Why Did the Schaibles Let Their Children Die?

The DA says Herbert and Catherine Shaible, members of the First Century Gospel Church, watched their two sons die because they refused to let them see a doctor. The Schaibles have another explanation: It was God’s will.

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?

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  • J joseph

    Praise Jesus Christ for someone in this wicked world still believes and demonstrates faith for the healing of body.

    • Chrissy

      I agree with this comment^^

    • ChuckV

      When it takes letting your child die of a treatable disease to show your faith, something is very wrong with your faith.

  • J Joseph

    If nothing is at stake, there is no faith required.

  • leppy240

    they are only doing what they have been taught all their lives. I am pretty sure they never expected the kids to die. they are good people under some messed up teaching.

  • S.I. Rosenbaum

    wow. What I want to know is why this is not taken to other extremes. Why don’t you say, the lord will provide food without us ever going shopping, and then wait for food to arrive? How is that different from the faith required to eschew medicine for the sick?

    I also want to know how they explain people getting better by taking medicine, without prayer. Is that the work of satan? did God favor those people for some reason without them knowing it?

    there is something about the relationship between god and bodies that makes faith healing different from waiting for groceries? Is there something fortifying about the death of these children?

    • PsychicSecretary

      Exactly. Why do we need the artificiality of food to be nourished?

      Whatever this is, it is not Christianity, which does not require human perfection for God to hear our prayers.

      And how can these churchgoers claim genealogies are not important? Have they read Genesis, Numbers, I Chronicles or Matthew?

  • hagdirt

    I was taught that God works with human hands.

  • Georgina Yang

    Miracles work through a Messiah, currently dead for the last two thousand years. The rest of the time we are bound to plebeian laws of nature.

    • Michael

      I can’t say I agree with what these people did, but in reponse to this comment:
      Newsflash: Jesus is alive.

  • kc49

    Since they opt not to wear seatbelts, I would like to know if they lock their doors.

  • Antonette

    Using their logic that using seat belts is an affront to God, saying that you don’t trust him, then using crosswalks would be too. Or obeying red lights, or not walking into traffic or trying to put out a fire that’s burning down your house …

  • DRig

    I have faith in a Christian God too, but I have faith that He has also empowered us to be able to care for ourselves. If you believe that God is all-powerful, then why can’t you believe that people have vaccines, medicines and seat belts because that is God’s will and He created intelligent people, empowered to do these things to protect us?
    Have faith and trust in God, but also understand it may be His will that you get antibiotics, vaccines and birth control.

  • jane smith

    Letting your child slowly suffocate to death as he struggles to breathe for hours and hours isn’t faith-it’s torture. These people are disgusting.

  • Max Freeman

    These vile, twisted people should be put away for life. It’s ironic how much evil is possible through religion.

    • typedriven

      They’re not vile and twisted. They are simply people who believe in the example of Christ, as they call him. I agree with you that much evil is possible through blindness disguised as religion, but you have only to read this article with an open mind to see that these are genuinely loving, trusting people. Their inability to think about the modern world is a separate issue.

      • Charles Stevens

        I agree. I am an atheist and anti-theist; when I first heard of this family I felt very much like Max but I see now that these people are mentally ill. They had no intention of harming their child and they did not want their child to get sick or die. It is the same as any other crime being done through mental illness. These people need to have their remaining children removed from their home, but imprisoning them does not seem right. They need to be institutionalized.

  • typedriven

    I have a lot of respect for people’s faith, of whatever kind. People don’t believe what they do because they have malice or a deliberate lack of logic. They have deeper reasons for their faith. Yet when it comes to something like this — letting your children die for lack of medical care because you believe that Jesus didn’t use medicine, he used faith, and that God will heal you if he chooses — just defies a very basic logic. After all, these same people drive cars with gas engines and use electricity to light up their homes. You might ask: did God give men and women their intellectual gifts to help them understand the world? Certainly, they’d say. Did men and women use those God-given gifts to understand mechanics and combustion and electricity and so forth? Certainly, they’d say. Do you use an electric chainsaw to cut wood for your carpentry projects? Certainly, they’d say. Yet, wasn’t Jesus a carpenter? Did he use an electric saw? Well . . . they’d say. So you’re saying that you’ll take advantage of almost everything in the modern world, including things Jesus didn’t have, and yet medicine, where men and women have used their God-given gifts to develop mastery over illness and death, is some sort of exception for you? The single most important thing in the modern world, provided for you by God, and you won’t use it? These people should be sent to jail, not for negligence, but for a simple inability to think.

    What adds a further kink to the logic is that these people consider themselves to be living by God’s law. Thus, if you rely on your faith, your devotion to God, for healing, then it would stand to reason that your family would be healthier than Godless families that don’t live by faith. Yet, somehow it has escaped their notice that the children of the Godless aren’t dropping dead all around them, while they are losing child after child. Seriously, it’s not that their faith is wrong. It’s a simple lack of an ability to think outside certain very narrow limits of logic, of ability to actually look at the world around them and reason about what is there. They are truly a hazard to themselves and to their defenseless children.

  • MGN

    “They have prayed for greater understanding. To understand what it is they were doing wrong, what it is that would lead God not to answer their prayers to save Kent, and then Brandon.”

    The simple answer is: there is no god! Or they just happened to pick the one wrong god out of the 500+ that are worshipped in the world today.

  • JoJoJas

    Religion is bull. Face it. The truth shall set you free.
    -from an ethical Humanist

  • LeeAnn Gerleman

    A childhood friend of mine had a Christian Scientist Mother . She never got vaccinations, or stayed home sick from school, if they got really sick, they paid a person in the Church to pray for them. One time the father and one of the children was in a rollover car accident. The little boy (2) was in a coma for over two weeks. The doctors said they could save him, But his Mom paid for practitioners to pray for him. Finally the Father (not a Christian Scientist) signed the approval for the surgery. They got a divorce over it later, but the little boy lived. but he was brain damaged, acted like a 3 year old the rest of his life. They eventually remarried many years later. My friend grew up to be a teacher and would you believe it? Married a dermatologist! LOL.