Church of Bible Understanding (COBU) Still Vital
The Church of Bible Understanding (COBU), known in the 1970s and 1980s for recruiting vulnerable young people to a life of poverty, and service to charismatic founder Stuart Traill, is alive and well.
Disheveled and bearded men, and women in waist length hair, are doing God’s work, luring young visitors strolling South Street into the “Better Way Cafe,” not far away, who may have responded to a flyer they got from a COBU devotee elsewhere in town. The visitors learn they can find warm, accepting people, and “truth,” in a COBU Bible study group in nearby Trenton in a few days. The recruiters don’t identify COBU. “We’re more like a group of friends, not a conventional religious group.”
COBU is headquartered in $1.5 million compound that takes up a square block in Southwest Philadelphia. There, about 150 members — many more reside in “fellowships” around the country — live in a extremely controlled society, with its own language and customs, and rules so all-encompassing that when people manage to break away, they find assimilation into the wider society exceedingly difficult.
Stuart Traill is a master manipulator who keeps his followers under a potent spell. They don’t see him much nowadays, since he spends a good deal of his time tending the cult’s new fellowship in Fort Lauderdale, flying up and down the coast in his four private planes, and working closely with the cult’s younger members, girls aged 18 to 22. But though he has been largely reduced to a voice over the phone dispatching daily orders, his absence has only further mythologized him. He has become COBU’s Wizard of Oz, manning the controls from behind the curtain, inspiring fear and reverence. Exit-counselor David Clark says that COBU members are the hardest to help. “It takes an extraordinarily long time for them to learn to separate Stuart Traill from themselves. The deep loyalty Stuart’s able to get out of them, despite the level of abuse he puts them through, is quite remarkable.”
Though ex-members and outside observers have in the past estimated COBU membership in the thousands, the number of committed followers is more likely in the hundreds today. But they are diehards who provide an astonishing cash flow to Traill. They live communally in squalid conditions, work for very little spending money in COBU businesses — like the New York City carpet cleaning company — and proselytize in the evenings. With new fellowships cropping up from Baltimore to Texas, and Traill concentrating more and more on developing the group’s varied business ventures — like selling used military electronics and accessories bought at auction and, through the Olde Good Things company, “antique” artifacts such as iron gates, mantels, and columns salvaged from New York City buildings. Olde Good Things earns an estimated $5 million a year and bids to become a national industry leader. COBU has clearly entered a new stage of development in which God, if he ever was, is no longer Traill’s top priority.
But there is a darker prospect. Although COBU has shed its “Jesus Freak” image of the 1970s (when it was called the “Forever Family”), a millennial tone can be detected in some of Traill’s teachings. The newest mantras are “Death in Christ is far more interesting than anything this life can offer” and “You’re gonna die anyway, why not die constructively.” Night after night, Traill asks his followers to rate their “gladness to depart quotient” — that is, how welcoming they are of their own deaths. Former members recall how, ten years ago, Traill ordered them to stockpile barrels of gunpowder in local warehouses. “COBU is a very radical group,” says Rick Ross, an Arizona-based cult expert. “Only the most extreme groups are as separatist as COBU. We can’t comprehend how totalistic an environment it can be — they’re molded by their leader in such a way that they’re not really touched by reality. And when the leader tells them the outside world is evil and the only purity is within the group, they seem willing to accept that, because they have no second opinion.” (From “I’ll Be Damned,” by Sabrina Rubin, Philadelphia Magazine, June, 1999, which contains a lengthy history both of COBU in the past three decades and Stuart Traill since his childhood)
C-O 16-8 1999