Cleaner Sect Sweeps up a pile
By JOAN GALLER
Special Correspondent of "The News"
First of a series
One-time vacuum cleaner salesman Stewart Traill has found the Lord and flying high these days in a $300,000 turboprop plane. With a new wife half his 43 years seated beside him, he darts up and down the East Coast overseeing an assertedly Christian cult that has been earning millions, cleaning carpets in New York City and elsewhere in the country.
While Traill maintains his shuttle between a string of communal fellowships stretching from Montreal to Haiti, his more earthbound followers spend their days cleaning rugs. installing carpeting and working at an odd array of jobs to support Traill's Church of Bible Understanding, Inc. (COBU). Their drab gray converted mail trucks are becoming a familiar sight on New York City's bustling streets as the church brothers who staff Christian Brothers Cleaning Service, Inc. - the cult's principal business and chief source of revenues the last two years - rush about filling work orders or demonstrating their equipment on the city's sidewalks in hope of getting more jobs. The cult leases meeting space at the Diplomat Hotel, 108 W. 43d St.
Most of the women who work in the business answer phones or solicit job orders on the telephone in a 51st St. office. But there are a handful who help with sidewalk demonstrations, chiefly by handing out blue and white flyers to those who stop to watch the cleaning machine suck up globs of dirt and grease. The flyer says: "We (Christian Brothers) are one year old now and have grown from two men working with one machine to be the largest independent steam cleaning service in the U.S.A."
We Work For Jesus
Christian Brothers, according to its advertising, has 17 offices nationally, staffed by 150 professionals who performed more than 40,000 jobs in the last year. Phone numbers list offices in Manhattan, the Bronx, Queens. Brooklyn and North Jersey. "Call us Anytime," invites a dark-haired youth wearing a blue workshirt with Christian Brothers embroidered on the chest. "We're open 9 am. to 9pm. seven days a week and we really great work. We work for Jesus."
Traill's church operates the cleaning service - a
business that has grossed several million in the last two years out of
a shabby office at 607 W. 51st St.,-which serves as its national headquarters.
But behind that shabby facade lurks a growing suspicion, backed by mounting
testimony, that Traill's cult is a ministry of fear that entraps and enslaves
these young people. Not until the brothers and sisters ask "Have you been
saved yet?" and invite you to attend a weekly fellowship meeting at the
Diplomat Hotel do you begin to see that these 150 "professionals" are but
the tip of an iceberg. -Underneath are an estimated 2,000 young men and
women, ranging in age from the late teens to the late 20s, who work long
hours without pay in diverse business ventures.
In addition, Christian Brothers, which recently lost its bid for
tax-exempt status as a nonprofit organization, now says it owes the
Internal Revenue Service $200,000 to $500.000 in back federal taxes. The
organization also operates a business in which
old vans are purchased in the Detroit area, reconditioned in Manhattan and sold, most of them in the South. Church members also peddle fresh produce in area restaurants under the name "Fruits of the Earth." As of Nov. 28, about 206 brothers and sisters were earning another $20,000 a week, estimated on the minimum wage. in an array of skilled and unskilled jobs in "the outside world" to supplement the rug business. This operation dipped below its average $60,000 a week gross last summer and still hasn't fully recovered.
Traill routinely ignores requests for interviews. When approached Nov. 28 for this article, he stepped aside while a half dozen brothers formed a human barricade and then bolted down a side staircase in the Diplomat Hotel. Nor did he respond to a subsequent written request.
What Documents Reveal
But legal documents, literature of the Church of Bible Understanding and oral business reports given by its treasurer, Harry Weinbaum, over the last four months at Manhattan fellowship meetings reveal that Traill's church:
* Invested $75,000 last 0ct., 13 to buy the former Chapin Home for the Aged Blind in Southwest Philadelphia for use as a training center for "lambs," the name the sect gives to converts.
* Plans to purchase another such place, a "former boys home in Cleveland, Ohio, for $100,000 for similar purposes.
* Has purchased since 1974 three airplanes single-engine, twin-engine . and turboprop models the last valued by the dealer at $300,000 - plus one helicopter. Only Traill is licensed to fly, and the cult has paid for his flying accruement and related expenses since the cult became a Pennsylvania corporation in 1974 under its original name, the Forever Family. The cult assumed its current name and designated itself a church in 1976. For their labors. whether they work eight hours or 18, as sometimes occurs in the rug business. the brothers and sisters receive lodging in a communal house or apartment, meals in a communal kitchen and a weekly allowance of $5 or $10. This is church policy for its 600 to 800 members living in New York City-where the cult maintains its national headquarters, and training center-and for the remaining 1,200 or so living in a' string of fellowships from Montreal to Norfolk, Va.
