to Riches For Leader
Special Correspondent to the News
Last of a series
taken ex-vacuum cleaner salesman Stewart Trail] -only five years to form
his hand-to-mouth existence into the life
well-heeled corporate president, ferried around in private planes and armed with an expense account and 2,000 "workers" who make millions annually for his tax-exempt "church" in Mahattan.
But not that long ago Traill was barely eking out a living for himself, a wife he has since divorced" and their five children. His days, says ex-wife Shirley Rudy Traill, were spent scouring the small towns that ring Allentown, Pa., buying up old vacuum cleaners, reconditioning them in his shabby rented and selling them to a local dealer. When things got really tough, we lived in a van," she recalled. Then, one day in 1968 Traill says, he found Jesus. And the life for this avowed atheist and for the thousands whose lives he has touched, has never been the same.
Within three years of the day Traill - was saved for Jesus, he had progressed from zealous student of the Bible to infallible head of his own fundamentalist sect,. "which he baptized the "Forever Family."Accompanied by a youthful band of religious zealots, he roamed from town to town in eastern Pennsylvania, preaching in the streets and. conducting Bible fellowship meetings in the homes of his followers.
That was the inauspicious beginning of a cult that would swell by 1978 to the 2.000-member Church of
Bible Understanding Inc., whose diverse business enterprises in the New York metropolitan area alone would gross millions over two years. Today, Traill keeps busy monitoring his church's carpet cleaning and van resale business while shuttling by private plane between his string of "fellowships" that stretch from Montreal, in his native Canada, to Norfolk, Va. New fellowships are planned for Georgia and Florida.
During the last-year, Traill's flock has also been laboring in Haiti, claiming to be feeding "thousands of starving people" in the rnountainous Au Cadet region while teaching the natives how to carve chess sets, and other manual skills aimed at producing goods that can be sold by Traill's church for a handsome profit the United States.
Clothes were funny
Traill's followers are a freshly scrubbed lot, most of them in the late teens and '20s, who work long hours without pay to support his messianic movement." But 25 years ago, Traill was shunned at Fountain Hill High School in Bethlehem, Pa., by his own peers, who labeled him a weirdo, an oddball who was never known to go out on dates. "I felt sorry for him and tried to befriend him," Philip Malozi' now a plumbing-heating contractor in Bethlehem,Pa. "I had a dance band and was generally in the swing of things. But Stewart, was such a loner, a real weirdo. Even his clothes were funny. The idea dating Stewart would have been comical."
"Memoirs", the 1953 yearbook commemorating Traill's graduating class, recalls: "Even in the ninth grade, Stuart (sic) Traill put to use his fantastic ideas. One day he was seen with a paper bag on a string tied around his neck. When questioned as to its purpose he simply replied that it would save him a trip to the wastepaper basket should a teacher ask him to deposit his gum."
One of Traill's former teachers, who later became principal of his school, remembers him as a student who frequently interrupted science classes with irrelevant, esoteric questions and clearly preferred to study only what interested him.
"We locked horns continually over his inability or unwillingness to approach his studies methodically," recalls the now-retired teacher, Carl Laubstein. "I told him, 'Stewart, your biggest problem is that you cannot be bothered with the basics.' I'm not surprised to hear he's started his own religion. There were probably threads of genius running through him, if only he had applied himself."
Pennsylvania's Lehigh Valley region has been a hot bed of religious movements since the early 1970s, and Traill's "Jesus freaks" seemed like part of young America's post-Vietnam search for new causes and heroes. They might have been swept aside by the more exotic followers of Sun Myung Moon or the Hare Krishnas or a cult called The Way - all active there - had it not been for Traill's aggressive recruitment tactics, which caused an uproar among patents and clergy. Pennsylvania's smaller newspapers were filled with accounts of alleged kidnappings by the Forever Family and allegations that Traill encouraged minors to run away from home and harbored them from their frantic parents. Officials launched investigations into his activities but expressed frustration over their inability to find youths willing to corroborate evidence and press charges.
