"I hurt for them," she said of the Schaibles. "I also get fed up and angry for them. I feel bad for the kids. I'm just tired of seeing the children die."
First Century Gospel, which split years ago from Faith Tabernacle in North Philly, has been well-documented for its belief in "faith-healing," the notion that seeking medical care is for nonbelievers and that healing is a reward for faith. Members are not allowed to go to the doctor or get vaccinations. They also do not own property, purchase insurance or attend college.
"They think that if they don't do everything exactly the way they're taught in church . . . they're going to burn in an eternal lake of fire and it's never going to end," Stephanie said. "I used to have that fear. I still have episodes [of post-traumatic stress disorder]."
'Giving Satan glory'
As a child, Stephanie said, she contracted measles and chickenpox and got very sick on at least one occasion, but eventually recovered.
"It was just a way of life. And when you get sick it was, 'You kids go and get on your knees [and pray],' " she recalled.
Stephanie said Herbert and Catherine Schaible, who were held for trial yesterday on third-degree murder charges, were also her former teachers at the church's Northeast Philadelphia parochial school, which goes through 10 th grade. She said that a cousin of the Schaibles, Suzy Schaible, also died years ago, during childbirth.
In 1991, a child at the school died during a measles outbreak. It's a case Stephanie remembers vividly.
"She had a twin brother and they are relatives of mine," she said of the deceased child.
"It's sad to think I have so many family members that are being oppressed like that," said Stephanie, one of two former church members who spoke with the Daily News.
As one of nine children in her family, Stephanie said she grew up in the church, where large families are common.
As a child, she said, she was sexually abused by two older brothers and some of her male cousins – something she did not tell anyone about until recently, in part because of the church's teachings.
"They tell you if something bad happens, you pray about it and then you don't talk about it," she said. "If you talk about bad things, you're giving Satan glory when you should be giving God glory."
By the time she reached her mid-to-late teens, she had already begun to question some of the church's teachings. But what really dashed her beliefs, she said, is when her father died of an undiagnosed form of cancer and her mother suffered a fatal heart attack a month later.
"I was doing exactly what the church said. I repented of my sins, [got] rid of my worldly possessions, and when your loved one dies, there’s such a feeling of deception,” she said. “It makes you lose your trust in people and your trust in churches. The more I questioned things, the more [they] contradicted themselves."
The emotional pain was so great, Stephanie said, that when she was 18, she began cutting and burning herself. At one point, she said, she even thought of committing suicide.
Around that time, one of her family members who had left the church and moved out of state offered her a chance to come visit. Despite her fear, Stephanie went, and as time passed, she decided she wouldn't return to the church, she said.
Once she left the church, she began to live life as others do, she said. She went to a doctor for the first time. She got vaccinated. But while she was free from the fear mongering, her childhood teachings resonated in the back of her mind.
"I still remember I had cramps so bad I was in a fetal position crying. My relative stood in front of me with two aspirin. She said, 'You need to take these.' I said, 'No.' She said, 'Take them, and if anybody asks, I made you take them.' I took them and I prayed and said, 'Please don't let it work. I'm sorry I took it,' " she recalled. "Part of me knew that the church was misguided and wasn't teaching the truth, but part of me [still believed it]."
Eventually, she said, she realized she could enjoy life without the constant fear that something bad would happen to her. She has attended college, has moved back to the area and, ironically, is studying to work in the medical field.
"I don't walk in fear anymore. When I go to church, I get to be on fire for God," she said.
One thing that has not been restored, however, is her relationship with her family, she said. Many of her relatives still do not speak to her. But one younger brother briefly moved in with her and has since left the church.
'We give the truth'
First Century Gospel worships in a nondescript one-floor hall the church rents on G Street near Annsbury. At a recent Sunday service, the hall was packed with a few hundred well-dressed people, with the men wearing collared shirts or suits and the women wearing dresses or blouses and pants.
Pastor Nelson Clark, whose grandfather and namesake founded the church in 1925, began the 75-minute service with prayer, during which he prayed for "the families who've lost loved ones," asking that God assure them that "those that have passed on in the faith will receive the promises." He also prayed for the families who are "held by authorities," who are being "persecuted and prosecuted."
After a few hymns accompanied by an organ, Clark read praise notes of healing submitted by members. One such note described a family member's deliverance from "pain in their teeth and gums."
"The devil had hindered and oppressed them, especially when eating or drinking any kind of cold food or beverage," Clark read. "We are praising God for the improvement and believing that they are permanently delivered by God."
After the service, Clark declined to be interviewed. When asked about the claims of the two former members who spoke with theDaily News, he said, "We feel we give the truth. If they didn't feel it was the truth, they leave."
The fact that First Century and Faith Tabernacle have existed in the city this long is somewhat surprising, according to Shawn Peters, author of When Prayer Fails: Faith Healing, Children, and the Law.
Peters said faith-healing congregations are typically found in rural areas or isolated on the West Coast.
"Oftentimes they're isolated precisely because they don't want people to scrutinize them," he said.
It is for that reason, Peters said, it is hard to estimate how many faith-healing congregations exist.
"Unfortunately, we don't find out about these congregations until something terrible happens, not just to one child but several children," he said.
'A lot of phoniness'
Eric Blake, another former member who was reared in First Century, described its teachings as "brainwashing."
"Just like any false teaching or any other cult, they cut you off from the outside world. No college; [they] don't read any books. When you put that in somebody's head, that is what they believe," the Mount Airy resident said.
Blake, 53, who is African-American, estimated that black members once comprised 25 percent of the congregation, although the ratio is smaller now. Blake also attended the church's school, but said he saw things that led him to question the religion.
"I saw a lot of phoniness. The things that they were saying that you'd be in trouble for with God, some of the leaders were doing the same thing and nothing was happening to them," he said. "And then I looked around at the world and nothing was happening to people in the world that were doing the things that they were saying was bad. So I was like, 'Well, I'm in the world, let's go out there and experience life.' "
Like Stephanie, Blake left the church around age 18 – roughly 35 years ago – a move that caused a rift with his mother. When he got married years later, his mother did not attend the wedding at the advice of church leaders, he said. The two remained on rocky ground until she died in 1996.
"It was hard mentally and spiritually," he said of the rift, "but I guess through a lot of prayer I realized all I could do was pray, and I knew she wouldn't change, so I had to look at the good times for what they were."
Blake, too, said several of his family members in the church died because they refused to seek medical treatment for things such as measles. Many of his other family members have since left, he said.
Since leaving First Century, both Stephanie and Blake said they have learned to develop their own spiritual relationship and currently attend other churches. In Blake's case, he described his acceptance of Christ as "the most impactful thing that ever happened to me."
Recently, Blake began connecting through Facebook with former First Century members with whom he had attended school. He said the group hangs out a few times a year, which he hopes will inspire First Century members who are "on the fence" to see there are other options.
"Mentally and spiritually they destroy lives because they're playing with people's heads," he said of the church.
Stephanie said that over the years, she has talked with several former members who were also sexually abused, although there is no indication that church officials were aware of the abuse.
One day, she dreams of opening an outreach program for First Century members who want to leave but are afraid to, although she realizes many will never leave.
"I think there's a chance that maybe one or two will [leave], and if that's the case, it's worth it," she said.
BY SOLOMON LEACH, Daily News Staff Writer firstname.lastname@example.org, 215-854-5903
POSTED: June 14, 2013