After seeing some of the other posts I felt prompted me to write this long winded account of my memories from 1975-76 with a little added hindsight and as it unfolded, I saw it needed to be in a post by itself as some of the information I think might be beneficial to the newer members who have joined recently. [Some of this I already shared previously], some I think may help clarify some sentiments of when the transition took place and the deception took over.Some is personal testimony, but it all ties together.
When I joined in April of 1975, I did not see Stewart as the Head but saw Jesus as the Head….I met many who seemed to almost idolize Stewart back then, but I didnt. I already had experienced manipulative con men in my life and didnt meet Stewart for over a month after moving in.
I was already saved for 2 yrs and engaged to be married when I moved in ‘temporarily’ since the Westervelt fellowship on Staten Island had a fire when they were out witnessing and needed help with affording and furnishing a new fellowship…
I offered my house in Midland Beach but it was too small, so I agreed to move in a while with my furniture and money since I had a job, so I meant to only stay a month or two till my wedding that was scheduled for 5/25… I was befriended at work by Barbara Walden.The leader was a bright young man named John Bevilaqua.
I met and liked the Center Leader Dave & his wife JoAnn Rizetto. I used to try to find out how old they were and they would never tell me their ages… Dave would ask me if he told me he wondered if I would listen to him still? I was older than my years even back then since I grew up in a large family [14 kids] and so I was accustomed to large family groups in a house…one of the reasons I liked the FF and moved in.
Jesus was the leader of the early fellowship not Stewart although he appeared to be the physical representation of a leader and worked the fellowship into asking him to be, when you went down the totem pole to the newer members like me that were not of the original 100, but like a next generation, I saw Stewart to be like a bishop or bible teacher.
When I first met him, he teased me about my unwillingness to use an RSV to memorize my 12 verses…I didnt trust any bible at the time but my ‘King Jimmy’ as he called it…that also put me off on him a little longer..
I liked the little ‘nuggies’[nick name for mini bible studies] in the fellowships which nourished me and helped me gain understanding in God’s word… Not in the big lengthy studies Stewart dictated to us.They were so heady and we were so rushed to write them down with little time to ingest and digest…
The witnessing techniques were what sold me on joining…
I had been saved 2 yrs like I said and my way of witnessing was to carry a shopping bag of New Testaments[ “the greatest is love” book form of the NT and a large bible. I would ride the public transportation in NYC and sit next to anyone without a newspaper and open it widely so their eyes would have to see it.
I always opened to 1Cor6:9-10 the verses that the Holy Spirit cut me in half with when I was 19…then I would give the person a NT with a chick tract and address of a church…that was it. I knew nothing more to do. I thought only a minister could lead someone to Jesus.
After visiting and going along with the Staten Island fellowship on evening witnessing excursions, I asked for a copy of a sinners prayer as I wanted my fiance to get saved but he hadnt yet. They told me not until I memorized my 12 heavies.. which I did in KJV…and was teased for using it like I said before.
I wasn’t humanly impressed by Stewart and that helped me and maybe many others who joined during that era. Jesus was Lord not Stewart.
Stewart’s power was still limited more to when he was actually in your presence, like at Big Meetings and later at special center meetings.
The group was growing rapidly and he had to get around more often to gain a stronger foothold in the fellowships. He paid some attention to me when he saw me. I was told by a very dedicated friend and sister,Sharon Sullivan that I trusted in her devotion to Jesus, that Stewart had the ‘gift of discernment’ and I was curious as I wanted to know what he saw in me so I began to pay more attention to what he said and listen more at the center meetings.
At the time we still also went to churches sometimes. I brought the fellowship with John Bevilaqua as leader to Gateway Cathedral on SI since I frequented it before joining the FF. in the middle of the meeting, John stood up and said “WHAT SPACE!!” and we all got up and walked out.
I was really embarrassed at his outburst as the Pastor was teaching. Still I wanted to learn how to boldly witness and get more nuggies so I stopped going to church and learned my 12 verses. I got my button. I was so proud and wanted my sinners prayer and got it.
Immediately I went to my family and tried to convert all of them. My parents said I was brainwashed and told my fiance that he better beat some sense into me…He started to come to the fellowship and contest the meetings.I was still seeing him and leaving fellowship to go for drives and talk.
