The Church of Bible Understanding (CBU) has a checkered past, to put it mildly. Founded in 1971 in Pennsylvania by former vacuum cleaner salesman Stewart Tanner Traill, the church soon morphed into a network of more than a hundred hippie communes where believers worked long hours for little pay. The organization had many of the hallmarks of a cult, including a leader — Traill — who claimed that only he could understand the true word of God. He also discouraged disciples from dating, and pressured them to cut off contact with their families.
Over the years, as membership dwindled, CBU made its money in various ways. A used-van business and a carpet-cleaning enterprise helped bring in cash (the latter was nicely lampooned on an episode of Seinfeld). These days, so do successful high-end salvage businesses in Los Angeles and New York that sell opulent chandeliers for $15,000 and fancy fireplace mantels for $8,500.
But naturally the church also solicited donations, with the promise that the money would be spent on helping poor families in Haiti. And that’s what happened — sort of.
In November 2013, the AP investigated claims that the church was at fault for running sub-standard housing [for children] in Haiti after the two homes the church runs received a failing grade from the Haitian agency that monitors [such projects]. “… Even though they claim in IRS filings to be spending around $2.5 million annually, the home for boys and girls was so dirty and overcrowded … that the government said it shouldn’t remain open.”
Subsequently, Haitian authorities revoked CBU’s accreditation — but somehow the facilities didn’t actually close. That cost 13 children their lives in February of this year, when one of the homes suffered a devastating fire. Two adult caretakers also died.
Authorities suspect the fire started because the home used candles instead of a functioning generator or battery in a country where power failures are frequent.
After that tragedy, the AP dutifully scrutinized the church anew and interviewed local sources, and found that
… [F]or the death of each child…, parents said [the church] offered to pay just $50 to $100 in family compensation — along with $150 for funeral-related costs such as new clothes and transportation.
That comes out to about $3,000 total — one-fifth the price of one of those chichi chandeliers. And it’s not like CBU can plead poverty. The church has $19 million in assets, including
… a 12,000-square foot house in Coral Springs, Florida where Traill lived with his wife, exempt from state property taxes on religious grounds.
Whether CBU will be forced to issue a monetary mea culpa that approaches at least a semblance of decency is an open question.
Haitian prosecutors have begun a criminal investigation into the church’s homes, which held 154 children at the time of the fire, according to the national child-welfare institute. The institute finally shut down the homes after the fire, and [authorities] took 28 children into custody to be reunited with parents or family members. More than 100 other children have fled.
According to some of the adolescents who used to live in the CBU institutions, the unsanitary and unsafe conditions were only the beginning of the children’s ordeal.
Anaika Francois, 19, told the Associated Press that she entered the homes at six because her parents were too poor to take care of her and her little sister. She said children with bed-wetting issues from about that age were physically punished. In bad cases, they were stretched across a table and spanked by the monitor or head of the orphanage, she said. “That would often produce marks, in which case the monitor would give you a bath with warm salt water,” she said. “The marks would disappear in two or three days.”
This is easy to believe. Despite its hippie origins, CBU always liked discipline and punishment.
In September 1982, four members of the church were convicted in Philadelphia for beating Traill’s then 13-year-old son with a belt and a board, seriously enough that he was hospitalized.
It’s impossible to untangle whether the church’s activities in Haiti were genuinely intended to do good, or if the whole thing was set up to extract lots of cash from donors and the government. What’s incontrovertible is that pastor Traill, who died in 2018, lived in splendor in a 12,000-square-foot manse, while his Haitian charges grew up in conditions right out of Oliver Twist.
And now… thirteen kids are dead (God –> mysterious ways), and their families are being fobbed off with a pittance.
This, too, is the face of Christian charity. As is this and this and this and this and this and this and this and this. Remember those stories, and many more besides, next time a Jesus follower waxes poetic about his or her tribe’s superior kindness and generosity.
(Screenshot via YouTube)