By 1972, Traill's cult was off to a flying start. Between 1972 and 1974, the Forever Family opened and closed a string of storefront centers In eastern Pennsylvania, replacing them with fellowship centers in key cities-Cleveland, Brooklyn, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Syracuse and Worcester, Mass, By early 1975,COBU records show its ranks had swollen to roughly 600.
Change The Name
In September 1974 the cult decided to become a Pennsylvania corporation to obtain a federal tax exemption as a nonprofit religious organization. That exempt status was granted the following February, and cult leaders met to debate "how to use the tax exemption and become a 'freak salvation army.' "At that same September meeting, it was decided that all members would pay $10 monthly dues to the general fund-which financed the cult's expenses as well as salaries for Traill and Gayle Gillespie, his
secretary, who later became his wife, Within a month, COBU records show, the dues were used to buy Traill, first plane, a single- engine Piper Cherokee, and to pay for flying lessons. Traill turned his vacuum cleaner business over to some of the brothers, laying the foundation for eventual creation of Christian Brothers Cleaning Service Inc., which was incorporated in New York in 1977 as a rug-cleaning business that went an to earn millions in two years.
Another chapter in COBU's colorful early history
was written in January 1976 when 1,700 members attended a "big meeting"
in King of Prussia, Pa. They voted to change the Forever Family's name
to the Church of Bible Understanding Inc. to shed the negative publicity
Traill's separation and child custody battle, with Shirley had generated
the previous summer, and partly because of the wild proliferation of cults
and legal battles to block them that were then making headlines across
But the cult gained another critical advantage as a tax-exempt religious organization it had been required to file annual reports with the Internal Revenue Service. But now, as a tax-exempt church, it no longer had to.
COBU's brothers and sisters began an exodus toward Manhattan, where they planned to open a training center and a national headquarters. They toiled at odd jobs, pooled their resources to buy food and pay the rent, lived, sometimes illegally,
in unsanitary Commercial lofts, in lower Manhattan and sought "lambs" as COBU's new converts are called - in Washington Square Park.
During this crucial transition year, Traill. was busy putting his own house in order. Uppermost on his mind was divorcing Shirley, which he accomplished in October 1976 in Canton, Ohio, for alleged adultery. He married Gayle Gillespie six weeks later on Dec.11, in the ballroom of the Diplomat Hotel on 43d St. According to Traill, Gayle is now busy writing the introduction to the "Second Coming." Shirley says she became painfully aware that her marriage was going down the drain in the spring of 1975 when Traill barred her from attending fellowship meetings and stayed out late after these sessions. Traill had always dominated his wife, not permitting her to drive a car, telling her how to talk and what to say, selecting her clothes, even telling her when she could go to the bathroom "as a form of self-discipline."
Object of Scorn
Hearing how Traill now holds her up as an object of 'scorn, telling the young women of COBU they will become "'whores' like Shirley" if they leave Jesus and Traill's church, his ex-wife says she now believes her former husband planned her downfall.
"Everything Stewart does has a purpose," she began, recalling how he once bought her half a dozen "sizzler sets"-micro-mini dresses with bikini pants---and insisted she wear them even though it shocked her neighbors and townspeople.,The marriage ended dramatically. Shirley obtained a court injunction to prevent Stewart from taking their children out of Pennsylvania. But her custody battle died In court a short time later, when Traill's attorney won dismissal on grounds that Traill had moved to New Jersey before the papers were served, and the Pennsylvania courts no longer had jurisdiction
But before he left, Shirley Traill says, her ex-husband had some of his followers seize her children from her---once in her house, another time wresting them from her arms on a street-and take them to New Jersey. Today, Shirley has only one real complaint: Traill refuses to let her see their two youngest children -who were just 5 and 8 when she lost them-despite monthly visitation rights granted her by the Ohio courts
"He lets me visit the older ones because
he's got them convinced I'm going to hell for my behavior," she says. "They
call me up and tell me I've got to get saved. Stewart even called me. He
wanted me to come to New York and start a vacuum
cleaner business there. But he also tells me I can't remarry-that I'd be committing adultery. How can I, I'm not married any more?"
Despite her husband's harsh public denunciation of her, Shirley Traill insists that he's a religious man doing God's work.
"I still say Stewart's a good man who doesn't take anything from the church for himself," she murmured, fighting back tears,