When Beth Davies and the small group of friends gathered around her dining room table walked away from the Church of Bible Understanding, they were all sure of two things:
They were going to hell.
Hell was preferable to staying in COBU.
In the warm, welcoming safety of Ms. Davies' Middle Park, N.J., home, ex-members meet to remember lives they would rather forget. Though anchored in heavy memories, the conversation is light, the mood buoyed by a palpable sense of healing, forgiveness and thanks.
Ms. Davies, 44, was a 16-year-old high school student looking for boys at an Akron, Ohio, mall when she met COBU recruiters instead. She left the group at 30, and now counsels people who have left abusive religious groups.
Chuck Hart, 46, joined the group at 22 in Columbus, Ohio. COBU leaders moved him to New York, where he met his wife, Karen, 46, who joined the group at 19 and stayed nearly 16 years. Because marriages were forbidden, the couple left and were married in 1986. They went back two years later, but soon left for good. They say their sons, ages 14 and 12, have no memory of living inside the group.
William, 52, was a 26-year-old dental student at Howard University in Washington, D.C., when he joined. He has asked that his last name not be published. William and another member left the group to get married in 1982 but went back when their three daughters were born. He left for good in 1989. His ex-wife and two of his daughters, now teenagers, remain in the group.
Jim LaRue, 45, of Point Pleasant Beach, N.J., was 22 when he was recruited by Chuck Hart. He spent 13 years in the group, but he doesn't blame Mr. Hart for the years he says COBU cost him.
"He wanted to help me," Mr. LaRue says. "He was sincere."
It is a sincere desire to serve Jesus and help others find salvation that drives most of COBU leader Stewart Traill's followers, the ex-members say. It's what made them willing to live in rat- and roach-infested tenements, work back-breaking jobs for nominal pay and spend countless hours in the streets trying to bring new "lambs" into the flock.
"We had to go out every single night and witness," Mrs. Hart says. "We ate a lot of peanut butter and jelly. If you worked outside the group, you had to hand in your paycheck, and you'd get like $10 back.
"You might work all day and then be out witnessing until midnight, but you didn't care because you were saving people for Jesus."
Eventually, the ex-members would believe they were damning themselves for Mr. Traill.
During their years in the group, Ms. Davies and her friends lived primarily in New York, sharing small apartments in dingy tenements in Brooklyn and Staten Island with as many as 100 members. Days were spent cleaning carpets or working outside jobs. Nights were spent in Bible meetings and proselytizing.
Ms. Davies and her guests were moved to New York with hordes of other members so they could attend COBU's Manhattan Training Center, where Mr. Traill's followers were "educated" on the proper interpretation of Scripture, living a "sinless" life and the best methods for recruiting others.
"We are going to spread all over NYC in lofts," explains a letter introducing members to their new home in Staten Island.
"The city has agreed not to enforce the laws about living in lofts, it's up to the landlords' discretion. About 30 people should live in each loft. Push finances. Loft life removes you from the womb. The comfortable houses are well and good for lambhood -- coming from faith in Jesus, this way of living must be characterized by drive and energy, not just existing.
"We need to be very dedicated, learning, training, no more soft life. No more taking advantage. Loft life is something like a permanent big meeting -- 24 hours a day -- constantly everyone doing all that they can. Get used to falling asleep exhausted."
At "Big Meetings," gatherings that pulled the bulk of the flock together in one place, members would wait for hours in silence hoping Mr. Traill would grace them with his presence. He came only when the spirit moved him, ex-members say, and sometimes "visited" via a two-way radio held up by Jim Greiner or another top lieutenant.
The marriage ban, Mr. Griener says, was rooted more in financial than spiritual health.
"Marriages cost money. Families cost money," Mr. Greiner says.
Physical attraction was to be suppressed, ex-members say. To give into such impulses meant a member was "into the flesh," and therefore unfaithful. The same was true of contact with family members or any interest in what was happening outside COBU. Members owed total devotion to the group, its businesses and its expansion.
"If you didn't perform, you weren't really faithful," Mrs. Hart says. "You didn't love God enough."
And fellow members made sure you knew it. Those who were judged unfaithful faced hours of verbal attacks and humiliation.
The concept behind the psychological abuse and the victims' acceptance of it, ex-members say, is as simple as it is twisted. COBU members are required to live a sinless life, with Christ as the standard. Though on some level they know such perfection is unattainable, they are convinced they must reach it.
"It's so ingrained," Mrs. Hart says, "if you aren't here, you can't be a Christian. If you aren't here, you're going to hell."
Most ex-members find it difficult to start a new life, says Ms. Davies, who now helps ex-members of COBU and other groups make the transition to the outside world. They are fish out of water, she says, suddenly set free in a society they don't understand and lacking the ability to make even the simplest decisions.
"People find out you were in a cult and they say, 'Well, it's good that you've put that behind you now,'" she says. "It's not that simple. It takes a long while before you can look back and say, 'You know, that was a pretty weird situation,' because you've spent so much of your life believing it was absolutely normal."
