A week after his infant son was abducted from Prince George's Hospital Center, Rob Thate stood before the 1,200 members of his church and searched for words that would push the fear, anger and confusion from his heart. He came up with three:
"God is faithful."
Yesterday, Thate spoke those words again. But this time, as his voice carried across rows crowded with cheering worshipers, Thate held up the squirming, terry-cloth-clad proof for all to see.
There was hardly a dry eye in the house.
Five-month-old Jeremiah Thate received a rousing welcome home yesterday from a group of people who have had more than a passing interest in his safe return -- the members of Rockville's Covenant Life Church. At a highly emotional morning service in his family's honor, the congregants decorated the auditorium at Magruder High School with bunches of yellow and white balloons; they clapped, sang and whistled, and they ecstatically celebrated what many said could only be a miracle.
"You remained faithful as a church that your God wanted to see this child returned to his parents, and you see the manifestation of your prayers here today," said C.J. Mahaney, the church's senior pastor.
The church's relatively young and devout parishioners -- who, like the Thates, consider themselves born-again Christians -- have known Jeremiah since the day he was born, becoming the newest member of their ever-expanding spiritual family. When he was kidnaped in June at the age of 3 weeks, they mourned and prayed with his parents. Throughout the Thates' four-month vigil, they provided a nearly constant network of support -- cooking meals, baby-sitting and responding to calls for prayers and spiritual help at 4:30 a.m.
"We are so glad we have a church that stands up and prays and continues to pray. That really held us together," Terry Thate said as she thanked some of those who helped the family cope.
Like other Washington area residents, the church members had seen news accounts of Jeremiah's rescue. They were intimately familiar with the events leading up to his return: how a District firefighter read a Washington Post Magazine article detailing the private hell the Thates' lives had become since their baby was stolen, and how he responded on that same day to a fire alarm at a dilapidated Southeast apartment building.
There, the firefighter became suspicious when he saw a black woman cradling a white infant, and later he placed a phone call to police that led to Jeremiah's return to his parents 12 days ago.
The congregation expressed gratitude yesterday for the role the public had played in reuniting them with one of their littlest members. (The firefighter, Don Derner, was invited to yesterday's celebration, but he was unable to attend.)
But congregants pointed out that most journalists tended to ignore what they believe is one of the story's most salient facts: the role of the Divine.
"It is no coincidence that he happened to read the article 11 hours before going out to that fire," Rob Thate said. "You can look at it as a coincidence, or you can look at it as all the prayers that went up during the last 4 1/2 months were very effective in finding Jeremiah."
Mercie Carroll, a church member from Silver Spring, was one of several people at yesterday's service who noted that the congregation also had been praying for Kendol B. Kernes, an infant who was kidnaped from a Baltimore hospital several days after the Thate baby disappeared and who was discovered in the same week that Jeremiah was found.
"With all the babies who are kidnaped, what do you think the odds are that two of them will be found in one week?" Carroll said. "God heard our prayers."
During the service, few references were made to the two women charged with kidnaping Jeremiah, Lillie Rose Baynes and Linda Faye Stancil. In one instance, Pastor Mahaney said, "God did not initiate the taking of Jeremiah. I don't want you to think that for a minute." The kidnaper or kidnapers "were motivated by selfishness, but God was ruling over that situation."
The center of yesterday's service included a ceremony in which the Thates "dedicated" Jeremiah and his life to God. As it turned out, the church had held a mass baby dedication only a few weeks before, but no one seemed to mind that Jeremiah was getting one to himself.
As Rob and Terry Thate held their son, Mahaney offered thanks and wonder that Jeremiah had emerged in good physical condition after being found living in squalid conditions. Mahaney then asked the church members to pray that the baby will not be scarred emotionally.
Turning to the Thates, Mahaney said they would have to accept God's forgiveness in overcoming their guilt about the kidnaping. Later, two close friends of the Thates, Patrick and Theva Rutledge, said it will be a long time before the couple will be able to put the trauma of the past few months behind them.
"It's going to take some adjustment. The stress that they felt was just so dramatic, it's so powerful, that just because it's over, it's not completely over," Theva Rutledge said.
Asked whether she believed that the Thates had been rewarded for maintaining their faith during hard times, Rutledge nodded enthusiastically.
"Terry was on the verge of despair, she was in so much pain," she said. "It was getting to the point where I didn't know how to comfort her. It's just like God to come through with a surprise like this."