The brick row homes near S. 10th and Franklin streets in Reading are part of a neighborhood where residents spend much of their time on front stoops - swapping recipes, exchanging gossip or speculating about a strange car parked in the block. It is a neighborhood where blacks live next to whites without tension. It is a neighborhood that has worked, one city official said, and that has never been the source of a police investigation or newspaper headline - until one year ago. A year ago this week, the Church of Bible Understanding (COBU) purchased a three-story house at 35 S. 10th St. for $33,000 - a transaction that has put many of the neighbors on edge, has prompted police to monitor the area and has caused school officials to warn students about pamphlet-toting church members soliciting on the streets.
Founded in Allentown in 1971 as a Bible study group by former Fountain Hill resident Stewart Traill, the cult has seemed to attract attention wherever it has gone. Once known as "The Forever Family," COBU has mushroomed into a multimillion-dollar operation with "fellowship houses" throughout the country. The group, whose members are usually in their teens or early 20s, is financed primarily through a carpet-cleaning service whose profits have allowed COBU to buy three airplanes and a helicopter.
Accused of brainwashing, kidnapping and child abuse, COBU has created controversy when it has actively tried to recruit members. For the past several years the church has been headquartered in New York, where it has allegedly enticed runaways from the Port Authority terminal on 8th Avenue with promises of shelter and a chance to be "saved."
But COBU houses were found last summer to be operating without a license for residential care facilities, and the New York Supreme Court ruled COBU could no longer house children under age 18. Since the restrictions were instituted, the church has recoiled and curbed its recruiting efforts, observers of the cult say. Those observers also feel that the purchase of the house in Reading and the reported interest in a 240-acre yoga resort in Summit Station, Schuylkill County, is a sign COBU might want to return to its roots, relocating its headquarters in eastern Pennsylvania.
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