The Prodigy is a multi-part story, based on events taking place in central Kansas earlier this spring. This is Part Three. Part One can be found here. Part Two can be found here.
I met with Chris Pearson on the Thursday I arrived in Kansas, and entered the Church of Luke on Saturday night. Between those two events, each startling in their own way, I engaged in a variety of fruitless efforts. A tenet of the church is that members don't own cell phones or computers, only land lines, and only Cainan, the church elder who goes by "The Revelator," communicates with the outside world via the email I found on their website. He ignored my attempts to reach out, and all phone calls to various members, including the Warrens, went unreturned, so on Thursday afternoon, I drove to Hanoch Warren's house. The difficulty here is that the entire Church of Luke lives on a short, desolate stretch of Old 9 Highway, a two-lane road surrounded by farmland and the occasional wind-beaten blackjack oak, between the towns of Corning and Vermillion, which are themselves barely more than hitching posts on the prairie.
It would have been my preference to visit the Warren home in something like privacy, but with a dozen grouped together within a quarter-mile, there was no way to make the approach without the people in the other homes seeing everything. I got the sense that without modern technology, these were people who spent a lot of time outdoors, and at least eight pairs of eyes tracked my progress as I turned into the Warrens' driveway. I saw gardens in the rear of every home, and for the first time, I wondered how these people made their money. There wasn't much of it, and it did not seem likely that they worked ordinary jobs. I began to get the sense—correctly, as it turned out—that this was an economic collective that subsisted on the food they grew, and various temporary jobs worked locally. The men worked seasonally at lumber yards, the women on local farms, and even the children contributed with odd jobs. The goal, as was evident from the surroundings, was to subsist with as little engagement with the modern world as possible. They were not enterprising or artistic like the Amish, nor nearly as rigorous; the only aim was to wait for the messiah.
The Warren home, like all the others, was a slightly dilapidated one-story rectangle, all chipped white paint, with a pyramid roof and a lonely brick chimney. A picket fence surrounded the front yard, but it too looked as though nobody had thought to maintain it since the children were young. There was nobody on their lawn, or standing on the front porch, and when I knocked I heard movement inside, but nobody came to the door. I walked along the dusty path between the homes, but when I tried to speak to a man splitting wood, he refused to even look in my direction. Two children ran by, kicking a soccer ball, and when I said hello and waved to them, the man paused his work.
"Don't address the children," he said.
His tone was just menacing enough to convince me to walk away. After another pass at the Warren home, I left, and the same farce repeated itself on Friday, with even less to show for it.
Aside from these visits, I tried to learn more about the Church of Luke. My first stop was to the Onaga Town Library, which had microfilm records from several local papers. In the Manhattan and Topeka city papers, the only mentions were of land purchases, which I also found at the register of deeds. They bought the land for their homes for less than $100,000 in 1996, and the church plot was purchased the next year for even less. The Wabaunsee Press-Republican, the only local paper of any size or endurance, had references in the late '90s to bake sales, yard sales, and various other community endeavors held by the Church of Luke, but those references dried up by the turn of the millennium.
I visited a small, dark bar in Onaga called Bucky's that night, and the next, to sound out the locals who played darts in a back room and smoked on the small patio. None of them wanted to be quoted by name, but I was able to suss out a few more details. When they first came to Kansas, Gates—now Cainan—the Warrens, and the fourth member of the party, a man named Bernie LaDue, who has since changed his name to Eleazer, were generally friendly. They visited local churches, spoke, attempted to recruit through events like the bake sales I had seen referenced in the newspaper, along with house-to-house canvassing, and were mostly not successful. The friendliness didn't last long, though; once it became clear that they were not being embraced by what I found to be a fairly tight-knit community, the behavior became hostile, with arguments breaking out when they attempted to recruit in the local towns, and several incidents at local churches when they were denied permission to address the congregations. There were never any physical fights, but what had been a leery tolerance of the community turned into outright suspicion. By 2000, they had stopped engaging with the locals at all. Their children were homeschooled, and aside from the part-time work they took, and the odd shopping trip, they were rarely seen in public. In fact, as I spoke with a group at Bucky's on Friday night, and a man in his fifties told me what he knew, two young men and a woman listened with something like amazement.
"Wait, they're here?"
They had never heard of the Church of Luke.
On Saturday morning, I met with Pastor Wells Murphy of the First Baptist Church of Eskridge, a few miles due south of Onaga. He was a small, polite man with round spectacles that gave him a scholarly appearance, not at all the stereotype of a fire-and-brimstone baptist preacher. One of the barflies the night before had recommended that I seek him out, since he'd had interactions with Cainan and the others in the early days.
"I want to be kind," he told me, in the office at the rear of the church. "And the truth is that I haven't had any dealings with them in at least 20 years."
In early days of 1996, though, just months after the RV broke down and Cainan had his apocalyptic vision of the second-coming, they approached Pastor Murphy and asked permission to speak with his congregation, and particularly the children in their weekend bible study class.
