I remember when I last got baptized; I was thirteen at the time, impressionable and desperately in need of love. It was a Pentecostal circus of white-clothed enthusiasts with good intentions, but my heart was in the right place. The service had already begun and I was anxious and excited, scared and tentative of what this public step meant to my family, to me, and to my faith. But the loud percussion music was laid on thick as molasses and I let the emotions of the fervent parishioners propel me toward the front where the makeshift baptismal pool awaited along with eager church leaders – including my aunt – ready to duck my head under water and bring forth a renewed, better me.
We lined up in the aisles of the crowded, hot church, tightly packed like marshmallows stuffed in a bag. Hands waved wildly in the air or filled the empty spaces with clapping and tambourine-playing, with singing and shoutings of “Hallelujah” and “Praise-the-Lord” bouncing off the walls. It was a beautiful chaos of passionate maelstrom and emotional upheaval, everyone waiting in anticipation as the Spirit of the Lord descended on the baptized as He had with Jesus, to shake the Old Man from us, either literally or through manifestations such as dancing, speaking in tongues, or other such displays of rebirth. And this frightened me the most, the expectation of what I was to do, or not to do, in order to comply with the movement that was taking place. I distinctly remember focusing on the sea of white clothes in front of me and behind, so many of us ready to be cleansed and purified by a God who forgave those of us who were coming to His waters so stained and soiled.
So as I approached the altar, the music’s crescendo reaching a maddening peak as if the world had lost its balance and we were all falling from its edges, I jumped and danced and smiled and laughed too, like a drunken teen trying so hard to fit in. And I saw the look of dutiful pride in my aunt’s face as she led me into the pool of warm water, two men at each side, screaming out prayers and praises drowned out by the music, but which I nodded to as if I could hear. My heart beat faster and louder than the music now, and I was certain everyone could hear it as loud as I could in my head and my chest, bursting forth like a gushing waterfall. Tears sprung to my eyes as I realized what I was doing: not simply going under the water in hopes of rising a new person. This was a sacrament of admission and adoption; admitting that I was a hollowed gourd waiting to be filled by love, and then being adopted into the family of God, becoming part of the family but perhaps never truly accepted as such.
I realized this instantly after coming up from the waters and quickly being ushered out of the pool so that someone else could come and take my place. I looked for immediate acceptance from my aunt, hoping for a hug, a welcoming embrace, but she had moved on without a glance, and while this was a spiritual rebirth for me, parturition does not come without pain.
Years later, sitting on the window sill of a hospital room staring out the window at the parking lot, I realized I had tried too hard but only gotten so far, and then ended up in this place, alone and undone. And it took years to restore what had been built on loose sands in order to rebuild on firmer ground, no longer a desperate teen, but an accomplished woman whose faith now stands upon the Rock rather than a church, an emotion, or a movement.
Written February 2015