Photo by Jonathan Barkat.
On the night of April 18th, Detective Brian Peters of the Philadelphia homicide unit saw something strange—something he’d never witnessed before—when he interviewed Herbert Schaible. Herbert’s seven-month-old son, Brandon, had died earlier that evening. Herbert and his wife, Cathy, were brought downtown for questioning from their home in the Northeast.
That was because the Schaibles were already on probation for involuntary manslaughter, following the death of another son, two-year-old Kent, in 2009.
Both boys had died of bacterial pneumonia, which most of the world treats successfully through vaccination or, in the event of an infection, antibiotics. But Herbie and Cathy Schaible are members of First Century Gospel, a nondenominational Baptist church on G Street in Feltonville that believes strictly in divine healing—meaning no vaccinations, no medicine, no doctors. Prayer, its members believe, and believe fervently, is the path to conquering illness or injury. The members reject many other mainstays of modern life. They don’t believe in home ownership. (Everyone rents.) Or birth control. Or seatbelts. Or eyeglasses. Or college degrees.
None of that was what was strange to Detective Peters, however.
Peters likes to get to know people a bit, make human contact, before the formal interview. And Herbie Schaible, 44, a tall man dressed in a flannel shirt and jeans, with short-cropped hair, was perfectly willing to explain, calmly: Healing occurs through God’s will. Only God’s will could have saved his son. He said this several times, and would repeat it in his statement when he was asked if he regretted not taking Brandon to a doctor. “No, I don’t regret it,” Herbie said, “because we believe that the only way is the right way and that is through God. I would change places with either of my sons. But it’s God’s will. He is the healer of our bodies.”
Cathy Schaible told detective Jimmy Crone the same thing. A small, quiet, deferential woman who wholeheartedly abides by church teaching that her husband is in charge of family decisions, Cathy said, simply, “We pray and ask God to heal … the way Jesus did when He was on Earth.”
But even more surprising than the belief that only answered prayers could heal their son was the demeanor of both Herbie and Cathy. They were low-key. Calm. Very calm. Matter-of-fact, one might say. Peters and Crone have seen a lot of things in their years of talking to suspects and family members of murder victims, but never that.
There was something else Detective Peters had never witnessed: children so well-behaved. Six of the Schaibles’ seven living children—three-year-old Nolan was with his grandmother—had come to police headquarters with their parents. As Herbie and Cathy were questioned, their children sat together on a bench, quietly, and waited for two hours. Seventeen-year-old Herbert, the eldest, was in charge. Peters and Crone had never seen such polite, nice children, obviously well cared-for, brought into a police station.
Nor parents so calm in the face of the sudden death of a child. Their second child to die in four years.
There is an explanation for the attitude that befuddled the detectives. The Schaibles’ relationship with God is, far and away, the most important thing in their lives; everything springs from it. So their faith trumps even their love for their children. The night Brandon died, the outside world—through the legal system, in the questions of the detectives—was asking for an explanation, which placed Herbie and Cathy directly in the place they feel most comfortable: within the dictates of their faith. Why hadn’t they taken Brandon to a doctor even when it was apparent he was quite sick? To our ears, it sounds absurd. In their minds, it’s fundamental: Brandon could only be saved by God’s will.
Not that it has been easy. Later, alone and with family, they would break down and cry, grieving for their second dead son.
And now Herbert and Catherine Schaible face third-degree murder charges, for not getting medical help for Brandon, for letting the pneumonia he developed kill him. Their trial is months away. Herbie is in prison—the judge is worried about him fleeing. Cathy is under house arrest at her parents’ home on Roosevelt Boulevard. Some of the remaining children are being cared for by Herbie’s youngest brother, others by a cousin.
Their family has been torn apart, but the Schaibles remain steadfast in their faith—a faith that if anything, says their pastor, is now stronger. 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 Schaibles’ story, and that of First Century Gospel, is large. Two children are dead. They may be dead because their parents practice a brand of Christianity that seems straight out of the Dark Ages. The D.A., however justified in charging them with murder, is rubbing up against the American founding principle of religious freedom. It is a case that may, in fact, threaten the very existence of their church.
And it’s large because of its strangeness. We want to know how you get here, where Herbie and Cathy Schaible have landed. Not the legal trouble they’re now in—that path is clear enough—but rather, their brand of faith. These two things—being accused of murder and their faith—are firmly intertwined.
It is difficult not to pass judgment, to resist dismissing the Schaibles’ beliefs as flat-out stupid or crazy. But such judgment makes the Schaibles, and their church, impossible to understand.
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?