"I sat down with them and asked them to elaborate on their beliefs," he remembered. "They were Christians, I knew, but that's a rather big tent. Cainan was their leader, and one of the few who spoke, but I do remember Terrence Warren was there with him. They told me that humanity was a cockroach—I'll always remember that word, cockroach—and that their mission was to prepare themselves and others for a great cleansing fire that would sweep the earth in our lifetimes. And this, you understand, was the coming of the messiah."
Based on that conversation, Murphy denied them permission to speak to anyone, and what had been a cordial meeting turned tense, with accusations flying at Murphy—heretic, heathen, apostate—that made him feel uncomfortable, and perhaps fearful. He asked them to leave, and he felt relief when they did. After that, he received cold stares when he saw them in public, and Cainan attended his Sunday services for a month, sitting ominously in the back pew of the church. That eventually came to an end, after receiving a nasty letter calling him more names sometime around 1999, his contact with the Church of Luke came to an end. Like everyone else I spoke to, he had little idea what went on behind closed doors.
Their ranks grew, but slowly, and always from outside the community. Those that joined them were almost certainly from outside Kansas, and almost certainly drawn by their website. The 70 people who now make up the Church of Luke consist of 10 families, their children, and a handful of unattached men. There are six "elders," all men, who make most of the major decisions They no longer make any attempt to recruit locally. Cainan, the Revelator, has never married or had children. The Warrens had five children—the three I had seen at church, Hanoch, the fourth child, who was absent, and the oldest, a son named Caleb.
When Beulah Warren, the youngest of the children, found me at my motel on Sunday night, it was Caleb that she had on her mind.
The important fact about Caleb Warren is that he was the first child born after the formation of the Church of Luke.
"That meant he was the messiah," Beulah told me, looking me in the eyes for the first time as we sat at the picnic table near the motel lobby.
This, I understood, was true belief, or at least the remnants of it. But Beulah was younger than Caleb, which meant she wasn't around to know the definitive answer to my next question: Was he always the messiah, since birth, or had something happened, had a belief changed, to make it so?
He was born on New Year's Day in 2000, which must have added to the mystique that men like Cainan and Terrence Warren wanted to attribute to him in the first place. The version of the story that exists now, and the version that Beulah grew up with, goes like this: The birth happened in the morning, at the Warren home, with only a local doctor named Frank Myrick on hand to provide medical assistance. The delivery was difficult, and Dr. Myrick began to insist that they take Sara to the hospital, because all signs were pointing to the need for a Caesarean Section birth. The choice fell—absurdly, it seems—to Cainan. He left the house, wandered into the fields of frozen hay, and saw a red-tailed hawk sitting on an old fence post. It gave a shrill cry, and suddenly the sky grew dark. Against the backdrop of the inky black clouds, Cainan had his second vision. At first, it seemed the same as his first vision, after the RV broke down: Flames, a river of blood, the bodies of the damned in burning agony. But this time, sitting above them in judgment, cross-legged, elevated ten feet off the ground, was a boy. And the word "Caleb" was written in black above his head.
The vision faded, and Cainan rushed buck to the house. He told Terrence and Sara Warren that they were having a boy, that he would be the messiah, and that they absolutely could not go to the hospital. Dr. Myrick protested bitterly, but he stayed, and after six more hours Sara gave birth to a boy. They named him Caleb. And Caleb, in their minds, was the chosen one.
(Dr. Myrick has since passed, and his widow is in a care home with severe cognitive decline. He had no children, and other attempts to verify details of this story from outside the Church of Luke were unsuccessful.)
The boy was already seven years old when Beulah was born, and she knew him from the time she could talk as the messiah. They called him that, inside the home, but were under strict orders to tell no one. It could put them all in danger, she was told, if the rest of the world knew what they had in their home. Even new recruits were not given this information until they had been with the church for a year. The day would come when Caleb would be infused with the power of the almighty and sit in judgment over the world, but until that day came, it was their duty to remain silent. That's why their engagement with the outside world came to an almost complete halt in 2000; the more insular they were, the less they participated in society, the better they could keep their great secret.
"And what was he like, Beulah?"
Here she paused.
"Kind," she said. "He was kind."
"Did he like being the messiah? Did he want to be?"
"It was his role, and his duty," she said, repeating what must have been the doctrine hammered into her for years.
"But did it make him happy?"
"I don't know."
She seemed truly mystified at a question that seemed irrelevant, so I gave up that line of inquiry.
In my research, I had come across a death notice for Caleb Warren. No obituary, no cause of death, and as far as I could tell there was never any kind of police investigation into the matter. But he had passed in 2017, just 17 years old, and clearly some kind of story had trickled out, because Chris Pearson had alluded in our conversation to a scene of a sick brother who, instead of being sent to the hospital, was kept at home in an attempt to heal him with prayer. By now, I had put two and two together, and I only needed this girl to confirm the sickening truth.
Pearson's version, it turns out, was exactly what happened. Beulah didn't even know what exactly Caleb was suffering from, except that what had started out as a cold a month earlier had gradually become worse, until one night he had trouble breathing. His face took on a bluish tint, and his words came out in a rasp, and as you might imagine, there was general panic in the Church of Luke. Their messiah was in danger.
