By Sean Pendergast
By Sean Pendergast
By Sean Pendergast
By Jeff Balke
By Richard Connelly
By Jeff Balke
By Casey Michel
By Craig Hlavaty
Grace is nondenominational and casual, and Gary and Marcus and Travis and Will and I went first to an upstairs morning prayer room, where Gary, in turn, gave thanks for a litany of Grace's missionary programs and outreach successes. Six-year-old Marcus fidgeted quietly while the other boys bowed their heads.
The morning service proper began with folk-rock spirituals before Pastor Bower, in a short-sleeved Hawaiian print shirt, took the pulpit to deliver his video- and worksheet-accompanied sermon on "Meeting Your Wife's Deepest Need," second in a series of seven messages on "Maximum Marriage." Your wife's deepest need, Pastor Bower said, is her husband's "sheltering presence," and he backed this view with quotations from Peter ("Husbands be insightful as you live with your wives, and treat them with honor as the weaker partner and as heirs with you of the gracious gift of life") and Ephesians ("Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her").
The Gates family took up almost two full rows, and Gary and Melissa filled in the blanks on their worksheets as the older kids kept the younger ones focused with quiet reminders. Congregants mingled and socialized on a breezeway afterward, and then the kids split off into groups for their Sunday-school sessions, and Gary and Melissa and I went to Associate Pastor Brent Burckart's class for adults. There the expulsion from Eden was discussed, and the folk-rock guitarist from the opening sing-along asked those assembled to pray for his sister, who had apparently gotten herself pregnant without a husband.
After church, we ferried back across the highway to the Gates house, where we were joined by Pastor Bower, neighbor John Martin and their wives. While Melissa prepared a lunch of Lean Cuisine chicken lasagna and the kids set up tables in the front yard, Scott and George, neither one much over four feet tall, took me to school in consecutive games of horse at the driveway basketball goal. Nine-year-old Cynthia wanted to know was I married, and when I told her no, she wanted to know why not.
"All you have to do is find a girl and date her and then get married," she said, and I thanked her for the tip.
The adults ate lunch inside, uninterrupted, and then pushed back chairs for a male-dominated discussion of the church's work in Africa, where Grace was buying land and building churches and treatment centers for local parishes. It is so much easier to reach people with God's word, Bower said, in the third-world countries. They are so much more responsive. Here in America, here in Fort Bend County, where the people are rich beyond their own imaginations, we too often fail to see our own spiritual need, our own accountability to God.
The topic, eventually, turned to the reason for my presence, and the fallout from that weekend seven months earlier. The worst thing to come of it, Melissa said, was that it was now harder to discipline the kids. Several times already one of her kids, not liking his punishment, had responded with a threat to call CPS, and that fear just tore apart the necessary hierarchy of the household, in which Gary Gates was, and had to be, the final authority.
On the other side of the coin, said Pastor Bower, there had been an unexpectedly positive result as well.
"Some of the kids, especially Scott and Derodrick and Travis and Raquel, the black kids, these kids didn't grow up in the home, they've only been there a few years, and these are kids that have been bounced from foster home to foster home to foster home. This is the first time that they've ever seen a dad fight for them, stand up for them, fight to keep them instead of fight to get rid of them. And it's really had a neat effect on those kids. It's given them a greater sense of comfort. And Travis is really doing well. He has become so assured now that they really do want him. And nobody ever wanted him before. Now he knows."
It was universally agreed upon by my hosts that accountability was the issue at hand in Gary's battle with CPS. The agency's own policies, Gary said, were extraordinary, not a one he would change, but out of either inattention or habit, CPS had run roughshod, not only over his family, and who knows how many others, but over its own safeguards.
How, I wanted to know, did Gary propose to achieve this accountability?
He looked at me like he'd never heard such a stupid question. The only way to hold someone accountable for their actions is by providing a consequence so dire that the offending party chooses never to step over the line again. Staple a bag of wrappers to its shirt. Expose its actions to the light of public scrutiny. I almost asked where Gary Gates's own accountability lay, but I knew the answer would be with God.
When I finally took my leave, at about four o'clock that afternoon, the Gates children were out of sight, playing out back of the house, and Gary walked me to my car. I had been looking, of course, for some sign in the children, some hint that CPS was right, that Gary Gates was wrong. All I'd found was a bunch of active, laughing, well-behaved kids and a father with ironclad moral convictions that, in the sheer unfamiliarity of their strength, seemed at first glance frightening, and at second glance, maybe just foreign.
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