Aside from paying for their own living expenses,newly-acquired real estate and Traill's planes, church members say the bulk of their earnings supports the church's year-old mission in Haiti, where the organization says it feeds about 2,400 poor natives in the hilly Au Cadet and Car-four-tin-tin regions through twice weekly distribution of rice and vegetables. Former cult members, however, like Paula Tooman Hradkowsky, who handled the business records for about 2 years prior to quitting last year and Ed Gaster and Tom Gelle, who were among the first members of the cult in the early 70's, believe the Haitian mission is just a publicity gimmick or a way to conceal Traill's true motives for going there- to harness cheap Caribbean labor for still more lucrative business ventures.
Unlike so many cults that openly seek publicity or dress conspicuously to attract attention, the brothers and sisters of the Church of Bible Understanding prefer to maintain a low profile, ignoring pointed questions about their activities or about Traill, a born-again Christian who founded his cult in 1971 in Allentown, Pa. Traill's followers are quick to tell outsiders that they tolerate no drugs, alcohol or premarital sex and spend their free hours witnessing for Jesus in the streets and shopping malls or fellowshipping with one another about the teachings of the Bible. "We're working for Jesus and to save starving people in Haiti," explained one cult sister, Ann Warwick, a freckle-faced woman in her early 20s who hails from Lancaster, Pa.
Traill's cult seems to cut across most socio-economic and racial lines - attracting black, white and Hispanic youths from middle class and low-income families - both Christian and Jewish. Many say they're from broken homes or admit they were just "drifting" when they "got saved" for Jesus. But far more have homes and parents, many of whom have complained bitterly in the last seven years in newspaper articles, chiefly in Pennsylvania, about Traill's influence over their children. Even former church members - and at least one member who stays active in Manhattan only because her husband refuses to leave - denounce Traill as a man who uses the Bible to entrap and exploit naive and idealistic young people.
Can't tolerate challenges, says he
"Stewart teaches ever so subtly that salvation is achieved by a homogeneous mix of faith in Jesus and physical work for his (Traill's) church," says Ed Gaster, who quit the cult in 1976 after Traill ordered all members to get jobs, turn over their paychecks and move into communal lodgings. "You must be able to work as directed by Stewart, but he's too intelligent to come right out and say, 'Those Christians not with me are doomed,' " Gaster continued. "It's inferred by the listener. 'That's how he keeps them, through fear of damnation." Gaster said Traill cannot tolerate challenges to his implicit claim that only his personal interpretation of the Bible is accurate and the true path to salvation; nor can he tolerate criticism. "I wrote him a three-page letter, criticizing his order about turning over our pay and living together as a distortion of the Bible's teachings on voluntary giving and fellowshipping," Gaster explained. "He couldn't cope, just flopped down on the floor and refused to talk to me," Gaster added. "You see, I know the Bible and can use it the way he can. That's the only way to deal with him."
Barbara Waldman who joined the cult in 1974 shortly after graduation from Jersey City State College with a degree in Elementary education, agrees with Gaster "But it's even worse for the women, ' 'she volunteered, "Stewart tells them they'll become whores if they leave his church and be eternally damned because leaving COBU is tantamount to leaving Jesus. He in- stills an incredible sense of fear and guilt to keep you trapped."
Says she was brainwashed
now with her family in Scranton, Pa., Waldman, who is 26, says she ran
away four times in as many years "Before I was able to summon the courage
to leave for good." She now takes to denouncing Traill and other cults
whenever the opportunity arises. "I thought I was unworthy, that
I couldn't meet Stewart's high ideals when I left," she said. "But
now that my head has cleared, I can see that I was really brainwashed."
Traill's opinion of the media was made quite clear Nov. 14, at a fellowship
meeting nearly two weeks before the horrors of the People's Temple killings
and suicides in Guyana. Traill told his followers they could expect
more news articles presumably negative, about his church. "Newspapers use
you for entertainment, like a juicy tidbit to make more money," he said.
"They call it 'human interest (stories), but never mind what they do to
me but what they do to the fellowship. "On Nov. 28, right after the Guyana
story broke, Traill circulated a questionnaire, among the brothers, asking
about their educational levels and job skills as a means of assessing their
earning capacity now that the rug business had fallen off and there was
a need for more employment "in the outside world."