The elders, led by Cainan, made a fateful decision. Just as they had trusted in the Lord at his birth, when outsiders advised them to find a hospital, now they would do the same. They wouldn't even send for a doctor. Caleb was the messiah, and the messiah would be protected. As his condition grew worse, they gathered in the Warren home, 60 of them, men, women, and children, and held a prayer vigil that lasted overnight and into the next morning. Caleb accepted the decision, and if he ever changed his mind, nobody knew, because that night he lost the ability to speak. They chanted, they sang, they spoke in tongues, and they clasped each other's hands or held them over his body, fervent, intense, knowing the power of their faith would see him through.
And at noon the next day, surrounded by his family and their church, Caleb Warren, the messiah, died.
The tears streamed down Beulah's face, catching the faint lamplight, as she spoke. The Church of Luke was thrown into chaos, and her mother Sara stayed by Caleb's bedside for two days as the body deteriorated, convinced he would be resurrected. Finally, as the stench became overpowering, they took the body away as she screamed. The community struggled to come to terms with the fact that they had been wrong, and this struggle overpowered the need of people like Beulah, and like Hanoch, to grieve.
"Were Hanoch and Caleb close?" I asked, though the question felt hollow.
"Hanoch loved him," she said. "Caleb was the only one who mattered to him."
It was Caleb, too, who had introduced him to golf, who had bought a used set of clubs against his family's wishes, and who had sneaked off with him to hit balls in the field, and eventually to play at a nine-hole municipal course called Fostoria Hills where the pro gave them unlimited balls to hit on the range, and let them play on weekday afternoons when the course was empty. They used one set of clubs until that pro gave them another, and from the time Hanoch was five years old, Beulah guessed that he spent six hours a day at the course when it wasn't closed for the winter. (It did not surprise me to learn that the "homeschool" aspect of the Church of Luke was mostly nonexistent, though Beulah insisted they all knew how to read.)
It was only then, listening to this story, that the full realization of what these children had been through dawned on me: They had watched their brother die in front of them, and it had not been a fast process.
"Why did you tell me all this?" I asked her, as gently as possible.
I asked because she didn't seem particularly cynical about any of the church's inner workings, or the idea that her brother might have been the messiah, and I didn't even detect much anger at the way he died. So why had she come?
"I'm worried about him."
"Where is he now?" I asked. “I didn’t seem him at the church with you and your family."
Here, she went silent, as if she didn't want to tell me the truth, but couldn't tolerate telling a lie.
"If you want to help him, you should tell me," I said.
Again, nothing but a wide-eyed silence, and the chorus of cicadas behind us.
What I did next still brings me great shame, and I can only attribute it to the tension of the moment, to the sense that I was on the verge of a revelation that I couldn't let go. Without knowing every part of the Church of Luke's philosophy, it was obvious from the way the women were treated, and how they dressed, that they occupied a subservient role. People like Beulah spent their days following the orders of men, and maybe it was a subconscious sense of this that gave me the idea to exploit it. I slapped my hand on the picnic table.
"Beulah. You have to tell me."
I regretted it instantly, and as it turned out, it didn't work. Scared, upset, and shaken, she stood up and ran away, and when I called after her, and followed her into the parking lot, nothing changed. There was nothing I could do—she had trusted me, and I had behaved abominably because I cared more about the story than her great sacrifice; a sacrifice that must have felt like a betrayal of the only thing she had never known, and all because she loved her brother.
I walked back to the picnic table—I couldn't face my dismal room quite yet—and thought about the mystery of where Hanoch could have gone. Who did he know, outside the church?
And then I thought of something very strange that hadn't occurred to me before. Between bars and churches and libraries, I had spoken with a dozen people in the last two days who knew about the Church of Luke, who had been around when they were founded, and had lived near them ever since. Only twice, in all those conversations, had I heard the story of Caleb dying among his family. Once was from Beulah, who was on hand to see it happen.
The other came from Chris Pearson.
Why would Chris Pearson, a 16-year-old egomaniacal jock with a motor mouth who barely knew anything else about the Church of Luke, be the only other person to know that story?
When it hit me, I laughed out loud, even though the dominant emotion was shock.
No fucking way.
But it had to be, didn't it?
I went back to my room, and decided I'd go back first thing in the morning. But after laying in bed for 20 minutes, it was clear that morning wouldn't come soon enough. I rose, dressed, and left the motel.
It took ten minutes to reach the Pearson's home, and I turned my lights off as I coasted to a stop across the street and gave silent thanks for the absence of street lights. I had imagined a long stakeout—as long as it took—but I saw what I needed to see within ten minutes. Through a gap in the curtain hanging over the kitchen window, fetching himself a glass of water, I saw a teenage boy who was not Chris Pearson, and was certainly not his parents.
For the first time, I laid eyes on Hanoch Warren.
Part Four can be found here.
so great! Starting part 4 right now.
This is fascinating! Love the series…..can’t wait for the next installment.