Controversial Religious Group Builds Empire of Remnants
BY CHRISTOPHER J. KELLY THE SUNDAY TIMES 02/09/2003
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"But God sent me ahead of you to preserve for you a remnant on earth and to save your lives by a great deliverance." -- Genesis, 45:7
Bob Muller lays down his hammer and walks warily toward the two strangers waiting in the warehouse. One is snapping photographs. The other is scribbling into a notebook.
"Can I help you?" he asks, running a wiry, white forearm through the sweat soaking his hairline.
The outsiders are from the newspaper. They want to ask a few questions about Olde Good Things, the company that operates this sprawling repository of architectural artifacts tucked away at 411 Gilligan Street in Scranton.
By all appearances, Olde Good Things is a specialty antiques business, a salvage company that recycles and sells all manner of materials recovered from demolished buildings, everything from barns to skyscrapers. Its colossal inventory of rare and not-so-rare odds and ends, including marble columns, claw-foot bath tubs, wrought-iron gates, stained glass, ornate doorknobs and even toilet bowls in varying conditions, fills an 80,000-square-foot warehouse across Providence Road from Memorial Stadium, spilling over into two outside yards.
But there's more to Olde Good Things than meets the eye. The business is owned and operated by the Church of Bible Understanding, a controversial religious group that claims to be nothing more than a Christian evangelical fellowship but whose ex-members, backed by psychiatric counselors and other experts, claim is really a destructive cult devoted to a man named Stewart Traill.
Olde Good Things is, in fact, the bedrock of an empire built on remnants. Ex-members of the group say Mr. Traill's followers live in squalor, often in unheated homes or apartments, and work at the group's various money-making businesses, earning as little as $10 a week. Tax records show the group reported $4.7 million in tax-exempt income in 2000, most of it from its Scranton operation.
The group, also known as COBU, is quiet these days but that has not always been the case. A remnant of the "Jesus Movement" of the 1970s, it may once have boasted as many as 10,000 adherents, but current and former members say the flock has dwindled to as few as 60. At one time, it attracted a great deal of attention. TIME magazine, Philadelphia magazine, The Philadelphia Inquirer, The New York Daily News and other news organizations have done stories on it in the past.
When the outsiders arrive, Bob Muller is working in a group of 10 men, pounding scrap tin into decorative molding for photograph and mirror frames. A slight, bearded man, he is friendly but careful as he discusses his faith and his work with people he's been taught not to trust.
COBU members are warned to avoid the press, ex-members say. Olde Good Things treasurer Jim DiGiacoma cooperated with a previous Times-Tribune story that looked only at the antiques aspect of the business, but he refuses to discuss the religious group behind it.
Several attempts to contact Mr. Traill were unsuccessful. Women answering the phone at his Philadelphia camera supply business say he is "busy" or "out of town." They say they don't know how to reach him. Ex-members don't doubt this. They say even people inside the group rarely see or speak to the mysterious man behind COBU.
A woman at Olde Good Things' main store in New York said Mr. Traill has "nothing to do with the business," but promised someone in the company's management would return a reporter's call. No one called back.
A Times-Tribune reporter and photographer visited a Philadelphia apartment house where Mr. Traill keeps a residence, but he either wasn't home or wouldn't answer the door. A message on his answering machine says "I'm back," but he did not return messages. A neighbor said he would tell Mr. Traill a reporter was trying to reach him.
The address for Mr. Traill's camera business turned out to be a padlocked warehouse. A woman answering the phone at S&G Photographics explained that it is a mail-order business. At COBU's Philadelphia headquarters, an eight-building compound that takes up a city block, a man named Paul said Mr. Traill wasn't there and wouldn't talk to reporters if he were.
"There's been a lot of stuff written about us that's just garbage," Paul said, before the two-way phone on his belt beeped and he was called away from the fence that surrounds the property, which is overgrown with thick brambles and old trees.
Mr. Muller shares Paul's dim view of the media's coverage of COBU. The group is a church, he says, and members live by the teachings of Jesus Christ. Mr. Traill, its leader, understands those teachings like no one else. Outsiders who call the group a cult simply don't know the truth and aren't willing to hear it, Mr. Muller says. Ex-members know the truth, he says, but can't live by it, so they distort it.
"They have a lot of guilt about the way they left," Mr. Muller says with a tinge of pity in his soft voice, barely audible above the incessant banging of mallets on metal.
"If you leave a good thing and you know it was a good thing, you feel guilty about it." A cabinet maker from New Jersey, Mr. Muller, 42, has been a member of COBU for 25 years. An employee of Olde Good Things for about five years, he says he previously worked in COBU's three orphanages in Haiti, which the antiques giant claims benefit greatly from its sales.
