Grand Junction -- About 50 members of the Church of the First Born gathered in a nondescript, white sanctuary and prayed the day before fellow members Randy and Colleen Bates appeared in court on felony child-abuse charges last month.
The faithful sang at random from a book of hymns and let the spirit of the Lord fill the humble church hall. Teen-agers and the elderly joined in unison, singing about finding peace in the midst of a storm.
Increasingly, members of the General Assembly Church of the First Born find themselves in a storm over how they care for their young.
Since 1974, 11 children of First Born members have died or been stillborn after their parents tried to heal them with prayers, not physicians. The controversial practice of faith healing, which church members say is based on a biblical passage in the Book of James, led to the prosecution of one First Born family in 1999 - Josh and Mindy Glory.
Authorities brought charges against the Bateses after their baby died last summer. The deaths sparked debate statewide about the power of prayer and caught the attention of state lawmakers who responded by passing a measure to curb faith healing. The bill was signed into law by Gov. Bill Owens on April 16.
Despite the statewide attention and threats of legal consequences, First Born members stand behind their faith and show no sign of turning to medical doctors in medical emergencies.
Services at the General Assembly Church of the First Born - a sect that traces its history back several hundred years - take place inside a barn-like structure outside Grand Junction. Aside from the name on the front, the building lacks the expected signs of a house of worship.
There are no crosses, no stained glass, no statues, no candles. The services are informal. Members stand and sing at random.
At a March service, members read from the Bible, repeatedly referring to the trials of Job, and found strength in the ancient lesson of unyielding devotion despite the loss of all earthly possessions.
Church elder Merrill Morris, a truck driver dressed in workman jeans and boots, fell to his knees at the start of the service. He cradled his head on an oak pew and invoked a rambling prayer.
He called out supplications for Randy and Colleen Bates, who face trial and perhaps prison if convicted of abuse charges. Prosecutors say the Bateses failed to care for their 13-year-old daughter, Amanda, who died from juvenile diabetes in February.
Morris prayed for the local authorities prosecuting the couple. He asked God to soften their hearts. "You are in control," Morris said, speaking to heaven. "Leave all things in thy hands."
For some time now, the laws of man and the faith of the small but devoted group of Western Slope Christians have clashed over how sickly children should be cared for.
One of the first recorded deaths of a First Born child in Colora do occurred in Montezuma County in 1974, according to information given to state legislators. A 4-year-old girl died from diphtheria after her parents refused to immunize her.
A 3-year-old boy died of the same ailment in 1976. Untreated pneumonia claimed the life of a 5-week-old girl in Larimer County in 1982. A 14-year-old boy, whose family belonged to the church, died of a ruptured appendix that same year in Mesa County. The parents were not prosecuted.
The church came under intense scrutiny in 1990 when 7-year-old Angela Sweet died after a ruptured appendix. The girl was sick for weeks, but her parents refused medical assistance.
Montrose County authorities prosecuted and the girl's parents were convicted of felony child abuse in 1992. The parents received probation.
Today, Barbara and David Sweet live outside Delta amid the farms that border Mesa and Montrose counties. Barbara Sweet remains reluctant to discuss the case. After praying on the matter for a day and speaking with her husband, Barbara Sweet politely declined to be interviewed.
Those who know them say there is nothing odd or remarkable about the Sweets or any other First Born member, except for their unshakeable belief in the power of prayer.
"They were similar to anyone else in the community," said Mike Stern, the former Montrose County district attorney who prosecuted the Sweets years ago.
"They have a strong sense of family and church. They had 10 kids. Their children played sports, and the parents were very responsible when it came to the court."
Caring, kind, quiet and normal are the terms those familiar with the church use to describe members.
"A lot of these people are good-hearted and sincere," said Mesa County Sheriff Riecke Claussen, whose office has investigated three First Born child deaths in as many years.
"Most of the people involved in the church are not the kind of people we normally come in contact with," Claussen said. "I don't have a sense that they have criminal backgrounds, or have kids who get into trouble."
The media spotlight returned to the First Born congregation in 1999. Church elders came to the home of Josh and Mindy Glory when their 18-day-old infant son, Warren, fell gravely ill.
The Glorys saw nothing unusual in this approach. After all, they had seen prayers heal the sick before.
"My husband broke his ribs two different times," Mindy Glory told investigators, according to court records. "We called for the elders, we took him home and he pretty much stopped breathing. His eyes went back into his head and he was just about gone, and the elders prayed for him, and he started breathing regularly. After the elders prayed he was lots better."
The same miracle did not occur for young Warren, who died of bacterial meningitis while church elders prayed for a miracle cure.
The Glorys eventually pleaded guilty to reckless endangerment and were placed on probation for 16 years.
Mesa County Coroner Robert Kurtzman determined the boy's death was a direct consequence of the "caretakers' failure to seek medical care in an easily recognizable life-endangering condition."
Despite the tragic loss of life, county authorities hold no grudges against the Glory family.
"They were good, honest people who tried to do the right thing for their faith," said Mesa County District Attorney Frank Daniels, who prosecuted the pair. "They are true believers. Their families have been in the church for generations. It would have been difficult for them to amend the faith healing practice."
Mesa County Sheriff's Detective Wayne Weyler, who investigated the Glory family, agreed.
"They believe this is what the Bible teaches," Weyler said. "They believe this was the child's time to die. There was no abusive intent on their part."
Josh and Mindy Glory moved out of Grand Junction amid a swirl of media coverage. They now live near a scattering of trailers and unfinished homes on a hillside some 25 miles south of town. As with most members of the church, the Glorys have remained quiet about their loss.
