and Bruce Morgan, and listening to speakers like Betty Baxter. Steve says he doesn’t remember how he stumbled across the Grace Crusades, but that grace was certainly the key to his salvation from the cult.

“There was a prophet at the Grace Crusade whom I felt was speaking right to us. He was giving a generalized scenario to illustrate grace; his message was ‘the law and grace’, or something along those lines. In it, a vacuum cleaner salesman tried to intimidate a young man with all of his faults. We were stunned. The physical descriptions of the salesman even matched Stewart!”

Everywhere they went, people saw their “Get Smart, Get Saved” buttons and asked them, “Do you know you’re in a cult?”

Steve and the brothers knew Christians like this as “Contentious Christians”; that’s what the guardians called them. But Steve couldn’t deny what he was feeling.

“All I knew was that when I went to that Crusade,” he says, “I felt joyful. But the cult members I bumped into sensed I was different and tried to bring me back into that discouraged spirit. Because if you were encouraged and happy, it must be fake.”

Some of the older men who had also experienced the Grace Crusades warned Steve to remain silent so he wouldn’t become a target. Many of them did end up escaping the cult, but they knew the transition wouldn’t be easy if they talked about it too much.

Steve didn’t listen. Grace was a superpower he had never encountered before and he had to share it. “None of us had understood the meaning of verses like Ephesians 2:8: that Jesus Christ had saved us ‘by grace’.[13] I went ahead and talked to some of the ladies about grace. I told them Jesus had done it all and that their behavior had nothing to do with if they were accepted into Christ’s family.”

He and a friend took Melodi out to breakfast, and they told her about grace. She started crying into her breakfast special, over-easy eggs.

But the cult didn’t like it when their members started packing to leave.

 

“As Melodi was packing to move out of the building where she had been housed,” Steve says, “the sisters of COBU gathered together and warned her that I was ‘trying to wolf her away’ and that ‘things were going to be very bad for her if she left’. A group cornered my friend while I was at work and grilled him for a long time until he started hanging his head. By the time I arrived, he had already succumbed and said we were wrong. It took him a few days to realize he was being coerced.”

 

Eventually, however, they did escape. Theirs is one of the happier stories. After leaving, they took an apartment with another couple who had escaped. They joined Everybody’s Tabernacle in Howard’s Beach. They started their ministry of worship there, which they continue to this day. They got married at that church with paper plates, and the church paid for everything. Steve has recently spent more time reconnecting with some of his fellow members through Facebook groups such as “COBU.”

Speaking sadly of a recent conversation he’d had with one of the brothers from the cult, he told me, “He still talks like we did in the cult. He still holds to a lot of the basic doctrine. He didn’t go to the Grace Crusades with us, and I don’t think he was ever delivered.”

“Escaping a cult” means more than fleeing the physical location or turning away from a toxic group. “Humanly speaking or looking back into history, probably a great many will be just forever wrecked. It’s very, very sad . . . I’m afraid you’ve come out of it, but it probably hasn’t come out of you completely.”[14]

Stewart Traill’s prospects dimmed considerably, starting with the Jonestown massacre in 1978 and following other events. “The IRS put the rug-cleaning operation out of business, and the truth of Traill’s divorce and remarriage surfaced: Traill, forty-six, and his wife had exchanged accusations of adultery in a messy divorce proceeding, after which he married his COBU secretary — half his age — only 6 weeks later.”[15]

Steve explains that it was Jesus who set them free with His grace. He and his friends recognized that Jesus, not Stewart, the supposed “Elijah,” had the power.

Although Traill liked to pretend he was saving a whole generation from early death and Hell, he and the cult lost sight of the real superhero: Christ. Instead of pointing young people to the real hero, he tried to make himself into one. Ultimately, he became the villain.


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Citation Information

Christy Luis, “Ex-Cult Member Saved by Grace,” An Unexpected Journal: Superheroes 4, no. 2. (Summer 2021), 137-152.

Direct Link: https://anunexpectedjournal.com/ex-cult-member-saved-by-grace/


Endnotes

[1] Steven Kaung, “Transcription of Recorded Meeting with Brother Kaung 10/2/87.” (Meeting at the house of a pastor with several former COBU members. Transcribed by Cindy Beckman Simmons. October 2nd, 1987).

[2] “Movie Franchises,” The Numbers: Where Data and the Movie Business Meet, accessed May 11, 2021, https://www.the-numbers.com/movies/franchises.

[3] Bob Larson, “The Church of Bible Understanding : Forever Family,” in Larson’s Book of World Religions and Alternative Spirituality (Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House, 2004), 109.

[4] Linda Yglesias, “Cleaners Handle Rugs and Religion Shagging Sous A La TV’S Seinfeld,” The New York Daily News, last modified December 8, 1996, accessed April 19, 2021, https://www.nydailynews.com/archives/news/cleaners-handle-rugs-religion-shagging-souls-la-tv-seinfeld-article-1.734162

[5] Bob Larson, “The Church of Bible Understanding : Forever Family,” in Larson’s Book of World Religions and Alternative Spirituality (Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House, 2004).

[6] Yglesias, “Cleaners Handle Rugs and Religion Shagging Sous A La TV’S Seinfeld

[7] Steven Kaung, “Transcription of Recorded Meeting with Brother Kaung 10/2/87.”

[8]  Malachi 4:5-6, NASV.

[9]  Bob Larson, “The Church of Bible Understanding : Forever Family,” in Larson’s Book of World Religions and Alternative Spirituality.

[10] James K. Walker, “Church of Bible Understanding, Stewart Traill,” in The Concise Guide to Today’s Religions and Spirituality (Harvest House Publishers, 2007), 99.

[11] Larson, Larson’s Book of World Religions and Alternative Spirituality, 110.

[12] Ibid., 109-110

[13] Ephesians 2:8, NASV.

[14] Kaung, Stephen, “Transcription of Recorded Meeting with Brother Kaung 10/2/87,” 3.

 

[15] Larson, Bob, “The Church of Bible Understanding : Forever Family,” in Larson’s Book of World Religions and Alternative Spirituality, 109.

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