Joni Cooke's baby was sick.
A victim of life-threatening toxemia in the eighth month of her pregnancy, the baby was born one month premature in her parents' home in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. She weighed 3 pounds, 12 ounces.
Under normal circumstances, the baby would have been hospitalized, confined to an incubator, and would have received around the clock medical care until strong enough to live on its own.
But these were not normal circumstances. Joni Cooke was a member of End Time Ministries, a religious movement coming from throughout the country and settling in Lake City. It's leader, Charles Meade, preaches a basic tenant to his End Time followers that faith heals, doctors don't. If a member's faith in God is strong enough, doctors aren't needed.
So neither she nor her husband Gary took their child to a doctor.
And at the age of 4 days, her firstborn baby died.
Now, 10 years later, Joni still has trouble talking about the death; which- she believes was needless. The death was one of the reasons she would later leave End Time, she said.
During the tiny infant's brief struggle for life, Meade was more concerned with preserving the doctrine of the church, she said. Gary Cooke, himself an End Time minister, was influential among the other members. So Meade maintained pressure on the young couple to not turn to a man-a doctor- to save a life.
"For the sake of saving face, they allowed her to die," Joni Cooke said, her voice breaking with emotion. "It was then when I saw how little they valued life, staying here and watching her die".
Soon after the baby's death, Cooke said Meade called for a Sioux Falls meeting of all End Time ministers from their various satellite groups around the country. This was in January of 1979, two months after the Jonestown incident at which over 900 people committed suicide - due to the will of a prophet-gone-mad, named the Rev. Jim Jones.
Cooke said that in an attempt to diffuse internal concern over the Jonestown crisis, Meade preached against three evils that could ruin a minister-power, money and sex. During that discussion, Cooke said Meade "came down especially hard on Gary," because of their baby's death. He said the death of their daughter was due to lack of faith on their part.
"He's just cruel," she said, remembering Meade's reaction to the death of her child.
Cooke said, "She would be 10 years old this December." She added, "I was not even allowed to have a funeral". She was also told not to talk about the death.
Hers is not the only case of losing a child, Cooke said. There were five other cases of infant death in the Sioux Falls sect. How many of those fatalities could have been avoided by seeking proper medical treatment is uncertain --since End Timers don't believe a doctor can heal them.
"It's so ugly, it's so dangerous and it hurts so much," Cooke said. "He (Meade) gets control of them to the point where they will watch their children die".
Joni Cooke said the death of her baby primed her to make the decision to leave the group-a decision she made final years later because of two factors, the death of Marie Meade and to protect her four daughters born later.
Cooke said she was very close to Meade's first wife, Marie Meade (called Sister Meade by End Timers). Sister Meade was very sick with breast cancer and Cooke believes Meade did not seek proper medical care. "I just couldn't take any more death," Cooke said.
"Sometimes people will linger at death's door until it's too late and they don't make it".
Joni Cooke was also concerned about her four daughters. Meade believes youngsters should be encouraged to marry early. And he believes marriages should be within the End Time group. Living now in Lake City is a l6-year-old newlywed, who was married at age 15. That's not uncommon, Cooke said.
She could foresee a time when her own daughters would be forced to get married at an early age. It was a thought that made her more determined than ever to leave.
She made her break in 1986.
Now, Joni Cooke is a 32-year-old divorced mother of four, living on her own in Sioux Falls. Her ex-husband, she said, is still a member of End Time's Sioux Falls affiliate, but he plans to move to Lake City -- as so many other End Times have done -- in early 1989, she said.
Joni Cooke carries a great concern for those who are still in the group, many of whom were friends for the 12 years she was a member. She believes they are unknowingly caught in a vice-like, psychological grip by the man they call Brother Meade.
She is also concerned for the people who've not yet joined. If End Time is not recruiting here now, it's only a matter of time before they do, Cooke said.
And End Time Ministries is good at convincing people to join, she said. A common approach is to shower praise on visitors to their service and then "loving them into it," she said.
Cooke was still in high school when she joined End Time, and she said many recruits are young people looking for some meaning in their lives.
"It's sort of like they want one guy walking the face of the earth telling them what the truth is. It's a basic desire that I think we all had."
Leaving End Time is uncommon. "It's pretty tough to get out," because of the pressure of other members.
She said that once a person is indoctrinated into the group, it is nearly impossible to realize the actual extent to which one loses control of his or her own life. Cooke's is a testimony of years spent as part of a numbing unity. "When I got out of the group it was like coming back from Mars," she said.
"They have a list of 'do's and don'ts' an arm long," Cooke said of Meade and the End Time.
Those do's and don'ts can be found on a number of cassette tapes recorded by Meade and his first wife Marie which outlined modes of behavior to be followed by the group. The tapes, among other subjects, instruct parents how to discipline their children and give to the ministry.
Cooke also said Meade believes bodies can be possessed by a variety of spirits. According to Cooke and a tape recorded by Marie Meade, Meade preaches against the "make-up spirit," so female members of the group won't wear makeup; the "kissing spirit," to prevent a certain manner of kissing, and "the witchcraft spirit," among others. Marie Meade warned against the possession of End Time children by "nervous," "bashful," and "insecure," spirits.
Cooke said Meade uses his preaching of Christ and the coming of a great, devastating drought and famine, in order to persuade his people to obey his will.
Also contributing to this story were reporter Tom Leithauser, Publisher Don Caldwell and Managing Editor Russ Roberts.