Wednesday, April 01, 2009

40 Days of Lent: Day Thirty Six

More About The Forever Family

In this post, I mentioned The Forever Family, one of the cults found in my hometown in my youth, along with my parents' reaction: "stay away from them!" In the comments, my sister Erin admitted she wasn't aware of them (she's lucky enough to have been too young) but said that a google search turned up the following article from Time Magazine:
Where Are the Children?
March 1, 1976
For several years they have been a fixture of downtown Scranton and Wilkes-Barre in the old hard-coal country of northeastern Pennsylvania. They wear pins that say GET SMART, GET SAVED. Abstemious, straitlaced, pushy in their missionary piety, they work the streets, buttonholing teen-age passers-by with provocative zeal.

They are members of the Forever Family, a youth-oriented evangelistic group. They say they espouse a return to a primitive "New Testament" brand of Christianity. With apparent success, they forbid drinking, drugs and premarital sex. Thus far, they may have made more enemies than converts. Their hard-driving proselytizing has led to arrests for harassment and obstructing sidewalks. Lately, they have had vigilantism to contend with as well. On Feb. 12,.four carloads of teen-age toughs invaded the sect's center in Wilkes-Barre and went on a rampage. They tossed furniture, spread garbage, and broke most of the windows in the place. Two days later, other raiders devastated a Family house in Scranton and roughed up Kevin Hoppes, 24, "guardian" (area coordinator) of the group's "lambs" (members). The Family had other troubles. Police hauled in member Steve Gattuso for getting a 14-year-old juvenile offender to stay in the Wilkes-Barre house for two nights without the knowledge of his parents, thus violating terms of the youth's parole.

But all this is minor compared with the accusations of at least eight area couples whose teen-age sons and daughters have disappeared. Like the parents embroiled in battles with Sun Myung Moon's Unification Church (TIME, Nov. 10), they claim that the sect has stolen their children from them. The Family says it knows nothing about the missing youths. Leader of the parents is Scranton Salesman Donald Fetterolf, whose 17-year-old son Eric left home last Aug. 21 and is still missing. The latest to disappear is David Harris, 15, of nearby Tunkhannock, whose mother thinks that he joined the Family because he talked of being "born again" and "Roman Catholics don't talk like that."

No Figures. Beset by bad publicity, the Family has changed its name to the Church of Bible Understanding. No one knows how badly the group has been hurt by the attacks. Hoppes refuses to offer figures on the size of his flock, which includes residents in two communal houses and a fluid nonresident constituency. The Family, incorporated in 1974, has centers in 15 cities in eight states and, according to tax records, is headed by one Steward Traillis. Strangely, Hoppes claims he knows nothing about the man.

Reaction of mainstream clergy to the Family is mixed. Leonard Heffner, a United Church of Christ pastor in Scranton, feels that parents these days should be grateful if their kids are involved in a group that concentrates on Bible reading rather than something worse. But Msgr. James Timlin, chancellor of the Scranton diocese, warns youths not to be "taken in" by the zealots' "easy and simple solutions to very complex problems."

A few things about this article I love. First of all, "old hard-coal country of northeastern Pennsylvania." By the time this article was published, the coal mines had been closed for decades. Perhaps I'm being nostalgic, but my memory of the Wilkes-Barre of my youth is that it was, for a small town, a fairly cosmopolitan place. Not compared to Paris or Milan, perhaps, but certainly compared to much of America and the hometowns of friends of mine. Secondly, I love the "rampage" of the "teen-age toughs." They "tossed furniture" ("that ottoman would look better over here!") "spread garbage and broke most of the windows." While unfortunate and annoying and I certainly don't want anyone coming to my apartment and doing the same, the entire passage reminds me of comedian Bill Hicks' comparing American gangs (Guns!) with British ("This weekend, some hooligans knocked over a dustbin in Shaftesbury!"). Finally, I love that the pastor prefers that impressionable kids are involved in a cult that focuses on bible study "rather than something worse." Granted, my opinion is biased, but I think potheads sitting in front of a tv and giggling are less harmful to themselves and society than any religious cult.

The article did answer one of my questions: whatever happened to The Forever Family? Did they decide to disband or just sort of fall apart? No, they just changed their name to The Church of Bible Understanding and continued with their cult activities. I tried to find more up-to-date info, but sadly, the search engine for Wilkes-Barre's Times Leader website is so primitive it doesn't recognize that words within quote marks should stay together, so that searching for "forever family" brings up any article that features either word, including obituaries and stories like "Life Lessons from Mom" and "Feds Urge Prison For Track Coach." The Scranton Times-Tribune has a good article from 2003 about the Church of Bible Understanding found here. Not surprisingly, many of the characteristics of the church and its leader, Stewart Traill, can be found in other cults, whether it is the Lyman Family or the Scientologists.

Two surprising things: one, the Church of Bible Understanding is affiliated with the antiques store Olde Good Things, which I've been to, and it's - uh-oh - a great store. A really great store, actually. Secondly, according to wikipedia, the COBU was parodied on the Seinfeld episode "The Checks,' providing another example of that oft-heard New York expression "it's just like that Seinfeld episode..."


Jim said...

Ah, Christian Brothers Carpet Cleaning. Been there and done that! I was a carpet cleaner for COBU during my 14 year stay there. I scrubbed many a rug in my day. We also talked to our customers sometimes about Jesus. Poor George, it's horrible NOT to be wanted by a cult. He was just not good enough to be in a cult where members were constantly told they were not good enough!

Jim said...

Some of my story "Fourteen Years in the Church of Bible Understanding" can be read at: