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 is Dave Schaible, at 40 the closest brother in age to Herbie, who provides some pause on the way to seeing Herbie and Cathy Schaible as hopelessly lost in a bubble of their church’s teachings. (Herbie and Catherine declined to comment for this story.)

A small man with an amber goatee and an easy, straightforward manner, Dave works in construction as a painting supervisor. He has six children, aged 10 to two.

One hot night in Lawndale, Dave and his brother Richard—the next brother of nine Schaible siblings—sit at Dave’s dining room table and talk about how the burden is on us, to make sure God is listening to our prayers.

“God will show you where you’re out of line,” Dave says. “You’ve got to be willing to correct that. If our heart is right with God, He will show us a hidden resentment toward somebody, or hatred, or anything. But He’s also a jealous God, and when you put something between us and Him—it says in the Bible, ‘There should be no other gods in your life.’”

I remark that it seems an incredibly demanding command to live by.

“Yeah, but it isn’t. The things God gives us back, it overrides that. God is love.”

I’m not debating the basis of faith, but recognizing the fact of it—that is, what it seems to create in the lives of First Century congregants I am getting to know. “The world worries,” Dave tells me. “We tend not to.”

They don’t use birth control, for example. “It’s all part of God’s plan,” Dave says. “A blessing from God. If you listen to the world, it’s all money and finances. I’ve worked with super-nice guys who have maybe one or no kids who are so worried. They say, ‘You have six, how do you do it?’

“I live paycheck to paycheck, day to day. It’s such an awesome feeling. We wish more people would understand where we come from, the peace that we have. No matter what, God will take care of us.” Dave gets paid, tithes, pays his bills, gives to charity, and whatever is left over—if there is anything left over—he can spend on his family.

There is a gentleness, an ease, about Dave, not unlike Pastor Clark’s. More to the point, I can feel the seductive power of giving in, the surrendering of the world’s concerns. Theirs is a classic leap of faith, to a place that’s strict and demanding and different—and very simple. It’s a strange feeling, sitting with Dave and Richard as they talk about growing up with big brother Herbie taking over as head of their household at 26, since both of their parents died young. Sports-obsessed Herbie, who spent so many hours as a kid listening to the Phillies and Flyers on his radio headset, working the living room recliner back and forth, back and forth, back and forth so much that their father, a machinist, had to take it to work to reweld the frame. Herbie, who built a hockey net so his younger brothers could play in the street, which they’d all do every day when he came home from his construction job in Jersey, before he was a teacher; Herbie, who when their father passed went into the bedroom where Richard and the three youngest brothers waited and told them calmly, “Do what the Lord wants you to do. Read your Bible, say your prayers, take time for the Lord, respect your elders. It’s the truth.” “To this day, I remember that,” Richard says. “‘It’s the truth.’ If you belittle it, it haunts you later on.”

Listening to them is a little like driving around farmland near Lancaster and spying the pristine netherworld of the Amish: I never get that peek without a strong suspicion that they know something the rest of us don’t, though none of us makes the leap into their lifestyle. They don’t want into our world—“the world,” as First Century congregants refer to ordinary society—either.

A few stories of First Century’s pull sound like frontier tales out of Twain: Cathy’s grandmother on her father’s side was a postmistress in tiny White Earth, North Dakota, back in the ’30s. A great-aunt had a serious illness, and it just so happened that Pastor Clark’s grandfather, Ambrose, had been sending his sermons to postmasters far and wide, to share as they would. This aunt began following Ambrose’s ideas of faith, got healed, then made her way to Philadelphia before the war, where she joined First Century. Cathy’s grandfather, who’d become a welder on oil pipelines in Montana, got a job offer from Sun Oil in Philadelphia; his wife—Cathy’s grandmother—wanted to check out First Century herself, and they came to stay in 1943.

Mostly, though, backgrounds are obscure. One Sunday afternoon between services, Dave Schaible and his wife, Sally, explain why family history isn’t important to them: pride. “It says in the Bible not to focus on family genealogies,” Sally says. Instead, there was a beginning, in their families, “when they found out about the truth.” That is, God’s truth. Their families’ lives began then.

The truth. It’s a forbidding concept. I spend another summer evening talking to Dave and Will—Sally Schaible’s youngest brother, the youngest of 16 children—at the Schaibles’ dining room table. Will is a slim, brown-haired boy, with an impish grin and full lips, though there’s nothing impish or full-lipped about him. Mostly the conversation centers on Herbie, who taught Will in seventh and eighth grades—on how he’d pour a life lesson into the middle of English or history or math, “to tell us to never get pulled into anything wrong that’s going on in the world.”

I ask what he wants to do with his life.

“He’s a very good artist,” Dave tells me. “He could sit here and draw your face.”

Will shows me some of his pencil drawings, of hockey and soccer players with striking faces and large, detailed eyes. They are beautifully rendered. Will has taken some art classes, but he’s done with that now. He’s good at math, and says architecture, maybe, could be a job. Then he says, “I’m not going to go to college. I’m told by the church it’s wrong, planning out your life—you’re supposed to live day to day, depending on the Lord.”

Oh, my.

But he says it with such equanimity—it’s simply a given for him. He won’t be an architect. He’ll be done school in another couple years, when he finishes ninth and 10th grades, and then he’ll get a job.

Will leaves Dave’s house, and then it’s just the two of us—Sally has their six kids out at some ball field. We walk out onto his front porch, into a lovely warm evening.

“Do you get a night to relax a little?” I ask.

“Oh,” Dave says, “I’ll probably do something.” He nods across the street. “There’s a widow who lives over there. I’ll probably cut her grass.”

I laugh—as if he doesn’t have enough to do.

Dave shrugs. “I’m just trying,” he says, “to shine the light a little.”