According to tax records, COBU claimed $498,810 in operating expenses for the orphanages in 2000. It spent $603,614 on "training" and "teaching" for members, and "meals, lodging and welfare of impoverished members of the church." Mr. Muller lives in Scranton, but won't say where or in what type of space. House? Apartment? Other?
"Around here," he says, looking back over his shoulder at the other workers, who survey Mr. Muller and his visitors between whacks.
Jennifer, 46, a former member who has asked that her last name not be published, says COBU maintains a house in Scranton, but many members sleep in an upstairs area of the warehouse. She says she doesn't know if the "tiny bedrooms" she saw during her time working at Olde Good Things are heated.
The house was inherited by a COBU member, Jennifer says, but she will not say where it is or name its owner.
"I've known these people for years," she says. "I don't want to point the finger at them." Mr. Muller says an illness led him to leave Haiti for Scranton. It was a sickness of spirit, he says, that led him to join COBU as a young man. Friends who were "concerned about my salvation" introduced him to the group, and "the way to a better life," he says.
"I had seen everything, the hopes of my life come crashing down," he says. "Jesus gave me my hope back, taught me to deny myself, to not be dominated by the 'I wants,' to live according to scripture.
"We try to live like the apostles. The fact is, Jesus really helps us."
GENESIS OF AN EMPIRE
A former vacuum cleaner repairman who has claimed to be an incarnation of the prophet Elijah, Mr. Traill started the Church of Bible Understanding in Allentown in 1971. Originally called the Forever Family, it quickly branched out into Bethlehem, Scranton and Wilkes-Barre. Within three years, Forever Family members were recruiting young people in Philadelphia, New York, Syracuse, Pittsburgh, Cleveland and Baltimore.
Wherever the Forever Family turned up, trouble followed. Parents and police protested the group's aggressive proselytizing. Members shouted scripture and slogans in the street and wore buttons that read, "GET SMART GET SAVED." A few were arrested for harassment and obstructing sidewalks.
Some turned to violence to drive out the newcomers. A March 1, 1976, TIME magazine article describes vigilante attacks on "fellowship houses" in Scranton and Wilkes-Barre and explores the panic of parents whose sons and daughters joined the group and dropped out of sight, cutting all ties with their families.
Some mainstream religious leaders said parents should have been pleased that their children were taking an interest in the Bible, but TIME quoted Monsignor James C. Timlin, then chancellor of the Diocese of Scranton, warning local youths not to be "taken in" by the Forever Family's "easy and simple solutions to very complex problems." Reeling from bad publicity, the group shifted most of its people and resources to Philadelphia and New York. The Forever Family became the Church of Bible Understanding, a name that reflects a central tenet of the group -- that only Mr. Traill can truthfully interpret the word of God.
A GENERATION OF SEEKERS
The mid-1970s were a restless, uncertain time for young Americans. The Kennedy and King assassinations, the war in Vietnam and the vacuum left by the demise of the counterculture movement of the late 1960s left many searching for spiritual meaning in an increasingly self-centered, secularized society.
Millions of disillusioned youths turned to groups like the Rev. Sun Myung Moon's Unification Church and the Rev. Jim Jones' People's Temple, which ended in tragedy in 1978 with the mass suicide of 913 members in Jonestown, Guyana. New Christian churches espousing a return to a simple, scripture-based life met in homes, storefronts, rented theaters and hotels.
"I was a seeker," says Karen Hart, 46, of Bloomfield, N.J. In 1977, she was 19, engaged, and working as a secretary in New York City.
"That was when the Moonies were really coming on," she says, referring to the Unification Church by its common nickname. The group was having a mass meeting in New York. The event was mobbed. Mrs. Hart couldn't get in.
"I ran into these guys on the street and we exchanged phone numbers," she remembers. "They kept calling my house and asking me to come over to pray and read The Bible.
"They called to the point where you felt like you had to come over. They were cool hippie types. They all had long hair and they were young like me. They were very fervent and very serious about serving Jesus and so was I." She soon broke off her engagement and moved into a fellowship house. She would be a member of COBU for most of the next 16 years.
CLEANING FOR JESUS
In 1976, the Church of Bible Understanding started its first business -- Christian Brothers Carpet Cleaning Inc. Armed with more than 100 steam cleaning machines and free of many overhead costs, including taxes, that kept competitors from matching its rock-bottom prices, the fledgling company took Manhattan by storm.
