The sun had not yet set entirely but the street lamps had
clicked on. The summer evening air was warm and sweet. The sounds
of indistinct pop songs from the 60’s and clanking chatter filled the
creeping night sky. The mood was festive throughout the group of
friends scattered around the backyard. A dinner party thrown to
celebrate the much-needed release from an unusually long and cold
Inside the house, the kids ran wild. Kids tackled and chased each
other throughout the living room and the long hallways. The screen
door to the backyard opened “Mom, what does ‘Mass Suicide’ Mean?”
The adults chuckled at the sound of a child inquiring about such a heavy
topic. Rebecca’s face reddened as she responded, “Why would you ask
that, Matthew?” Although among friends, she could feel the eyes of her peers burning into her with judgement. “They are talking about Uncle’s
church on the TV. They said Mass Suicide. What is it”
There was a heavy moment of silence in the backyard. The adults
quietly digested the weight of possibilities and then began comforting
Rebecca. “Maybe he misunderstood. Maybe it isn’t his church.” But
Rebecca knew. “Matthew, get your shoes. We need to go”
For what felt like hours, they drove the few miles through the city
to her brother’s church. She replayed their last conversation over and
over again in her head. It didn’t seem strange, nothing that he had said
seemed unusual or out of place. Before the church was in full view, the
police had barricaded the street. She pulled to the side and her and
Matthew walked to where the police were keeping people back.
“What about the children?” Rebecca said to the police man as she
approached. “Are you a family member?” He asked her. She nodded
her head and he let her through.
Once close to the front door of the building, an officer
approached Rebecca. “I don’t think it is a good idea for him (Motioning
towards Matthew) to get much closer. But if you think you would be
able to help identify any of the individuals inside, that would be a huge
help and he can stay out here with one of our guys.”
“What about the kids?” Rebecca asked again after kissing
Matthew goodbye at the door and proceeding forward with the officer.
“I am not sure yet, there is a lot of work to be done in here tonight. Are
you sure you are up for this?” Of course, she was not up for it. She was
in shock and just looking for whatever information she could get but
she nodded and moved through the front door.
Once past the main doors, Rebecca was lead into the Sanctuary. The first floor of the massive auditorium was littered with white blankets. Hundreds of
bodies on the floor in beautiful and tragic unison.
They began lifting the blankets one by one to reveal the frozen
expressions on the faces of each body. The 8 th body was a man named
Jonathan. He had helped her brother last fall install the electricity when they opened a new church. Rebecca remembered that he had a few
family members, but that they all lived out of town and that he had cut
off all contact with them the previous summer when they accused him
of being involved in a cult.
Rows of white sheets later, Rebecca identified Sandra Ruiz. She
only knew that Sandra lead the children’s classes on weeknights.
Sandra had been part of the church for a few years before her brother
had joined. Eventually, Rebecca inevitably came across the white sheet
that covered the body of her brother. Her beloved younger brother,
now just a motionless addition to a list of dead bodies.
“What about the children?” Rebecca asked after minutes of sitting
silently next to her brother’s body. “We still do not have any reported
fatalities on children” the officer replied, flipping through his clipboard
of names. Rebecca suddenly remembered the basement. Behind the
children’s classrooms in the basement there was a room tucked in the
back corner that could easily be dismissed if not looked for carefully.
She had noticed it down there just a few months before. She had
come to visit her niece on her 7 th birthday. The visit had been cut short
that day. She was asked to leave as the kids were needed to present
the bible study projects they had been working on all week. Rebecca
was unable to attend the final presentations because she had not been
baptized into the church. She was probably one of the few openly
atheist visitors who was ever allowed the access she was due to her
Her brother was her best friend, his children almost like her own.
Despite her revulsion for his religious choices, she made it a point to
make an appearance every few weeks. He had two daughters, one was
7 and one was 4. His wife had died 3 years earlier. In the midst of grief,
he found a church that consumed his time and provided explanation to
the tragedy of his past. Rebecca tried to be supportive of his decisions.