He was getting increasingly agitated by my moving in and one night was driving very erradically around the island and the Holy Spirit showed me his heart!
The Holy Spirit began to speak through me!!….telling him that he was driving the old bus route that his father used to take him on when he was young. His father died when he was 9 yrs old.
I knew nothing about my fiance’s father, but the Holy Spirit did!
It was amazing and he got angrier. He sped up and went passed Clove Lakes and I looked at him and said, “he is buried over there!”
He stopped the car turned it around and said ” who’s been talking to you? How did you know that?” [there was a cemetary across the street from the park~ he then pulled up by it and got out.It was dark. He told me to shut up , but when the Spirit speaks you cant…I began to walk and went right to his father’s grave!! He was flipping out by this point and said “How do you know where he is buried?”
I said the Holy Spirit was showing me…He walked away from me , tears in his eyes….
I looked around and in the Spirit, I saw a little boy behind another gravesite, sitting, sobbing telling God to give him back and to take him instead…I walked over to him and told him.
He busted out crying.[now this was a 27 yr old Viet Nam vet.. they dont cry easy!] I told him what he told God back when he was 9.. and that he was angry at God ever since for watching his father get buried and him still living..That was it for him, he said “Get back in the car!”…… He said ” where is that prayer?”
We drove back to the Seneca St.Fellowship about a mile up the road. I told him that I needed to be sure that he knew what he was doing and felt I couldnt simply lead him to Jesus there.
He came into the fellowship and before everyone he knelt down and prayed for forgiveness and asked Jesus into his heart! He started coming over every night for a while. We were almost at the date for our wedding but now the Sharon and the others were telling me that since he was a ‘babe in Christ’ that I needed to wait to get married and let him ‘grow in the Lord’ first…
Because of my experience with the Holy Spirit, I listened to the older brethren. My fiance came over for more evening bible studies but he didnt like the idea of postponing the wedding but he relented and still came by.
I told him that he would have to move in but that was not going to happen. He said he did everything he was supposed to do as to getting saved but that they were in fact brain washing me.They told me that I needed to go away for a while and if he was the one God had for me that we would be reunited and he would be stronger in Jesus if I went away.
Well that is another story. I went away, he left fellowship and we broke up..Anyway I was starting to think Stewart might have the Holy Spirit and when we were out witnessing one night we found a billboard of Moon and that he was the ‘prophet to the nation” so I repainted Stewarts name into the sign and brought it to the Sept1st Big Meeting.
I thought it would impress Stewart.
My new zeal for the fellowship was growing. I was leading people to Jesus! I was however having problems with some of the people in the SI fellowship as they wanted me to move to another center to get me away from my fiance.
I gave him back his ring and moved at that meeting to Wilmington, later to Center City where I stayed most of the rest of my time in Cobu working hard to be one of the early sisters to become a group leader.
Stewart used to come there when they had Center Leader meetings in Rem’s apt on the top floor. I used to spend alot of time reading the bible downstairs late at night and he would talk to me a little here and there, asking me what I was reading and thought of what I was reading and also about my ‘mother trip’ that I was notorious for.I told him how many in the fellowship didnt have money and were out of work. He said that was a problem he was thinking about and trying to do something about.
I told him how when I moved to Wilmington under Ernie Benczak,that there were 8 of us that moved there after the Sept75 meeting and none of us had any money and that we went without food those first several days. We all earnestly looked for jobs and when I got one, I spent my first paycheck on groceries for everyone. He said that all I needed to do was to feed myself and that the others could simply get their own jobs and feed themselves!
I told him of a visit I took one weekend in Center City and saw verses all over everyone’s food stashes and how ungodly it was as well as the selfishness and lack of compassion there was for those without money or food. I said I came from a large family and no one ever went hungry when we all pitched in.He agreed that communal meals could be a good idea.
He asked me if anyone helped pay for them and I told him that those who had money chipped in for groceries and those who had no money ate free.I carried that practice over to Center City when I moved there.
I told him I’d rather make a large cheap meal and feed everyone than to just go over to Dey’s Deli and feed myself alone, knowing others were hungry.
Stewart took many ideas from the concerns of others, they werent all his ideas. He did that with nuggies people shared with him too. He could enlarge their nuggie into a bible study , using concordances and life experiences.
