Shall We Gather At The River?: The Story of My Baptism
Whenever I hear stories of baptismal experiences, there is always an emotionalism and ecstasy that goes along with it. There’s the tears of joy and feeling on fire for God and a bunch of other feelings that I never felt. It is commonly understood in Christian circles that one is baptized because Jesus did it as an example for the rest of us. There was a grand announcement by John the Baptist. Jesus was immersed in the Jordan river. There was a dove that landed on his head and a voice from heaven which people mistook for thunder, I think, but I didn’t see Jesus crying with joy and claiming to have all of these feelings when He came out of the water. Instead, he ran to the wilderness to be alone for forty days. Then Satan came and interrupted His alone time.
Like Jesus, I was baptized out in nature, not in the Jordan river in Israel, but in Mt. Irvine Bay in Tobago. There weren’t any doves or voices. I didn’t run into the golf course nearby to be alone, but I did witness a strange situation which caused me to wonder why I got baptized. I must say that this is no reflection on the church. This is just my experience.
A large crowd of church members had gathered on the shores of Mt. Irvine Bay for the baptismal ceremony. The candidates were dressed in white robes and were lined up waiting their turned to enter the water. It was a Saturday, a holy day, and the beach was busy that evening with tourists and local families. A number of palm trees lined the beach, their long spines swaying in the wind. Nearby is the fort built by the Courlanders who settled Tobago in the 1600s. Some of the people stood near or on the fort overlooking the waters where the baptism was to take place.
The pastors and elders made their way into the waters and soon they were ready for the candidates to step in. The day was sunny at first, but the sky became grey as the clouds gathered by the time my turn came to enter the water. I think somewhere in the back of my mind I was thinking that they might cut the ceremony short, but I was wrong.
There was a tent meeting earlier that day, and the main speaker was an evangelist visiting from Trinidad. There was something about him that rubbed me the wrong way but I didn’t know why. He wore a brown suit that day, but as far as I can remember he only wore brown suits. He was very enthusiastic and bold in his preaching. This meeting was about the end of the world and the second coming. I think that fear of the end times is what causes most people to join the church. The sensationalism that is involved in Revelation seminars and crusades gets everyone worked up when they hear the Bible presented, not in a passive way, but with all the fire, judgment and brimstone the preacher can muster. There is also the connections that one might have with the church that convinces them of the need for baptism In all my life as a Seventh Day Adventist, it was always people who are already a part of the church or connected to it in some way through family members, friends or the schools who got baptized.
This is the majority.
Then you have those from other faiths and Christian sects. The least number of those baptized into the faith are those who have no knowledge of Christianity whatsoever. Preaching about the end of the world and the fulfillment of prophecy would always get the average person worried about how their life is going to end and what they need to do to be saved. When calling souls to the altar, an evangelist will usually tell the congregation a few stories as time will allow about people who were saved at the 11th hour, but they were still saved just like the thief on the cross. There is always a sense of urgency.
“Jesus could come tomorrow! He could come today! He could come this very night!! What would you do when that time comes?” Or it would be along the lines of, “You could die tonight!”
“The Bible says that there will be wars and rumours of wars and that the love of many will grow cold.” There are also allusions to current events that show prophecy fulfilled. This evangelist knew his stuff and seemed very convincing, but something about him didn’t seem right. The evangelistic team, which includes elders, pastors, the singer evangelist, and Bible workers seemed to think that he was legit, or he would not be preaching. He was able to convince a significant number of people to get baptized. I think I was baptized due to fear, or because everyone in my family is SDA, but it had nothing to do with the preacher. I cannot remember why exactly, but I do remember having nightmares due to all the Revelation seminars I’ve been too. There was always this dystopian view of the world, God’s spirit will be taken away from the earth and if you are not sealed, you are lost. I did not want to be separated from God forever. That scared me more than anything. So the opportunity to be baptized was present and I took it.
The altar call came after the preaching, and when about forty people came up to the front where the preacher stood, the baptismal vows were read. The people that came up already made their decision. This was just confirmation of the work done by the Bible workers who visited them.
“Do you believe in God the Father, in His Son Jesus Christ, and in the Holy Spirit?”
“Do you accept the death of Jesus Christ, on Calvary, as an atoning sacrifice for the sins of men, and believe that through faith in His shed blood men are saved from sin and its penalty?
