Baby deaths don't shake church's faith

Members support 2 couples who relied on God to save sick infants

Indianopolis Star/June 12, 2005
ByRobert King

Morgantown, Ind. -- Tucked away in a remote corner of Morgan County, along a country lane that snakes through thick woods, is a little church attracting attention for the deaths of some members' babies.

At their weekly Thursday night service, the church's members prayed that God's comfort would come to the parents of the two children who have died most recently. And there were acknowledgements of the church's grief over the losses.

But at the General Assembly and Church of the Firstborn, these tragedies are seen through another lens, too. In each case, the parents sought no medical assistance for their children, relying instead solely on providence to save their babies or take them home.

In this little church on Lick Creek Road, such fateful choices are seen as testimonies to a healthy faith. At Thursday's service, one man praying publicly thanked God for the example set by Dewayne and Maleta Schmidt, the rural Franklin couple convicted last month of reckless homicide after they sought no medical care for their struggling newborn in 2003.

He also prayed for Louis and Patricia Leeman, who sought no medical assistance for their premature baby last week, prompting a police investigation into the child's death.

In a church where there is no order of worship and people pray or testify or sing or preach as they feel led by the spirit, there is a sense that the rest of the world outside the church's windowless walls doesn't get what it means to live by faith -- totally by faith.

And sprinkled throughout are references to the sense that the church is in the midst of trials and that the world's failure to understand its faith is part and parcel to prophesies about persecution in the Bible.

Ollie Neal, at age 80 one of the oldest women in the church, gave up doctors when she came to the faith. That was in 1959. Neal said that the Leeman baby would not have lived even if the child had been taken to a hospital.

How does she know?

"I felt that," she said.

Children in the church have not died because they lack a doctor's care, Neal said, but because it wasn't God's will for them to live. "When you go, it's God's choosing," she said.

Brett Gladden, a 35-year-old church member who lives in Morgantown but works as a financial analyst in Indianapolis, grew up in a Church of the Firstborn congregation in Oklahoma.

He said people who focus only on the deaths of these children -- and there have been at least three since 1998 -- fail to see the many more miracles that have been witnessed by members of the church.

Gladden tells how, at age 13, he survived a ruptured appendix without medical care. For two weeks, his parents relied on prayer alone to keep him alive. Finally, when his father's faith "weakened," Gladden said he was taken to the hospital and deemed a "miracle child."

"My intestines had formed a wall against the poison. The doctors said I should have been dead within 24 hours of it bursting," he said.

Today, Gladden is the father of three children who were each born at home into the hands of a midwife gifted by God but not licensed by the state. Similarly, he said his mother lives today despite having sought no treatment for breast cancer she had in 1984.

"My view is that the word teaches 'the just shall live by faith' and that to live not of faith is a sin," Gladden said. "It is not just the medicines or doctors but putting faith in something other than God."

Larry Chapman, a church member who suffered a stroke five years ago, was taken to an emergency room after his son -- then 17 -- discovered him unconscious on the kitchen floor.

Had the decision been his, Chapman said he would have probably not chosen to go to a hospital.

Now 57, still partially paralyzed and walking with the use of a cane, Chapman is still no fan of modern medicine. But he takes blood pressure medication. "It's probably a lack of faith," he said.

However, Chapman is not alone at his church in making some special allowances.

More than a dozen of the 60 people in attendance Thursday night were wearing eyeglasses.

Among those who see corrective eyewear as an acceptable dose of health care is Ollie Neal, the church matriarch who also admits to having dentists fill cavities and pull her bad teeth. "It's not taking medicine into your body," she said. "I don't see that as seeking to save your life."

Gladden said he has health insurance in case he's "found by the road somewhere" and forced to go to a hospital.

And the reason the church has no windows -- rather than to keep attention focused on the preaching, as Neal suggests -- is to save money on property insurance, according to church elder Thomas Nation.

Views on medicine aside, the Church of the Firstborn is a place where the "brethren" meet and greet one another with a holy kiss on the lips. The women and girls wear below-the-knee-length dresses and skirts. Musical instruments are not incorporated into the worship. And at any given service, three or more preachers may step up to deliver the word.

While that formula may not be popular across the Christian spectrum, phrases in common usage around the church, such as "living by faith," are shared by many.

"Everybody lives by faith," said Carol Johnston, an associate professor of theology and culture at the Christian Theological Seminary in Indianapolis. "The question is what kind of helps for life do you see as God given and that you can use?"

Medicines, Johnston said, are derived from the natural world. And she said the Bible supports the idea of people using what God has provided. While the Morgantown church rejects medical care as an infringement on faith, Johnston said its philosophy doesn't keep it from stocking up on food, rather than taking each meal on faith.

"I think the reality is that living by faith has a lot of different levels to it. And some people sort of latch onto one thing and say we are not going to do this," Johnston said.

"I certainly have a lot of sympathy for people who want to live by faith. That is very foundational to my tradition, too. But I don't think that requires these kind of practices."

Members of the General Assembly and Church of the Firstborn in Morgantown say none of their "brethren" is forced to give up modern medicine. Larry Chapman said he is accepted in the church despite his use of blood-pressure medication. But it is clear to him that others disagree with his choices.

As Gladden, the appendicitis survivor, puts it: "We teach that you need to rely on God. But like anything, we show them love and care and kindness."

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