Shall We Gather at the River?

Rerun from October 13, 2007 with minor gramatical corrections:

The sermon was about sin, and at the end of it Preacher Pat reminded everyone about the baptism service that would take place the following Sunday afternoon. I knew my folks planned for me to participate.

Now it was true that I’d fibbed about stomach aches to get out of weeding tobacco beds, but that wasn’t a big enough sin to need baptizing, was it? Besides, I’d already been punished for that since I really did get a stomachache before the end of the day. Made more sense to to me wait until I’d racked up more serious ones so they could all be washed away in one dip.

At least let me learn to swim first, I begged my parents. But the choice was no longer ours to make. I was about eight years old, long ago passed the age of being responsible for my sins. I knew that if I died before being baptized, I would go directly to hell with my unwashed sins on my back.

So on a warm afternoon in August we gathered by the river at Camp O’leno wearing swimsuits or, since I didn’t have one, a dress it was okay to get wet in. I tiptoed into the water in the flowered dress Mama had sewn from chicken feed sacks. Worried that people on the riverbank might see my underpants through the water, I kept struggling to pull the skirt down around my legs while goosebumps gathered up and down my arms, but the fabric was so porous and heavy, it kept soaking up the river water, and consequently floated up higher and higher around my hips like a great flower covered fabric balloon.

I shivered, feeling colder and more exposed than if I’d gone in naked.

By turns people edged closer to Preacher Pat, who waited waist deep in the tea colored water looking for all the world like John the Baptist, in bib overalls. He pinched their nostrils, placed his left hand on their backs for support, and dipped them backwards until their faces disappeared beneath the water’s surface.

They gasped, once as the water closed over their mouths, and again when they appeared seconds later, looking relieved that it was all over. From somewhere on the shore, Sister Dorothy shouted hallelujah as her husband surfaced.

I was afraid of water, and hoped I wouldn’t cry when it was my turn. Suddenly I felt the preacher’s hand on my nose. “I baptize thee in the name of our heavenly father,” I heard him say, and barely had time to close my eyes before I heard the glub of water closing over my ears.

Cut off from the sounds in the world above me, I opened my eyes and in a flash second I saw oak leaves and waterbugs floating on the river’s surface. There were miniature bubbles drifting upwards from my face, and I discovered the world of minnows and tadpoles was quiet and peaceful, nothing like the black swirling chasm I’d imagined. Eternity ended with a swish as the preacher raised me from the water–a born again Christian, with water pouring from every crevice. I was never to forget the sensation.

At school later that year, I looked around the playground at recess one day, hoping to find something more stimulating than rope jumping. The wind stirred the shrubs lining the school building and they quickly became a river of swaying green leaves. I thought about the river and my recent baptism rites. Suddenly I had an idea.

I was the preacher and my friends were all the sinners. Kids all sizes and shapes were soon lining up for a dip in the green water. One by one I lead them over to the bushes, pinched their noses, and dipped them backwards into the bushes until their faces disappeared. “Trust in the Lord God, Almighty,” I said.

Well, in real water you keep your mouth shut so you won’t drown, but in green bushes–when the preacher doesn’t weigh as much as you do and you feel yourself falling–you scream, like Helen June did, and the teacher comes running.

The teacher, Miss Myrtice, was Helen June’s first cousin once removed. Her lips formed a little oval and her eyes squinted at me through her thick glasses. “Just what in Heaven’s name do you think you’re doing?” she asked, so I told her. “Why, that’s BLASPHEMY,” she said, and sent me to the cloak room to sit by myself and think about that big new word until recess was over.

I didn’t know what it meant, but I felt fairly sure it must have been a big sin, so I decided there–among the clutter of baseball bats and books with tattered covers–that I wouldn’t ever play Baptism again. And to this day, I haven’t.

2 thoughts on “Shall We Gather at the River?

  1. I’m afraid of water and still can’t swim….so I’m afraid I would have had to remain a heathen! Not judging one’s religion, but that seems like a very traumatic event for a child. I was a mere 2 weeks old when the waters of baptism flowed across my forehead, so I don’t remember a thing….lol But at least I know I wasn’t dunked in the font! (smile)

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