It’s a sunday during a july heat wave when I first walk into First Century Gospel on G Street. It’s in a rented concrete-block building that was once a NAPA auto-parts store. There’s no visible sign that it’s a church at all.
Sweat streams down my face and that of Pastor Nelson Clark and those of most of the church’s 500-odd congregants—a number that has held steady for decades. We’re all jammed into a low-ceilinged open room. Most members come to all three services every week, held on Wednesday evenings and twice on Sundays. There’s no air conditioning, and no fans in sight. The worshippers are overwhelmingly white, with a smattering of blacks. At least one married couple is interracial.
At first blush, the youth is surprising: a lot of girls, especially, in their late teens, and they look like young girls, with summer tops exposing bra straps, in wedge heels or flip-flops. Many young parents bring their very young children; the church has no nursery or daycare. Fathers seem as likely as mothers to hold a fussy baby.
The service opens with the reading of “Praise the Lord” notes from congregants detailing how God has helped them out. Thanks for healing my toddler’s damaged toenail. It couldn’t be trimmed, and one day the top part peeled right off. Praise the Lord.
Pastor Clark’s sermon this Sunday is about true devotion to God. From Luke 23, he cites the two thieves hung on either side of Christ: One mocked Jesus, while the other repented. One was doomed to an eternal lake of fire; the other rose to heaven. Pastor Clark reminds his congregants, over and over, “Only an attitude separates heaven from hell.” They stand and sing hymns.
In many ways, Nelson Clark is this church. His grandfather founded it in 1925; Clark has been head pastor since 1993. After the service, he invites me to visit him in his rented home on Front Street.
Pastor Clark is tiny—all of 133 pounds—with a glowing bald head and an equally glowing smile, even with a dead front tooth. He speaks softly but firmly, a man sure of where he stands. He has never been to a doctor, nor taken one pill of medicine. He looks a dozen years younger than his age, which is 72. We sit in the living room of his rowhouse, which contains a couch and simple lathed wooden chairs and seascapes on the walls and a threadbare green rug running up the stairs. It’s a home that appears to have remained the same since approximately 1957.
In the 20 years Nelson Clark has been First Century Gospel’s head pastor, the church’s message has also changed very little, especially in its core beliefs. Pastor Clark later sums these up in an email: how “the divine power of God … is able to heal our body without drugs or medicine; supply our needs without laid-up cash for the future; protect our family without firearms or anti-theft devices; bring about justice without legal action or attorneys; and to save our soul by a believing faith that endures to the end of our life.”
As to what may seem idiosyncratic or even absurd, such as not wearing seatbelts or correcting bad eyesight with glasses, the explanations get interesting. The problem with seatbelts, Pastor Clark says, is that “anyplace we are told to do something in case something happens is a breach of faith or denying of faith in God to protect you.” This same idea of trust applies to vision. “If God made eyes, obviously He can heal vision problems to see normally. We don’t use mechanical devices to make it better—it’s a matter of trusting God for normal vision.”
The pastor offers up anecdotes of answered prayers: a badly broken leg simply wrapped up that heals perfectly; a hand seemingly smashed to pulp in a work accident that returns to full use; any number of severe illnesses cured not in hospitals—which often, the pastor points out, fail to heal—but through the suffering congregant on his or her knees, hands clasped, praying for the grace of a cure.
The church has its own school for congregants that cuts off at 10th grade (although Clark says their education is equivalent to a high-school diploma); Herbie Schaible, who left after ninth grade, taught seventh and eighth grades there for almost two decades. Done with school, the boys get jobs and the girls tend to work either in their homes, helping out with younger siblings, or with other First Century families. No one goes off to college, to avoid the dangerous pull of the secular world. Simple work keeps congregants humble, for as Pastor Clark says, “Pride is the base of all other sins.” He concedes that outsiders would see the limits on education as restrictive.
Pastor Clark’s presence is quite gentle; he doesn’t seem to be trying to convince me of anything beyond what he believes, a faith that takes on a flavor not of adamancy, but sureness. He is a man at home.
Pastor Clark describes why Brandon Schaible, and Kent Schaible before him, died: “God’s healing power was somehow hindered, because of a spiritual lack in Herb and Catherine. It could be anything from a wrong attitude to adulterous thoughts, but something allowed Satan to take his life. Both Herb and Catherine are well aware of that.”
The Schaibles themselves, in other words, were to blame for their children dying—not for failing to doctor them, but because something was lacking in their relationship with God.
It’s a severe standard of faith. But the severity only makes the essential question richer: How can Herbert and Catherine Schaible believe as they do?