Many other men have done likewise and started religions without the Holy Spirit. He wasnt naiive like most in the fellowship. He was in his late 30’s and a shrewd intelligent man coming off very fatherly and cool. Most of the fellowship was under 21, naiive and easy to manipulate.Many didnt know how to use a concordance. Everyone hungered for God’s word.
Many of Stewart’s bible studies had long lists of references to look up later on and often the verses didnt match the theme of the study or made the study hard to digest. I remember trying to go through a study that had so many odd references that I thought I wasnt getting it.
I was beginning to lose confidence in my own reasoning and abilities to hear the Holy Spirit when I read the bible and we all were being encouraged to not think for ourselves but the consensus was to start to simply trust Stewart since he had a pipeline to the Holy Spirit and that we needed further empower him and the church to put our money together to start a bible school or training center.
Come now let us reason together was now come now and listen to Stewart. We needed to get centralized and organized. He convinced the center leaders as they were with him from the beginning.He dazzled with words, in the bible and publicly bold and unconventional, very appealling back in the day…He was to be emulated.
Brothers wanted to be like Stewart.Sisters wanted to please him and become eligible to get married. He set the standards as he was wise and disscerning by popular belief and legend. He promised to do a new ‘marriage bible study’ in the near future.
We were already a fellowship now turned church and got the tax exemption and new name, but had to learn how understand the bible and to use it right and that it was accepted by most that Stewart being so close to the Holy Spirit, had to be the head [replacing Jesus in actuality] since he was said to have had discernment and part of de-stressing Stewart, so he could focus on writing bible studies was to free him from the mundane which included the plane we got him almost a year earlier [so he could travel quickly between fellowships and personally teach], since alot of what he sent out got watered down,[looking back that watering down was really the Holy Spirit watering us so we were mostly thriving spiritually when we had our nightly bible studies].
Stewart may have given many of the initial bible studies to the center leaders, but we had the Holy Spirit and the word of God is alive and active, so many of us were doing well, better with his absence, yet trust in him grew out of proportion.
So that was also why it seemed so important to get his kids back from Shirley, so he could be a right ‘leader’. Then it was announced that we would pool all of our money and give to each according to our needs..
All our debts ‘would’ be paid off collectively and food would be bought wholesale and jobs would be created. Idealistically it sounded good. Rem saw through some of it and after the announcement that Stewart was going to crown Gayle as Queen Esther, Rem split![but that is another story]
Now with verses like “My thoughts are not your thoughts…”….. I spoke to some brethren about it and it seemed the more Stewart was being revered, the less anyone questioned his teachings…
This was the transition time 1975-76 and the core group was loyal…and it was important to get Rem back for solidarity..a collection was taken up at a Big Meeting shortly before we started handing over our paychecks.
I donated $100- specifically for that telling them if Stewart didnt go out to Cali to get Rem that I wanted it back… I tried for a while but never got it back.
Each ran their centers a little differently. I remember in 75 before leaving NYC to go to the PHILI center, Dave R in NYC was really on fire [always loved Jesus and it showed!]and fairly good St copycat [with his mannerisms, baby Z and nodding head as he taught].. as well as Vinny diPaulo..[adorable mini St!]All the bros were emulating St in NYC!
It seemed the way to go at the time.NYC was run very serious. Phili was more laid back and even allowed music and guitar playing and when I for one , wanted to go away to visit my family, Rem allowed it. I didnt feel imprisoned but free to serve Jesus as did many who have fond memories from that era, because the Holy Spirit was with the majority of us in our fellowships.
I saw Stewart more as a human figure and not a king but while he was separated from Shirley I felt sorry for him, so that led me trust him more for a while. I was getting sucked in further to his trip. He was always with Gayle and the rumors of Shirley having accused him ahead of their separation, of being involved with Gayle never left me.
That was a strong part of why Rem left. I knew Stewart’s type ‘in the world’ but wasnt sure how to process this ‘so called’ man of God doing such things, but I gave him the benefit of the doubt for a while going against my better judgement as I was learning daily to do more and more.
One time he mentioned that he had ‘so many bible studies’ waiting to be typed out that he could be backslid for 5 yrs and no one would catch on since they trusted him so much. He knew that I was a harder sell and so he seemed more human to me when he spoke to me privately.
