The Prodigy is a multi-part story, based on events taking place in central Kansas earlier this spring. This is Part Two. Part One can be found here.
Fields of sorghum give way to fields of hay along the Hamm Quarry Road south of Onaga, broken up by the occasional scrub cedar, and the Church of Luke cuts a stark figure as the only standing structure for a mile in either direction. It's a crudely built edifice, the cheap pine boards now marred by creeping rot from 27 years of driving rain, and local records indicate that the town has tried unsuccessfully to have it condemned on at least two occasions. There is a definite leeward tilt to the church, a product of the prevailing wind that has battered its thin walls since it was first built by inexpert hands. There are no crosses outside, no sign at all, in fact, that you've come to a house of worship, and only the words burnt into the wood above the heavy door give an indication as to what you might find inside:
And Now Also the Axe is Laid Unto the Root of the Trees
It is a quote from John the Baptist in the Gospel of Luke, King James version, as he prepares his people for the coming of the Messiah. The next line takes this sense of impending violence and makes the threat explicit: "every tree therefore which bringeth not forth good fruit is hewn down, and cast into the fire."
Lest we spend too much time analyzing the biblical passage, it's worth noting that the Church of Luke has its own interpretation of these words, of the entire New Testament, and of Christianity in general, and it's not an interpretation that is supported by almost anyone outside of its roughly 70 members. Their belief system finds its justification in biblical passages, but is largely based on the vision of a missionary named Leander Gates. In 1995, Gates and three fellow missionaries were driving through Kansas when their RV broke down on Hamm Quarry Road on a cold December night in the middle of a snowstorm. They were unable to flag down any help, and as the situation became increasingly dire, Gates turned to prayer. Together, the four of them huddled in the back of the RV for warmth, and in the night, Gates claimed to have a vision. In a .pdf available for download on the church's rudimentary website, he describes what he saw:
"The words of Luke 3:8-10 floated above these very fields, but instead of the snow which fell outside, flames licked around the rivers of blood, and stretched before me were the burning bodies of ten thousand infidels, and all around me were the screams of agony."
In the morning, Gates and his companions were rescued, and proclaimed their survival a miracle. Despite the fact that temperatures fell below zero that night, the story goes, they woke up infused with warmth. Gates took it a step further, saying that God had brought them to that very spot on purpose, that the breakdown of their RV was no accident, and that, essentially, he was another John the Baptist, having been given the gift of revelation. It was in this very spot, in Onaga, Kansas, where the messiah would return, and Gates was the herald who had been chosen to spread the message. He changed his name to Cainan, one of the men in the lineage supposedly tracing Jesus to Adam, and today has taken to being called "The Revelator."
This, at least to me, is as clear as the beliefs of the Church of Luke get: That a messiah will return to Onaga, and their essential mission is to prepare the world for his coming. Beyond this, things become muddled, bible verses seem to be taken wildly out of context, and there appears to be no strict adherence to actual Christian orthodoxy. Even the shape of the next resurrection is distinctly violent, in accordance with Cainan's vision, and the role of the messiah bears little resemblance to the teachings of Jesus Christ. This is a doctrine of vengeance and death, a distinctly Old Testament form of prophecy that confusingly uses a gospel of the New Testament as its philosophical bedrock.
In the RV with Gates that night was a 19-year-old man named Terrence Warren and his young wife Sara. They would become Cainan's first followers, the true believers at his side who are as responsible as anyone for building the Church of Luke. Eleven years later, their third child, a child named Hanoch, was born. Like their other children, name was taken from an obscure biblical character. And it was Hanoch, the child of this strange faith, who shot 58 to win the Kansas state championship at Wamego Hollow.
I arrived at the Church of Luke moments before their Saturday service began, and in the pews inside, I counted more than 60 people—almost the church's entire membership—waiting for the man sitting on a folding chair on the raised stage to begin. This was Cainan himself, a large man over six feet tall who wore a bright purple chausable adorned with red flames that covered him down to his toes. The men dressed plainly, in shirts and ties with no jacket, as did the boys, while the women and girls wore long dresses covering every inch of skin beyond their hands and faces.
My presence created a stir. As far as I knew, I might have been the first person outside the immediate community to step foot in that church in years, and as the door shut behind me, a woman near the front turned to where I stood at the back of the church.
"Who are you?"
It has been my experience in these situations that it's never worthwhile to tell anything but the whole truth, even if it's tempting to veil the truth even slightly. But I've never felt bound to give more information than is strictly necessary, either.
"I'm a journalist here to write a story about Hanoch Warren, and I wanted to see where he went to church," I said.
"I received your emails."
The booming voice belonged to Cainan the Revelator, who stood up to his full height to address me. I had indeed sent him emails requesting both an interview and the contact information of the Warrens, all of which had gone unanswered. I nodded, feeling it wiser not to speak.
