The Church of Bible Understanding, a controversial religious sect run by a reclusive, 77-year-old former vacuum-cleaner salesman, operates an orphanage in the poverty-stricken country of Haiti. where children live such in squalid conditions that Haitian authorities want to shut it down — even though the sect reported on tax returns that it spends $2.5 million in Haiti every year.
The church funds its alleged spending through a small chain of antique shops called Olde Good Things. The shops sell items salvaged from demolished buildings to upscale residents of tony neighborhoods such as Manhattan’s Upper West Side, who crave unique furnishings for their plush homes and co-op apartments.
The latest revelations about the Haitian orphanage were uncovered by an Associated Press investigation, which sent reporters to Haiti to check out the orphanage for themselves, but the church has been suspected of functioning as a cult for since its founding in 1971.
The group was started in 1971 by Stewart Traill in his hometown of Allentown, Penn. Olde Good Things still maintains its primary warehouse in nearby Scranton. Traill is reported to live in Philadelphia, but has not been interviewed or photographed for years.
At right is a photograph said to be of Traill in 1979.
Olde Good Things is operated by Kevin Browne, who granted an interview to the AP but told the reporters that only Traill has knowledge of how the church spends its money.
“I’m not a money guy,” he said.
But as would be expected by those who have followed Traill’s career, the church leader refused to grant an interview or even a comment for the AP story, according to Browne.
The Haitian orphanage run by the church may not be Haiti’s worst, though it was placed on “warning” status by Haiti’s Social Welfare Institute. That means the Haitian government intends to close the facility, but keeps it open largely out of desperation. The already-impoverished country was devastated by a 2010 earthquake that left thousands homeless and created a generation of orphans.
“You need a place to put children,” the social welfare agency’s general director Arielle Jeanty Villedrouin told the AP. “You need to do research on parents, to reunite them with their families.”
In the 1970s, an era when religious cults thrived, Traill’s church, originally known as Forever Family, was known for aggressive recruiting of teenagers — even, some reports say, directly out of more conventional halfway houses run by traditional religions.
The church has run a number of businesses and members — who once numbered around 10,000 are now down to fewer than 100 — are reportedly required to donate up to 90 percent of their income to the church, making Traill a multimillionaire.
But questioned by AP’s reporters, Browne was dismissive.
“So many people talk so much nonsense about us,” he told the AP. “If someone had some reason or some proof of what they are claiming then I would be glad to listen because I'm interested in truth.”