She took the time she could get.
She lead a team of police officers down the back stairwell to the
children’s area in the basement. The door she was looking for had been hidden by a bookshelf. A few of the officers shimmied the bookshelf to
the side and jiggled the doorknob. The door had been locked from the
inside. It took under 30 seconds for the door to be pried open. Inside,
there was dim light in the corner casting shadows on the faces of a
room full of children.
There was little movement at first, but the faces slowly turned towards the rescue team as they entered the room. They were alive. Rebecca scanned the faces and gasped with relief when she saw her two nieces huddled together. Some of the children began crying, most of them remained seated and silent.
Rebecca buried her face into the girls and began weeping. Her niece slowly rose from where she was sitting and said quietly “Is it done?” Aware now that the children must have known what had happened, Rebecca’s sobs were inconsolable.
Once the children had been counted, documented, and then
recounted, they were all lead out of the basement, through the
graveyard sanctuary and out the front door. A total of 37 children had
been in that room.
Eventually, after a day of questioning was over, the children were
either sent home with family members or held for placement in the
foster system. The children explained that the adults of the church
were entering the kingdom of heaven, but the children were left behind
because they had not yet fulfilled their earthy duties. The children and
a handful of select elders were excluded from the suicides because they
were to stay on earth and continue spreading the message of Father
the God to the unbelievers.
Rebecca brought home her two nieces to live with her and her
son. The girls were quiet and sullen and pale. Despite her best efforts to
talk to them, they both remained reserved around Rebecca and
Matthew. Every day at 8 am, 11 am and 4pm they knelt and prayed in
whispered voices. They bowed their heads before they ate or drank
anything. The rarely spoke even to each other for the first few weeks.
The summer was long and hot. The days were quiet, the house
heavy with mourning. One evening mid-summer, while Rebecca was making dinner, she noticed a man approaching the front door. He
seemed familiar, but she could not place him. She opened the door and
realized once the nieces came running and hugging him that he was her
brothers friend from the church. She became infuriated. He was
dressed in a suit and tie and carried a bible in his hand.
He began pulling papers out of his bag and explaining that the
church had filed legal guardianship papers for the girls. The children
from the church and a few select elders were all that remained of the
church now and they were planning on sticking together.
Rebecca felt heat rise in her throat. She clenched her fist and
under her breath told the man that he better leave her front porch
before she lost her patience in front of the children. She told him if he
ever came back to her house she would call the police only after she
had killed him.
The girls began to cry and beg for him to stay. They wanted to go
with him, back to the church. They wanted to live with him and the
remaining elders, but Rebecca slammed the door on him. She tried to
explain to the girls why they couldn’t go with him, but they would not
listen. Once they had calmed down, they held hands and went silently
back to their room. That was the last that Rebecca heard from them
As weeks quietly passed by, no one spoke of the visit and Rebecca
was hoping it had blown over. The girls began interacting with Matthew
and Rebecca. The younger niece even took an interest in baking.
Rebecca only knew how to make cookies from the prepackaged
wrappers and despised baking but began printing off new recipes for
them to try. She was willing to try anything to engage the girls in a
sense of normal life.
On a morning no more interesting than the rest, Rebecca woke up
to a sudden chill in the air. Fall had arrived in a sudden and dramatic
fashion that year. She laid in her bed for a while, trying to convince
herself out of the worried feeling in her stomach. Finally, she got up
decided to check on the house full of sleeping children.
The empty beds did not cause her to panic at first. She retraced
her steps to the hallway to see if she had somehow missed the girls in
the kitchen on her way in. Then she went back into their room and
noticed the beds had been made, the dressers emptied. On one of the
beds there was a note written out to Rebecca in an adults handwriting.
Rebecca’s heart quickened. She read the note three times before
the panic began to set in. Over and over again she read “I have taken
the girls somewhere safe, do not worry about them. They belong with
their heavenly family to carry out the intended plans of the church. Do
not waste your time searching, you will never find them. Do not be sad,
this is what your brother would have wanted.”