Mr. Greiner was homeless on the streets of New York for six months after leaving COBU. An ex-member helped him get back on his feet and he eventually made his way home to Cleveland.
"I hadn't talked to my mom for 24 years," he says. "I was trying to start over in a world I knew nothing about. In COBU, you don't watch TV, you don't read the paper. You read the Bible and you go back to work.
"You don't experience any of those monthly concerns, like paying bills. It's like you never grew up. You try to leave and your brain flips."
The Webster's New World College Dictionary defines a cult as "a quasi-religious group, often living in a colony, with a charismatic leader who indoctrinates members with unorthodox or extremist views, practices or beliefs."
In its Cultic Studies Journal, the American Family Foundation, a secular research organization that studies groups that practice psychological manipulation, defines cults as "groups that often exploit members psychologically and/or financially, typically by making members comply with leadership's demands through certain types of psychological manipulation, popularly called mind control, and through the inculcation of deep-seated anxious dependency on the group and its leaders."
COBU is the embodiment of these definitions, says Ron Burks, clinical coordinator and counselor at Wellspring Retreat and Resource Center in Albany, Ohio, about 80 miles southeast of Columbus. A nonprofit, residential treatment center for cult victims, Wellspring has been featured on "NBC Nightly News with Tom Brokaw" and the CBS investigative news program, "48 Hours."
A former member of a cultlike group, Mr. Burks has counseled with ex-members of high-profile groups, including the Branch Davidians, who saw 75 members die in a 1993 FBI siege of their Waco, Texas, compound, and Heaven's Gate, whose two leaders and 37 followers committed suicide in San Diego in 1997.
Over the past few years, Mr. Burks has worked extensively with people who have left COBU.
"The only way I can categorize it is to call it a 'psychological meat grinder,'" Mr. Burks says, pointing to the harsh self- and group criticism and unwavering devotion to Stewart Traill required of COBU members.
Over time, "peer bashing" and "self-checking" become second nature to members, he says, making them easy to control. Members learn early on, he says, "that if I put my head up, it'll be chopped off."
"I used to have a litter of dogs," he says. "They were little dogs, but the four of them would attack coyotes as a group. The biggest one got hit by a car and was crippled. As soon as that happened, the other three ganged up on him.
"In COBU, someone can point at you and say, 'You look like you've had sinful thoughts.' If you say no, you're reminded that Scripture says that when we say we have not sinned, we deceive ourselves. So by not agreeing with the lie, you become the liar.
"It's like the grand inquisitor saying, 'You're a witch.' You say, 'No, I'm not,' and he says, 'Let the record show that the accused has called the grand inquisitor a liar.'"
Because members are so fearful of being judged unfaithful, Mr. Burks says Stewart Traill can afford to stay out of his followers' sight for long periods of time. In short, he is with them all the time, even when he is miles away physically.
"Stewart Traill is very skilled at using his absence as effectively as his presence," he says. "If he does come and preach to them, he has found them worthy. If he comes and finds them unworthy, he can bring the wrath of God down on them."
Many who do leave the group, Mr. Burks says, face a gut-wrenching dilemma -- they believe they will go to hell, but can't bear to remain in a situation they believe is the only source of salvation. Others who leave are crippled by an inability to think for themselves. As a result, many go back, he says.
"What is unusual about COBU is that while ex-members may have long ago abandoned the spirituality of the group -- they may not even believe in God any more -- the thought patterns remain the same," Mr. Burks says.
"That's why COBU is one of the top 10 most toxic cults, maybe even the top five."
Each out of the group for several years, Ms. Davies and her guests say they turned their backs on Mr. Traill, not Jesus Christ. All say they remain Christians, and have found healthy environments in which to celebrate their faith.
When William first visited his new church, he says he shook the minister's hand "just because I could." The simple exchange of fellowship, he says, is something he wouldn't have dreamed about trying with Mr. Traill.
"You weren't even allowed to look at him," William says. "If he caught you looking at him, he'd call you a ghoul."
Jim LaRue says his eyes were opened on March 4, 1989. Stewart Traill called a church meeting in Philadelphia to make the revelation that would rock the Church of Bible Understanding to its core.
He said he had been wrong all along.
In all the years he had insisted his followers be brutally, relentlessly critical of themselves and each other, Mr. Traill said, he had failed to teach the basic Christian principle of grace. Admitting to more than spiritual contact with at least one young woman in the group, the married Mr. Traill now stressed the importance of forgiveness.
"I learned more in those 13 minutes than I did in the 13 years I was in the group," says Mr. LaRue, one of many who left COBU in the aftermath of Mr. Traill's revelation.
"I had believed that Stewart Traill was infallible. I believed that Jesus had willed me there, to Stewart, and then he took back everything he had ever said. He said he was wrong. That was it for me."