A First Century Gospel Church member tells me about another member who gave in. His daughter was four or five and got very sick, and her father took her to the hospital, where she stayed for a while. The father now is under court order to take her for medical care if she has more problems.
The member who tells me this ponders: “So they both got court orders to get medical care—one member took his daughter. Herb did not take his son. Who is right? I don’t know. It really makes you decide what you believe is the truth.”
The detectives who took Herbie and Cathy Schaible’s statements on the night Brandon died were stunned at their seeming offhandedness in the face of losing a second son. But how they really feel, Dave Schaible says, is another matter. Alone with Dave, Herbie cried over Brandon’s death. It was painful for Herbie to be portrayed by the legal system, as Dave believes he has been, as uncaring, or “cuckoo in the head. Herb really wanted to stand up in court and say, ‘I’m not that way! The God’s honest truth! I’m not that way!’ What people don’t understand is that we live for our children.”
In the end, what’s most stunning about First Century members is the spiritual hardship they’ve chosen. No matter how wrong—or ludicrous—praying for a sick child instead of taking him to a doctor might be, the burden of that failure rests with Herbie and Cathy Schaible in a way that really is beyond the legal system: God failed to save Kent, and then Brandon, because of some spiritual roadblock in Herbie and Cathy’s relationship with Him.
Imagine trying to live with that—with the belief that your prayers went unanswered because there was, in fact, something wrong with the prayers. Something wrong with you. It’s hard for an outsider to make sense of that.
Yet as I keep going to services, there’s also no getting around the congregants’ severity of purpose. They have chosen a path to their truth. On this point, they command respect: That path is narrow. There are no shortcuts. In this way, too, they’re at cross-purposes with the world in which the rest of us live.
At services through the heat of July into August, Pastor Clark keeps hitting the contest between our faith in God and the Devil’s stranglehold on us, a constant refrain. There are few empty seats. At every service, hymns—“Look to the Lamb of God” and “Christ Receiveth Sinful Man” and “Why Do You Wait?”—rise sweetly into the unrepentant dead air of late summer.
I sit in the back, near the bookshelves of slim primers for young children to read during the service. One Wednesday night, a little girl can’t reach an open shelf. I offer to help, and she eyes me for a moment—not in suspicion, exactly, more in wonder: Who are you? You are … different. She relents, handing me her books. I put them on the high shelf, and then we shyly look at each other again for a moment, before she turns and slips back, to the safety of her family and church.