Brandon Schaible first seemed really ill on Monday, April 15th. He had vomited from Friday night into Saturday morning, had some diarrhea, but neither seemed serious. On Monday he was still drinking milk, but his breathing wasn’t right. He scratched his head—remnants of a yellow, scaly rash, possibly cradle cap, that he’d had for months. Cathy had looked it up in the dictionary.
Brandon had been to a doctor just once: He was born at home, but when he was 10 days old, Cathy and Herbie took him to a city health-care clinic on Cottman Avenue to have him checked out—part of the terms of their probation after Kent’s death in 2009.
Kent’s pneumonia had started with what the Schaibles thought was a cold. For better than a week, they prayed for him; on the 11th day, Herbie found him dead in his crib. Herbie called a funeral director, who is required to inform the city’s medical examiner’s office when the deceased is a young child, which moved the ball to the district attorney’s office. In a preliminary hearing, the medical examiner noted that Kent’s pneumonia had been treatable. The Schaibles were convicted of involuntary manslaughter and sentenced to 10 years’ probation, with the stipulation that they take the rest of their children for regular medical examinations and seek medical help should one fall seriously ill.
By Tuesday night, April 16th, Cathy was a little concerned. Brandon was growing restless, fussy. She told Herbie that Brandon’s breathing had gotten heavy; his nose was stuffed up. He was eating less. That night, she laid him next to her in bed.
Brandon woke up every hour. He was crying a lot. Cathy would coax him back to sleep.
That night, Herbie called Pastor Clark and asked him to pray with them, over the phone, for Brandon to be healed.
Assistant pastor Ralph Myers, Cathy’s maternal uncle, came to their house on Rhawn Street Wednesday morning a little after eight, after getting a call from Pastor Clark. Brandon’s breathing had gotten worse. Cathy and Herbie were going to ask Pastor Myers to anoint Brandon, but Herbie decided not to. Instead, the pastor and Herbie and Cathy stood together, and the pastor prayed for Brandon to be healed. The pastor was there for about 45 minutes.
Herbie stayed home from teaching that day. Through Wednesday, Brandon’s breathing got worse. He was crying and fidgety. Most of the time, Herbie and Cathy took care of him in the living room. They rocked him on the recliner. Herbie asked his brother Dave to call their other siblings to pray for Brandon.
Herbie called Pastor Clark again, and asked him, too, to pray for Brandon. Pastor Clark testified in June that he said that maybe Herbie could call his probation officer, given the terms of their probation about seeking medical help. During sentencing in the 2010 trial, Cathy’s lawyer had pleaded with the judge for active DHS oversight of the Schaibles to make sure the remaining children got medical care, because it was obvious the parents would continue turning to God instead of doctors. The judge rejected that idea out of hand. Mandating social-service oversight, she said, wasn’t the role of the courts.
Now Herbie said to Pastor Clark that if they called anyone, it would be a denial of faith in God to heal Brandon.
The boy’s breathing, Wednesday into Thursday, became more labored; he took a few ounces of whole milk, and some water. Herbie and Cathy thought the milk might be too strong. He wasn’t eating solid food. They took turns holding Brandon. They had to hold him because he was fussy and kept trying to scratch his scaly scalp.
From about 12:30 on during the day on Thursday, Herbie looked after his son. Brandon took only a few swigs of milk. His coloring was bad.
A little after 4:15, Cathy was in the living room, and Herbie told her to pray. It seemed that Brandon had stopped breathing, but they weren’t going to give in. He was still warm, and they prayed for him. They had all of their children pray that their baby brother would be restored.
Herbie called Cathy’s parents, and they came from their house on Roosevelt Boulevard. Herbie’s brothers Dave and Richard came, too. Herbie was holding Brandon. He had to be strong for his other children. He couldn’t break down crying.
Pastor Myers got the call from Cathy’s father: Brandon hadn’t shown any movement for two hours. Herbie wanted him to come.
Pastor Myers called Pastor Clark and told him that Herbie thought Brandon had passed, that he was going to the house and would let Pastor Clark know what he found when he got there. Pastor Myers called Pastor Clark from Herbie and Cathy’s house: Brandon appeared not to be breathing, not to be living. Did Pastor Clark want him to call a funeral director?
Pastor Clark told him that was really up to Herbie. Herbie said yes, make the call. Pastor Myers called the funeral director, who in turn called the medical examiner.
That evening, police took Brandon to the medical examiner’s office. He appeared to be severely dehydrated. His eyes were sunk in their sockets. His lips were dry. His scalp had a scaly or flaky rash, without much hair. His cheeks were yellowish, with a cobblestone texture, perhaps because of dehydration or as part of the rash he had on his scalp. Tests revealed that he’d died from bacterial pneumonia in combination with dehydration, due to a strep infection.
