The First Century Gospel Church begins each service with notes of praise for God's healing.

Church members e-mail or text small prayers of thanks to Pastor Nelson Clark, who reads them aloud inside a rented hall in Juniata Park, between playing hymns on a keyboard.

We thank and praise this man's toothache . . .

We thank and praise God for the passing of seasonal afflictions . . .

As church leader, Clark ministers to Herbert and Catherine Schaible, the Northeast Philadelphia husband and wife who have chosen prayer instead of medicine for two dying children.

Clark was the spiritual adviser when the Schaibles' 2-year-old, Kent, died from bacterial pneumonia in 2009, which led to a manslaughter conviction and probation for the couple. And he ministered to them last week when 8-month-old Brandon died, a case now being investigated by police.

In an interview with The Inquirer, Clark said God did not want the Schaible children to die.

Instead, he said, the children died because of some "spiritual lack" in the Schaibles' lives - a flaw they need to correct to prevent future deaths.

"They realize they must get back to God, to seek wisdom from him, to find where the spiritual lack is in their heart and life . . . so this won't happen again."

There is no question Herbert Schaible would turn to prayer again if any of his six other children, whose ages range from about 8 to 17, fell ill, Clark said. Just as any First Century member would.

"He would confess his sins and repent to God and ask for a healing touch," Clark said.

The Schaibles would not call a doctor, even now, Clark said.

"Oh, no," he said. "That thought would never enter his mind."

A thin, stooped, vibrant man of 71, Clark lives in Olney with his wife and son.

Neither they nor he has ever had a "dose of medicine," he said. Since Brandon's death, he has been flooded with hate mail. "They call me a murderer," he said.

As his assistant pastor closed down the rented hall, Clark explained the church's tenets politely but fervently:

Satan tests through illness. God is a jealous God. Trust in medicine and doctors is idolatry. Only true faith in the divine power of God heals.

After Kent died, the Schaibles were ordered to call a doctor at the first sign of illness. But Herbert Schaible does not answer to a judge, Clark said:

"He knows he has to obey God rather than man."

The church's 525 members meet for service in Juniata Park. There are no religious symbols or paintings in the hall - no graven images, Clark said.

Men wore suits, women dresses. There were many large, young families. Few looked older than their 60s.

Believers are encouraged to marry believers. Owning property or accumulating wealth is forbidden by God.

"No laid-up treasure," said Clark, whose grandfather and namesake founded First Century in 1925, when he broke from another divine-healing church.

"No things we can come dependent on," he continued. "You can only depend on God."

College - fraught with drinking and immorality - is also not advised. After a "basic high school education" God guides believers to a job.

Many men work in construction, Clark said.

Herbert Schaible teaches seventh and eighth grade at the church school on Rising Sun Avenue, all subjects except faith. Only Clark teaches faith.

Herbert Schaible attended the service. He did not have the shell-shocked look he wore in court Monday. Among his friends, he smiled and accepted handshakes. Catherine Schaible, by contrast, appeared more withdrawn. Both declined an interview.

The congregation has rallied around the Schaibles, Clark said.

"They would do anything for Herb," he said.

One thing they cannot do is look after the Schaibles' remaining children. The city has placed them in temporary foster care.

This worries Clark; he said they were in the homes of nonbelievers. To prevent that from happening again, Clark said, he is trying to reconcile the demands of the state with their own beliefs.

He said church teachings would allow a child welfare agency to arrange medical visits. This way, he explained, someone else could initiate the calls to a doctor.

Brandon was buried last weekend at Green Mount Cemetery in Philadelphia, Clark said. The Schaible family stood over the tiny casket.

"We have committed this child into God's care," Clark said he preached. "As we hold fast, in faith, God will explain."