I felt I shouldnt judge him for his seemingly wrong behavior since I had alot of sin in my past and Jesus forgave me so I let it go until he said that. I held that in and didnt leave the fellowship yet. It did make me start to wonder about his relationship with Jesus however since it seemed arrogant and negating the Holy Spirit’s power in the lives of those in the fellowship.
That told me that he was already backslid or just a con man.
Like I said I knew his type in the world and now I didnt like what I saw. Still at this point I was committed to staying in the fellowship and wanting it to get better.
Then When Bob Hillendbrant replaced Rem, the harshness was introduced rather quickly to the Phili center.That was around the end of May or early June 1976.He collected our paychecks , announced the purchase of a dirty run down warehouse in Camden and closed the Center City fellowship. We scattered to other fellowships, some to Upper Darby, Camden and elsewhere.
Although I had been a waitress and also worked cleaning houses and babysitting, I began working for a couple in S.Phili who had a store and became lambs. They were on a tight budget so part of my pay was a small apt in the back of the store.
I took it and used it for a mini fellowship since I was already a group leader and I could ‘follow-up’ on the lambs in Phili and did..my boss was having a baby within a month and my hours increased, but it was a little grocery store with a pool table in the back and I was allowed to witness while I worked so it was great.
I told Bob how much I liked it and that it was such a great location. He allowed me to stay there but I financed it all on my own and had brought my own furniture there. I had a couple of sisters stay over a few times, but mostly I was alone.
I called Bob nightly and got instructions and names of particular lambs who needed to be follow upped. Then I would arrange for meeting places to pick them up for the Saturday night meetings. It was getting close to the 4thJuly Big Meeting which was going to be held in NYC.
I brought a lot of lambs to a center meeting when Bob announced the new deal..dont trust older fellowship and group leaders!! I was aghast. He was portraying older members as being into the flesh and that a new thing was happening that the lambs were the favored of Stewart and that the older ones had gotten away from his teachings and needed to go to NYC to be retrained….THIS I BELIVE, WAS THE POINT OF DEPARTURE JUNE 1976!!
ICHABOD~!! THE GLORY OF THE LORD HAD DEPARTED…Stewart had gained total control of the multitude… the edge he needed to finally take over and the wolf in sheeps clothing was showing his fangs.. training up lambs to bite and devour one another~ demasculating the brothers, beating their flesh with the bible and brainwashing their minds…vconverting them into a work force that would establish his kingdom on earth.
By breaking down the older brethren, he threw them offguard as to who he really was as he got people to want to prove their faithfullness to Jesus by a new set of rules, his. Still MANY of those who loved Jesus remained, LONGER, although many we smart enough to leave in the mid 70’s. . I was one of them.
Later I returned to NYC to my family and visited the COBU several times, because I missed my brethren…Each time I went they would offer apologetics that the place was getting better and that Stewart was going to make it right and that we all needed to come back and go through the training so we would be of one mind- sacrificing it all for Jesus to obtain that dream we all shared about preaching the gospel across the nation. Those who stayed or went back, did so wanting to be part of evangelizing the nation, but had to first submit to the new training… the brainwashing…the harshness… the degradation…so many went through it as their ‘reasonable sacrifice’ and many were later delivered out and continued serving Jesus… but the damage was done…
Our spirits were being raped by the spirits Stewart was controlled by and those who stayed remained captive to the whims of a devilish con man who replaced the Holy Spirit’s guidance with his own agenda, covering it with the form of religion, but removing the power of it from individual lives and spitting out those he couldnt break…
The Holy Spirit still spoke to many hearts so Stewart or those ‘like minded’ to him caused public confessions to find out what was going on in people’s heads and then beat them up with it as well…to cause deeper submission, compliance, obedience and alienation from the outside world.
Those who tried to make things right were battered spiritually and psychologically abused for years til they finally left, receiving ‘parting gifts’ of tormenting demons who followed many for years with spirits of despair,infirmity,hopelessness, depression,suicide,failure,delusion, confusion, religion, hate, anger, disbelief, unbelief and the rest of Legion!Many have sought deliverance over the years.
Many made it through, but how many didnt? How many souls have yet to recover?