Members of the House of Prayer church spent the day in court, pleading for the return of their children, so at an evening church meeting, their pastor did his best to steel them for the challenges ahead.
The Rev. Arthur Allen Jr. gave no sign of yielding to law enforcement, and instead told the parents to be patient.
"God's going to give back your children when he's ready," he said.
Authorities seized children from members of the House of Prayer church after parents refused to say they would stop using whippings as punishment, social workers testified Tuesday.
As a result, state officials argued in Fulton County Juvenile Court, 41 children from the northwest Atlanta church would be at risk of injury if a judge returns them to their homes.
"This is not an isolated incident," said Ted Hall, an attorney for the state Division of Family and Children Services. "This is a regular course of conduct that all the parents engaged in."
Pausing to resist tears, Ricky Wilson described for almost 100 church members - and about 2 dozen children - the moment he misses most since his eight children were taken by the state.
"When I come home, I'm used to my children jumping . . . one on my foot and the other hugging my waist," Wilson, 31, said Tuesday night before his congregation at the House of Prayer. "Now, I go home, and it's just an empty house."
Authorities seized children from Wilson and four other congregant families.
At Tuesday's hearing, the children's parents said the state agency overreached its authority by seizing the children, saying they had used a legal form of discipline that caused no permanent harm.
No child required medical treatment, argued parent David Wilson, one of seven church members facing criminal charges. "If a child's been bruised or beaten," he said, "he's going to need some doctor treatment or something."
But under questioning from Hall, the parents declined to say whether they thought injuries suffered by two children constituted abuse. The parents also wouldn't say whether they would engage in corporal punishment if a judge gives them their children back. The parents cited their Fifth Amendment right to avoid self-incrimination to a series of other questions, including how old the mothers were when they married, how often they attend church and whether their children sometimes miss school after staying at church until the early morning hours.
Judge Sanford Jones did not rule on the parents' request to release their children. Testimony - including that of some of the seized children - will continue today.
Jones, describing the parents as "good people," said Tuesday his goal is to reunite the families, if the children's safety can be assured. All 41 children remained in foster care Tuesday night.
The investigation of systematic beatings at the House of Prayer, a small nondenominational church on Hollywood Road, began after public school teachers reported that two cousins - boys 7 and 10 - had abrasions on their torsos.
The 7-year-old said he was suspended in air by three adults as his uncle whipped him with a switch at the church, said Investigator C.R. Dean of the Atlanta Police Department.
Afterward, Dean said the boy told her, he complained to his parents but "they just walked away."
During his beating, the boy told police, the Allen, the church's pastor, was "standing there watching them . . . telling them how to do it, when to do it, how long to do it."
The 10-year-old knew that "when he went to church, he was going to get a whipping," Dean testified. He had acted up in school by repeatedly interrupting his teacher. At church, the boy told police, Allen called him to the front of the sanctuary and asked, "Why do you keep on acting up when you know you're going to get a whipping?"
Allen then ordered the boy to the back of the church, where he was whipped with a belt, Dean said. The 7-year-old, Dean said, expects more beatings.
"[He] said over and over, 'When I get home I'm going to get another whipping,' " Dean said. "I said, 'Why?' He said, 'For talking to you all.' "
Social worker Laura Hudlow testified that, during her investigation, "the parents did not think the injuries were excessive" and "they would not agree" to stop using corporal punishment.
"This," said another social worker, Zunilda Tejeda, "was a clear case of child abuse."
At the Bible study meeting Tuesday night, members prayed for the safety of the children. Afterward , they defended the reputation of their church and their pastor.
"I'm proud to be with him in this movement," said Kerry Barnett, 27, a father of four. "I'm for the law but I'm against injustice, Lord."