The company all but cornered the Diamond District and cleaned carpets for rock stars like Mick Jagger and John Lennon. TIME magazine profiled the business. Years later, Christian Brothers was lampooned in an episode of "Seinfeld." But the upstart's undercut competitors weren't laughing. As a non-profit religious organization, Christian Brothers was claiming exemption from minimum wage and tax laws. Its competitors complained to the Internal Revenue Service, which ordered the company to pay $500,000 in back taxes, according to Jim Greiner, once of of Mr. Traill's most trusted lieutenants.
"God knows how much money we made," says Mr. Greiner, 51, an ex-member of COBU who once served as vice president of the group's board of directors. A member for 21 years, Mr. Greiner was in on the ground floor of Christian Brothers.
"We had lawyers and advisers who knew all the loopholes," Mr. Greiner says. "We tried to get the tax law changed. We fought it in court, but we lost. They put us on a payment plan and we paid back the money." But Mr. Traill was determined to avoid such setbacks in the future, Mr. Greiner says, and COBU lawyers and accountants quickly found a way around the IRS. Christian Brothers employees became "private contractors" who would "donate" their paychecks to the church.
"That way, you get the money you're spending on payroll back," Mr. Greiner says, "and because it's a donation, it's tax-free. There's not one private business that can compete with that, I don't care what it is.
"We protected that non-profit status with our lives."
By 1977, COBU had about 3,000 members living at 130 fellowship houses in 13 states and Canada. Christian Brothers had moved into cities in seven states, and COBU was looking for new business opportunities. It was Mr. Greiner who spotted the next moneymaker buying used vans in Detroit and selling them for a profit in New York.
"We needed vans, anyway, to transport all the brothers and sisters," he says. "I would go to Detroit, buy a van, always with cash, and drive it back to New York and sell it for $1,000 more than I paid for it the next day. When Stewart heard about this, he had us start (towing them in groups).
"We'd towbar a bunch of vans back to New York, sell them, get back on a plane with our towbars and go back and get more." Ex-members say the business earned as much as $850,000, but Mr. Greiner says it died when affordable inventory dried up.
"We drained Detroit," he says. "There was nothing left there for us to get. You couldn't buy anything cheap enough to make any money, and that was it." COBU established the orphanages in Haiti in 1977. While many people were helped by the missions, Mr. Greiner says he doubts all of the money raised for them actually made its way to Haiti.
"I spent a lot of time there, and they were legit to a point," says Mr. Greiner, once COBU's treasurer. "We got a lot of donations," he says, but he can't be sure money meant for the missions wasn't spent on other COBU expenses.
Out of the group about 11 years now, Jim Greiner lives with his wife and son in his native Cleveland. He works as a carpet cleaner.
"It's ironic," he says with a chuckle, "but that's what I knew how to do."
GATHERING THE FLOCK
In 1978, Mr. Traill began moving COBU's base of operations -- and its youngest members -- to Philadelphia. The group paid $75,000 for a stone Victorian that was once a home for the blind. Mr. Traill and his second wife, Gayle, lived on the second floor of what he called "The Lamb House," and about 100 teenagers lived downstairs. According to ex-members, "lambs," or young members new to the church, were forbidden from visiting the Traills' floor unless summoned.
Male lambs cleaned carpets during the day, while select females worked at S&G Photographics, a camera supply company operated by Mr. Traill and his wife. Nights and weekends, lambs attended Bible study and prayer sessions and hit the streets trolling for new members.
In 1982, COBU purchased a $435,000 home in Princeton, N.J., about two miles from where Albert Einstein, reportedly a hero of Mr. Traill's, once lived. Mr. Traill and his wife moved into the seven-bedroom, five-bathroom home, which also served as the new headquarters of S&G Photographics. Mr. Traill moved the S&G staff a group of young girls into the house. He called them "Gayle Helpers." Ex-members say Mr. Traill's interest in the helpers was more than spiritual, which led to a falling out with his wife. The fight resulted in the mercurial leader making a "revelation" that would throw COBU into turmoil and convince many it was time to leave the group -- and Mr. Traill -- behind.
After years of teaching his followers that the key to salvation was to relentlessly and harshly judge themselves and each other, he called a meeting and announced that he should have been teaching them about the rewards of grace. Mercy and forgiveness were suddenly more important than punishing, inflexible adherence to the goal of "sin-free" living.
Coming from a man they had been taught to believe was infallible, Mr. Traill's admission that he had made a mistake was too much for many COBU members to accept. The revelation cost the group hundreds of members, and planted the seeds of doubt in the hearts and minds of many who stayed on in Mr. Traill's new age of grace.
THE LAW AND COBU
The IRS tax penalty was not the only time the secular world clashed with the self-contained universe of COBU.