“The manner of death in this case,” the medical examiner would testify at a June preliminary hearing, “was homicide.”
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.”
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.”
The devout worship of God—what Dave Schaible calls love—is something else to Alice: fear. Alice (not her real name) left First Century 14 years ago, when she was 18.
Alice says she had been sexually abused by two older brothers; both her parents were dead, of medical problems she now believes were treatable. She was depressed to the point of attempting suicide, and had lost her faith in the church. “I realized that I was being lied to,” she says. She had, for example, been forced to walk around her whole childhood with terrible vision. “I was told if I was leading my life right, I could see,” she says. “That it was punishment from God.”
An aunt who had left the church invited Alice to stay with her in Colorado. Alice was warned by her family that if she got on the plane it would crash, which freaked her out so much that her aunt had to fly a son to Philly so he could fly back out with Alice.
Even in Colorado, she says, the stranglehold of First Century was a form of post-traumatic stress. Leaving the church can feel like not just a shift in lifestyle, but the loss of existence, given that members, most of whom live in Northeast Philly, go to school and socialize and worship with each other almost exclusively. Most marriages occur within the church.
In Colorado, Alice went to a doctor for the first time, and was vaccinated. Yet she continued to be afraid. She often had terrible cramps; a relative offered aspirin. Alice didn’t want to take it. Her aunt told her that if anybody asked, she made Alice swallow the aspirin. As she took them, Alice prayed: Please don’t let it work. I’m sorry I took it.
Over coffee, Alice says she’s better now. She’s relocated back here. She works in the medical field, wears glasses, worships at a new church, and would like to create a halfway house for others who want to make the leap away from First Century but are afraid.
“I hear about people leaving all the time,” she says. They need a halfway house, she adds, to help get the ominous warnings of what God will allow to happen to them, drilled in by the First Century faithful, out of their heads.
To some extent, Nelson Clark has been down this road before. In the early ’90s, there was a measles outbreak among the children in the Faith Tabernacle and First Century congregations. (Clark’s grandfather was a member of Faith Tabernacle, a similar church, before leaving to found First Century.) Five Faith Tabernacle children died; First Century lost one. No one faced legal trouble, but the city’s health commissioner ordered medical teams to go door-to-door in the affected neighborhoods to check on children. Pastor Clark remembers it well. His son Ambrose—his only child—had recovered by the time a doctor knocked on their door on Front Street.
This time, it’s different. Pastor Clark is worried that assistant district attorney Joanne Pescatore, who is trying the third-degree murder case against Herbert and Catherine Schaible, wants to close down his church.
At the end of August, I spend a second afternoon with Pastor Clark in his home. His tone has shifted. Early on, right after the Schaibles were arrested last spring, his attitude with the press seemed practically cocksure. He insisted that Herbie Schaible, as decision-maker for his family, would never call a doctor if another of his children became sick. “Oh no,” Pastor Clark told a reporter, “that thought would never enter his mind.”
It must now, he says. Recently, Pastor Clark was visiting Cathy at her parents’ home; some of her children came for a supervised visit, and little Nolie, now four years old, rushed into her arms on a dead run and would not let go. “Herb will have to speak for himself in court,” Pastor Clark says. “He’ll have to convince both courts, family and criminal, that he’s sorry that he didn’t follow the court orders—though he’s not sorry that he followed God.” If he doesn’t, Pastor Clark says, there is no hope: The Schaible family will be ruined. Little Nolie and his brothers and sisters will be lost, lost to the world.
Both Herbie and Cathy now seem halfway convinced, Pastor Clark says, that following the court’s orders for medical care doesn’t mean they don’t trust in God, though Cathy might be the harder parent to break. “She is so exacting,” Pastor Clark laments. “She can’t get past that point.” She told her pastor: “If I literally place my child in a nurse’s hands, you are telling me I didn’t do it? But I did do it.” Clark says, “She struggles with that.”
It’s a strange irony—a pastor urging a congregant to relax in terms of a church belief in order to save her family. And it also gives a window into Cathy, who is described by everyone within the church as quiet and kind and devoted and always deferential to her husband. But she can also come off as hopelessly withdrawn and indecisive. Even her lawyer and social workers assigned to her can never divine what she’s thinking, or whether she even knows her own mind. But perhaps it is time to let our judgment rest: After all, shouldn’t people who say they are living as they wish be left alone to do exactly that?
The answer isn’t so obvious when two children are dead.
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.