"You see the Warren family here," he said, gesturing to a couple in the front row with three older children. "Hanoch is not with us today. I speak for us all when I decline to answer your questions or provide any assistance with your story. I think it's best for you to leave."
"Nobody leaves when the door is closed," said the same woman from before.
There were murmurs of agreement, and a grunt of uncertainty from Cainan. It probably goes without saying that I found this statement unsettling, but again I stayed silent. Finally, Cainan spoke.
"Then we'll proceed."
I didn't like the notion of being held captive in this church, and I didn't know whether the policy of nobody leaving after the door closed was a simple policy or something more sinister—I was leaning toward the latter—but I was held in place by fear, and by something else, too...the desire I had come in with, to simply see what this was all about. Despite the fact that I was essentially their prisoner, at least by implication, I decided I could last an hour under these terms.
In fact, the service lasted for nearly four hours. It was a thoroughly disturbing spectacle, beginning with Cainan's preaching. His words were heavy with violent symbolism, with promises of death and destruction, and he made frequent reference to the "false messiah." Though I tried, I did not find much coherence in his words—it was a kind of hypnotic rant, impassioned, greeted by a chorus of nodding heads and swaying bodies, but with no apparent narrative or moral. There was singing next, but they were not songs I had ever heard, and in fact struck me more as chanting, with refrains like "the blood and the storm" repeated for minutes at a time. When it rose to a fever pitch, I saw a look of ecstasy on the faces in front of me, their arms outstretched, the noise resonating with a soft echo off the pine walls which were now groaning with the wind. If you were subject to their manner of faith, you might have believed they were invoking the wind with their strange chants.
Those faces became more ominous when they spoke in tongues, sending their garbled syllables to the ceiling as they shook and writhed in the pews, limbs flailing, seeming for all the world truly possessed by a foreign and unfriendly spirit. One man turned to look at me, pointed, and began to shout a word that sounded like "gum" in a guttural throat voice. I was too afraid to take notes, but while I didn't necessarily fear for my life—it seemed outrageous to think they might do something to me—I also didn't feel particularly safe. There was a part of me that considered running, and I was only held back by the near certainty that this would make things worse. I was relieved when this segment ended, and the parishioners, many of them now sobbing, began to hug each other.
It was almost 11 p.m. when they finished. The door opened, and I was allowed to leave unmolested. The air outside the church felt like pure freedom, but I stayed long enough to approach the Warrens.
"If any of you would like to speak with me, I'd be very interested to know your story, and Hanoch's story," I said.
At that moment, while the Warrens and their three children watched me in silence Cainan appeared before me, and placed a large hand on my shoulder.
"Nobody here is going to talk to you," he said. "It's time for you to leave."
He was wrong.
She came the next night to the motel where I was staying, and knew by my rental car which door to knock on. I opened the door to see a girl no older than 15, wearing the long beige dress I had see on all the churchgoers the night before. I recognized her as the Warren's daughter, the youngest of the children at the church, and she introduced herself as Beulah. She looked nervous as she peered over her shoulder at the street. Her voice was no more than a whisper, reminding me of how Chris Pearson's description of Hanoch Warren.
"I want to tell you about my brother," she said. "And I don't have long."
The thrill of a story breaking consumed me, and I opened the door wider.
"Please, come in."
From the look on her face, I realized I had made a critical error. The proposal which I had made as a friendly gesture was, to her, against all propriety and practically indecent. It occurred to me for the first time what courage she had showed just to come here, and that I would have to be aware of that as we went forward. In fact, I had no idea how much courage it had taken, or what it would mean for her life to simply speak with me.
"Or there's a picnic table in the field behind the motel," I said quickly. "There’s light from the lobby, but someone driving by wouldn't see us."
The relief was instant. I pocketed the recorder on the shelf by my door as I left, but in the strangeness of what came next, I forgot to ever hit record, and I’m forced now to reconstruct our conversation from memory.
"Would you like a coke or something from the vending machine?" I asked.
"We don't drink soda."
Once we arrived at the picnic table, she seemed to retreat within herself. It is a common reporter's tactic to let silences linger, since people are naturally inclined to fill uncomfortable pauses, but in this case only the crickets from the woods behind us offered any respite.
"So," I said. "Tell me about Hanoch."
She shook her head.
"I'll tell you about Hanoch, and we can talk about golf if you want. But that's not the brother I meant. I want to tell you about my other brother."
In the faint flickering light from the lobby, I thought I could see here eyes start to glow, but I couldn't tell if it was the zealous glow I had seen in the eyes of the churchgoers the night before, or if this was the welling of tears. Now, with hindsight, I suspect that it was both.
"I want to tell you," she said, "about the messiah."
Part Three can be found here.
This is incredible. I love your writing! Can't wait for part 3!