"I want to be nice, but I don't have time to deal with you," Josh Glory said when asked to discuss the church and its practices. "That's why I moved up here - to try and get away from guys like you."
The church was grieving again in the summer of 2000. Church members Billy and Barbara Reed lost a 2-year-old boy in a fatal camper trailer fire in June of last year. The blaze erupted after two young siblings played with a butane lighter, according to investigators.
One month later, the family's 3-day-old boy, Billy Ray Reed, died of a congenital heart defect.
Officials concluded Billy and Barbara Reed could not have determined the seriousness of the boy's illness before his death. The Reeds never were prosecuted.
"We've suffered a great loss," Barbara Reed said during a previous interview. "People made it seem like we brought it upon ourselves. But we don't believe anything could have been done."
The family lives in a Clifton trailer park outside Grand Junction. Messages left at the home were not returned.
Mesa County authorities said Barbara and Billy Reed took classes with the county health department to learn about medical issues and help recognize the symptoms of a child's illness.
Weyler, the Mesa County detective, suspects the Reeds will pay more attention to their children's needs in the future.
"They ponder things more, now," he said. "You can tell they are more contemplative than other members of the church."
Randy and Colleen Bates, are the most recent First Born family to face charges after the death of their daughter Amanda in February.
As is often the case when a First Born child or adult member falls ill, church elders were called to the Bates home to pray for healing, according to Mesa County authorities.
Prayers were offered, but they did not save Amanda from her diabetes. The Bateses, parents of 11, are accused of neglecting the medical needs of their offspring. Mesa County authorities say the parents knew about Amanda's life-threatening illness, but refused to get her medical attention.
Officials contend a physician could have easily treated her diabetes. The Bateses declined to comment during their hearing. The couple, accompanied by a defense attorney and scores of supporters, walked past reporters, heard the charges and left.
"They can always pray for their children," Kurtzman, the Mesa County coroner, has said of the Bates investigation. "But they shouldn't deprive them of medical care."
The new law repeals a provision that made it difficult to prosecute parents for withholding medical care for religious reasons when their children are at risk of death or serious harm.
Only time will tell how this measure will affect the church. "The law has the potential to help some children," said Kurtzman, the county coroner. "If the parents recognize they will be held accountable for medical neglect and if that provides a reason to give a child medical care, that is good.
"On the other hand, some have strong enough beliefs so they will not follow the law."
Authorities are sympathetic to the church members, describing them as "wholesome" and "well meaning" and honest people.
"They believe in their faith and live that life," said Claussen, the sheriff. "They are not hypocritical. And that makes it hard on investigators because these people love their children. Our hearts go out to them, because they have lost a child and we know they are filled with grief."
Tight-knit and devout, First Born members tend not to care what outsiders think about their ways.
"Seems mankind has to see something and touch something," church member Larry Hudson said during a recent service.
"It confounds people when (God) heals. But through his spirit, we see people healed."
Hudson spoke about his own illness. Once he suffered severe stomach pains and passed "handball-size blood clots."
But prayer, not medicine, cured the ailment, he said. "It's OK when a man hooks you up to a machine and lets you live another six months. That's all legal," Hudson said, speaking to those gathered inside the church.
"But if you let someone die in your home, it confounds them (outsiders) because they don't understand.
"You can go to a hospital and have an abortion and that is OK, because a man ordered it. But let a baby die in the church and they have a fit."
Hudson and the others in the church take the story of Job literally and personally. To the faithful, the recent court cases and legislative actions are trifles compared to the challenges true believers have always faced.
"They passed a law trying to take away our faith," Morris, a church elder, said as he stood outside the small white church following a recent service.
"They can pass all the laws they want, but it will not change God's word and that is what we live by."
Morris said lawmakers can put church members in jail or take away their lives, but in the end, the workings of men mean little. "After this life is over, God is still the one that says we go to heaven or hell," Morris said. "He is the one we fear. He's the only one with this power."
It is hard to know whether any of the deaths, the investigations or new law will change a pattern of life that has dominated the church and its members for generations.
"We feel that God has the power to cure anyone," said Kenneth Case, a First Born member from Cushing, Okla. "We leave it in his hands."
Like other church members, Case, a retired air traffic controller, has never seen a physician for an illness. And like most First Born believers, he has his share of miracles to share.
"I had a cerebral hemorrhage 10 years ago," he recalled during a recent telephone interview. "I had the members pray for me, and it went away." A tractor once fell on Case's head, he said. He lost three teeth when the jack gave way, sending the machine down upon him. Again, prayer took care of business.
"I put the teeth back in place and they are as strong as ever," Case said. "A body has a way of healing itself. The body is resilient, but the Lord does it."
Case's children, four grandchildren, and two great- grandchildren were born at home. Some of them have also experienced miracles, Case said. "My youngest daughter threw her elbows out of joint, but we pulled them back into place and prayed and she is normal," he said.
But no amount of prayer will change the somber mood at the Pea Green Cemetery, a small patch of ground set atop a mesa not far from Delta.
Built near the border of Mesa and Montrose counties, the gravel- strewn graveyard comes with views of the surrounding farmland and of the snow-coated Mount Sneffels in the distance.
A closer look reveals the graves of several First Born children. A small headstone and fresh flowers mark Warren Trevette Glory's plot.
"Our little wrangler asleep with Jesus," reads the block marker, which carries the carved image of a lasso and small cowboy boots.
Nearby sits a tiny silver nameplate before the tiny grave of Billy Ray Reed. These graves are a curious tragedy for the state.
But they symbolize something else for the devout. "God knows when you are going to die and what is going to take us out," said Morris at the end of a recent service outside Grand Junction. "Doctors can't overrule his power. They may think they can prolong life, but when God says it's through, it's finished."