Born to Believe

Even in the glare of the noonday sun, the Pea Green cemetery feels like a haunted place. Situated on a rocky bluff overlooking a highway in rural Montrose County, the cemetery is a parched jumble of tombstones and rock, drained of all life except for a copper-colored horse that lives in a neighboring pasture. It is not the specter of the lone horse, however, huddling like an agoraphobe in the shade of a lean-to, that makes the cemetery so foreboding, but the graves themselves. Most seem to be filled with infants or small children.

In the early to mid-twentieth century, when doctors were scarce and prenatal care was nonexistent, high infant mortality rates were not uncommon on Colorado's Western Slope. But for members of the First Assembly and Church of the First Born, a Christian denomination that uses prayer instead of medicine to heal the sick, the mortality rate appears to have remained high. Between 1990 and July of this year, eleven children born to members of the First Born were buried in the Pea Green cemetery.

The names of several of these children have been splashed across the pages of the state's newspapers and then quickly forgotten: Angela Sweet, a girl who was little more than a skeleton when she passed away on June 26, 1990; Warren Trevette Glory, an eighteen-day-old infant who died of meningitis on February 28, 1999; Billy Ray Reed, who died on July 9 from a common heart defect, and Ishmael Berger Belebbas, who was born dead on July 18 after lying for several days in his mother's birth canal.

In addition to these four, Pea Green holds seven more First Born children who died between 1990 and the present. With the exception of one child, who died in a fire, the causes of their deaths are not publicly available, so it's impossible to determine whether these children might have lived if they had received medical intervention. But of the four whose cause of death is known -- Angela Sweet, Warren Trevette Glory, Billy Ray Reed, even Ishmael Berger Belebbas -- authorities say each child would have had a good chance of surviving had his parents sought timely medical attention.

But those parents, devout members of the Church of the First Born, believe so wholeheartedly in the power of prayer that they never even considered that option. While their grief is as intense as that of any parent who loses a child, the sorrow is tempered by the unerring conviction that the child's death was God's will. Sanctified through their parents and utterly free of sin, the children -- or "little dolls," as one church member calls them -- are believed to be merely asleep until Judgment Day, when they will awaken and join the Lord and their families in heaven.

Since 1989, the Colorado Legislature has rebuffed efforts by law-enforcement officials to clarify state laws that currently exempt parents who use spiritual healing from charges of child abuse and neglect. Much of the opposition has come from the Christian Science Church, a denomination founded in Boston in the late 1800s by Mary Baker Eddy. Although Christian Scientists believe that prayer is an effective alternative to modern medicine, their underlying theology is markedly different from that of such fundamentalist churches such as the First Born. But according to a 1998 paper published in Pediatrics magazine, some children of Christian Scientists are also dying from illnesses that could easily have been treated.

Until the law is changed, prosecutors around the state predict these deaths will continue. And cemeteries like the Pea Green, which sells four plots for $100, will continue to do a brisk business.

"Is one of you ill? He should send for the elders of the congregation to pray over him and anoint him with oil in the name of the Lord. The prayer offered in faith will save the sick man, the Lord will raise him from his bed, any sins he may have committed will be forgiven. Therefore confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, and then you will be healed." - Book of James, Fifth Chapter.

On February 28, 1999, a Sunday afternoon, several elders from the Church of the First Born were summoned to the home of Josh and Mindy Glory, a tidy trailer on the outskirts of Grand Junction. The couple's son, Warren Trevette, just eighteen days old, lay swaddled in a blanket. He had been congested and ill for a week or so, and Mindy's father, Marvin Peterson, had asked four elders to come and pray for the infant.

For Mindy and Josh Glory, a young couple who had been raised in the Church of the First Born and always shunned so much as an aspirin, the summoning of the elders was a natural response. Like their parents, grandparents and great-grandparents before them, they believed that God was a far more effective healer than any medical doctor. Both had experienced the miraculous power of prayer.