In the early '80s, four COBU "brothers" were convicted in Philadelphia for savagely beating Mr. Traill's youngest child, Donald. The boy, 12 at the time, was admitted to Children's Hospital in serious condition after the attack.
The brothers, who claimed Mr. Traill ordered the beating, each recieved five years probation. Mr. Traill was not charged.
In 1983, the Manhattan-based youth crisis center Covenant House filed a $1.5 million lawsuit against COBU, accusing members of posing as homeless teens to gain access to the facility. Covenant House charged the COBU members with enticing 24 runaways to leave with them.
COBU settled the suit by agreeing not to house underage youths, but when New York police raided a COBU property in 1985, they found 17 teens living in squalor. One member was arrested, and the New York State Supreme Court ordered COBU to stop housing minors.
In 1995, the FBI raided COBU's Philadelphia headquarters after a 16-year old girl told a city police officer she was being held there against her will. Police took eight girls ages 14 to 17 into custody. The girls' parents turned out to be members of COBU. After saying they found no indication the girls had been abused, police returned them to their parents.
"We don't really have anything at this point that would indicate criminal charges," Capt. Thomas Quinn told The Philadelphia Inquirer.
"There's no indication these kids were abused or anything like that. They stated they weren't abused, they felt comfortable there. And the parents, for whatever reason, are comfortable with that." OLD VALUABLE THINGS
In 1989, Mr. Traill sold the Princeton house for $750,000. He and his wife moved into the Philadelphia compound, but bought two condominiums in Pompano Beach, Fla. At the time, COBU owned three airplanes and would soon purchase a fourth.
COBU had a steady income selling merchandise acquired as tax-deductible donations for the Haiti missions. The group sold truckloads of school desks, expired soda and old containers of paint and glue at auctions, where it picked up more inventory at low prices.
When members noticed salvage antiques were bringing big money at auction, they decided to get a piece of the action. Now in its seventh year in business, Olde Good Things pulls in an estimated $5 million a year selling exotic antiques at a pair of stores in New York, at auctions nationwide and on the World Wide Web at oldegoodthings.com and the Internet auction site, eBay.
Salvaged by workers the company calls "architecturologists," the remnants sold by Olde Good Things fetch top dollar on the high-end antiques market. The company's on-line store at www.stores.ebay.com currently offers items ranging from a bronze sculpture of Moses parting the Red Sea salvaged from a New Jersey synagogue for $30,000 to a terra cotta lion from Scranton's Hotel Casey for $5,500.
COBU paid $26,167 in property taxes for 2002, including $5,507 to Lackawanna County and $20,660 to the city and the Scranton School District, according to the Single Tax Office. Officials there said confidentiality rules prohibited divulging whether COBU is paying mercantile, business privilege, occupational and wage taxes.
According to the latest federal tax records available, COBU reported total revenue of $4.7 million in 2000, including $1.4 million in contributions, $50,000 from investments and $3.2 million in sales. It reported total expenses of $4.2 million, including $498,810 for the Haiti missions and $603,614 for training and room and board for members. Among other equipment expenses, the remaining $3 million in reported costs includes $515,893 in "airplane improvements" and "airplane expenses." The group said it paid $1.6 million in salaries and nearly $135,000 in payroll taxes in 2000. Tax records show, however, that the only paid officer is COBU vice president Kevin Browne, who earned $139,609. The tax records name Mr. Traill as the group's president, but claim he is not paid.
In 2000, COBU reported assets of $3.6 million as a non-profit organization.
TODAY AND TOMORROW
While COBU is much smaller than its 1970s incarnation, observers and ex-members say its business savvy and Mr. Traill's mystique give the group enormous growth potential as it enters its 31st year.
Recent ex-members say the group does little proselytizing these days, devoting the bulk of its resources to Olde Good Things. While Christian Brothers is named as an affiliate of COBU in the group's 2000 tax forms, ex-members say the business has since closed. A nationwide search of the yellow pages finds just one Christian Brothers Carpet Cleaning. The California business is not affiliated with COBU.
The group maintains some of its New York properties and the church compound in Philadelphia, and has dabbled in other businesses, including a Philadelphia coffee shop/recruitment center called the Better Way Cafe.
Some ex-members say COBU is interested in expanding its operations in the Scranton area, possibly purchasing a large property to establish a national headquarters. It recently started Olde Good Wood, a spin-off that restores and sells wood pulled from old barns and other buildings.
Most observers say COBU membership has dwindled to a few hundred. Bob Muller puts the number at about 60, before saying a polite goodbye to the outsiders from the newspaper.
With that, he strides back to the work table and picks up his hammer. The Lord's work is never done.