At the bottom, the questionnaire also asked- "Do you think we should ignore the media's attempt to include us in their publicity over the People's Temple tragedy? "Only by attending such meetings was it possible to get an idea of the kind of money the church makes. Some former members estimate it earns millions annually.
Evicted from loft in 1976
Those reports seemed fairly accurate, judging by the business report given Nov. 28 by church treasurer Harry Weinbaum, who announced that the Internal Revenue Service had rejected Christian Brothers' application for tax-exempt status as a nonprofit organization. "We'll have to pay somewhere between $200,000 and $500,000 in back payroll taxes." Weinbaum added, "but it could have been worse, We're allowed to deduct the room and board for our workers. If we had been hit with corporate taxes we could have owed between $2 million and $3 million dollars" - on a company started in early 1977. "We should be able to pay this off at a rate of $5,000 or $10,000 a week, as soon as the IRS decides how much we owe. It's hard to avoid paying Social Security, they really want it," Weinbaum added. Afterward, he explained privately that Christian Brothers had filed for exemption in 1977 and had withheld payments until the IRS made its decision in late November. But this doesn't affect the church's tax-exempt status, he said.
The news didn't seem to faze Traill, who turned to his followers and said: "We're in no real problem. In the long run, we'll have to do something tax free." "The Hare Krishnas are completely untaxed, but it would be unthinkable to do what they're doing." Traill said. "They hustle like crazy and take in $20 to $50 an hour, and the law says not one cent is taxable because
it's all going to their religion. For us to do this, we'd have to push Bibles down peoples' throats. It's obviously unthinkable, it's preying on people. Any direct selling we do should be value for value. "How do you feel about hustling something like tape records or umbrellas?" he asked. "I used to hustle vacuum cleaners. It was a nothing kind of existence, but I made a living.
This was the third time in two years the cult has had its collective fingers rapped by a governmental agency. The first came in 1976 when city health officials evicted some 250 church members living illegally in filthy, mouse-infested lofts and a store-front in lower Manhattan. Acting on a complaint lodged by the irate father of a church sister, health officials found 200 adults and
children living in a loft of 2,000 square feet, with two toilets and one working sink. The same held true at a storefront on E. South St., where 24 adults and three children share one toilet. Neither place had tubs or showers, and the cult's members used public baths in the Bowery.
The second run-in came in the summer of 1977 when New York City's Consumer Affairs Office cited Christian Brothers for falsely advertising that used Scotchguard and certain chemical treatments in its rug cleaning business when it did not.Weinbaum, representing the church, signed an assurance of discontinuance and paid a $150 fine, although this in no way represented an admission of guilt. Christian Brothers subsequently contracted with the suppliers of Scotchguard to use that product. Traill has also taken in stride repeated failures to win official Haitian authorization of his mission work. In a letter circulated among the church members late last summer, Traill renewed his request and asked the authorities in Haiti to allow the church to establish a helicopter service to provide better domestic transportation.
To further this goal, Traill in November urged his followers to consider purchasing some surplus Korean War helicopters he has spotted outside Philadelphia. His request followed on the heels of a request that they buy him a used helicopter for $17,500 which they did by the end of that same month. With his shoulder-length hair and flowing beard, and his basic uniform of olive drab work clothes, a utility belt slung around his waist, Traill made quite an impression when he strode into the offices of the
Bill Swod Leasing Co. in Columbus, Ohio, earlier this year intent buying his prop. Steve Wood, Swod's leasing manager, who handled the paperwork for the lease-purchase arrangement, says "I remember him because he's not exactly the kind of man who comes in to buy a plane. Wood says Traill put $20,000 or $30,000 down on the aircraft. While Traill's flock lives in shabby apartments, chiefly in Manhattan's Hell's Kitchen, he and his wife of two years and five children by a pervious marriage live in a house which the church rents in Teaneck, N.J. for $625 a month. Traill's landlord, John Costa, says he's quite anxious for Traill to leave when his two-year lease expires on Jan. 15. "He's wrecked my house, caused at least $3,000 or $4,000 in damages and turned it into a pigsty," said Costa, an import-export businessman who lives in Deerfield Beach, Fla. "I'm going to sue him."
Costa says Traill rented the eight-room house at 507 Churchill Road, a rather, affluent neighborhood, through a broker and represented himself as a minister with a wife and three children. Instead, he has five children and also houses about a dozen or so of his followers in the four-bedroom home.