Born to Believe

Page 5 of 9

The Glorys subsequently pleaded guilty to a felony count of criminally negligent child abuse; they were placed on probation for sixteen years and ordered to provide medical care for their surviving daughter in the event of serious injury or a life-threatening illness.

Eventually, they moved from their trailer to a smaller town outside of Grand Junction. At the Pea Green cemetery, they buried their son beneath a tombstone that reads, "Our Little Wrangler -- Asleep with Jesus."

After the Glorys were indicted on child-abuse charges, members of the First Assembly and Church of the First Born found themselves facing television cameras on their way in and out of church. Many thought the media stories were biased and insulting -- particularly those that described their religion as a "sect" or "cult." The church's origins date back to the 1700s, its members proudly point out, and the practices and beliefs are taken directly from the King James Bible.

Two to three times a week, members of the First Assembly and Church of the First Born file into their churches to pray. According to a 1997 directory, about 285 families belong to the seven First Born churches scattered throughout Colorado; the largest congregations are in Grand Junction and nearby Delta. The churches are located mostly in rural areas -- next to fruit orchards, across the street from corn fields -- and their members are ranchers, mechanics, businesspeople, farmers. The churches themselves are exceedingly simple. There are no organs or pianos, no stained glass or incense, not even a cross in some. Instead of tithing, members pass the hat when repairs need to be done.

The services are long, lasting at least two hours, and consist of a combination of hymns, prayers and impromptu sermons. In between, there are long moments of silence, during which the outer world seems to drift away. Many children are present; theirs are often the only voices that break the silence.

Anyone who is moved to do so can begin a hymn, pray, or walk to the podium and deliver a sermon. Filled with contrapuntal harmonies, the hymns evoke an earlier America and are filled with the suffering in this world and the glad promise of the next. To members of the First Born, Heaven is real, and so are the hot burning flames of Hell. Just as there exists a merciful God, so, too, exists Satan, who is constantly on the prowl, tempting the faithful with carnal pleasures.

The women are encouraged to stay home and raise their children. They dress in modest, calf-length skirts and do not cut their hair. This belief derives mainly from the eleventh chapter of the First Corinthians, which states: "a woman...brings shame on her head if she prays or prophesies bare-headed; it is as bad as if her head were shaved."

After the services are over, the members often stand and greet each other with a "holy kiss," a gesture that symbolizes their love for the church and for each other. On special occasions such as baptisms, they will wash each other's feet, and occasionally someone will speak in tongues.

First Born members don't drink, smoke or believe in divorce. Modern medicine, they say, was put on earth for those who don't have their strong faith. If one of their members does go to a doctor, he is not banned forever from the church, but must repent of his ways.

Some members wear hearing aids and eyeglasses and even false teeth, but these are viewed more like canes than bona fide medical devices. Others shun even dentists, and their mouths gape with holes where teeth were pulled without benefit of Novocain.

The reliance on prayer alone enriches their faith and brings them closer to God. They call upon God to heal rashes, headaches and the flu, as well as more serious ailments such as heart disease and cancer. Even pain itself is experienced differently.

When one of their children is ill, so profound and complete is their faith in God's healing power that the idea of calling upon a mere mortal -- a physician -- never enters their minds.

Time gets distorted during emergencies. It speeds up when the room is crowded with people and everybody's talking and praying and crying at once, and then slows down horribly in the moment when death slithers in.

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Eileen Welsome