There were thirteen vows in all that we had to accept before being baptized into the Seventh-Day Adventist Church. It is never as simple as claiming to believe in Jesus and wanting to be saved. A potential candidate has to believe that this is the remnant church and has to be willing to follow all of the doctrines in order to be baptized. They have to take the Bible study courses provided by the church so that they would know beforehand what is required of them.
The week I decided to be baptized was the last week of the crusade. Our local pastor (not the visiting evangelist) came to visit our home as he did with the other candidates. This is a customary procedure of the church. He knew my family very well and gave permission for me to be baptized. I think being a student at the church’s school, taking their Bible study programs, and having parents who are active in the church also aided his decision to allow me to be baptized. My parents were also glad I made this decision. As for me, I didn’t know anything else and I didn’t think there was anything else outside of Adventism and being nine years old what other choice would you make if that was all you knew? I remember feeling tired, helpless and weak. I know I wasn’t excited about it, which is strange now that I think about it. I think fear makes you tired, it makes you give up, and not question anything you are told. I was afraid of being separated from God.
So I was at the altar with the rest of the candidates saying “I do” after each of the thirteen vows were read. As the pastor made his way down the list, there was a commotion in the congregation. Two older women dressed in broad church hats and skirt suits stood up to talk to a younger woman sitting between them. She had an afro and was wearing a colourful dress that was full of red and orange.
“You should be up there too,” one said to the young woman.
“Your father is well known in the church, how come you’re not baptized yet?” said the other, pointing at the young woman aggressively.
After a few more words, they both dragged her out of the wooden bench, one pushing and the other pulling the poor young woman like a rag doll. When they got past the people who were seated, they both dragged her down the aisle on the grassy floor towards the altar while she tried her best to throw her weight back in the opposite direction to make it harder for the older women. But they were determined and succeeded in getting her up to the altar where she was forced to stand next to me. I looked at her and the women who planted themselves next to her. They wanted to make sure she did not go anywhere. I didn’t know who they were. I didn’t know who the young lady was, but I felt sorry for her and was traumatized by what saw.
What shocked me, however, was the fact that no one even tried to stop the two older women, not the pastors, not the evangelist, not the elders, not even the church members seated next to them. It was as if these women were given free rein to do what they did. Who were these women that they had so much power and control that no one could stop them? And how could someone be in a decent frame of mind to accept these baptismal vows after that incident? This incident left an impression on my young mind. I could feel the anxiety and the fear of the woman standing next to me. She stood there but I don’t remember her saying anything. She was simply doing what she was told and that was to get baptized because she was making her parents look bad.
At the beach, the church deaconesses assisted the candidates as they entered the water and had towels ready for them when they got out of the water. Designated singers were leading the singing of hymns like, “Just As I Am Without One Plea” and “Shall We Gather At The River” which is interesting because we were at a beach, not a river. Maybe if we were at the Jordan river this song would have been fine. When it was my turn to enter the water to be baptized, I remember the sky was filled with grey clouds and the waters were also grey. It began to drizzle but the program went on as usual. The group stopped singing the hymns so that the pastor could say a few words. After a brief statement about who I was and my decision, the pastor said, “I now baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.” I was immersed in the water and when I came up, the singing continued again:
“Yes we'll gather at the river,
The beautiful, the beautiful river.
Gather with the saints at the river,
That flows by the throne of God.”
As I came out of the water, I began to search for something, that feeling that everyone talked about when they first got baptized. But there were no feelings. I didn’t feel like crying tears of joy. I didn’t feel like I was on fire for God. I felt nothing. I was disappointed, not with myself, but with the entire experience.
The younger woman, who was dragged to the altar, was next. The two older women were standing on either side of her making sure she went in to be baptized. While I was coming out of the water contemplating my failed out of body experience, I locked eyes with the young woman for a brief moment. It was clear to me she did not want to be there. Yet, as I came out she went in anyway and was baptized.
I went into one of the shower stalls on the beach to change into some dry clothes. I kept wondering all the while about what happened that day. I have never heard of anyone else with this experience, not only about what I felt but what that young woman went through. Everyone including the pastor was very pleased that I was baptized and they were probably happy that she was baptized as well. This religious ritual of death and rebirth, symbolic of one’s union with Christ, turned out to be traumatizing. This was supposed to be the most exciting and sacred day of my life, but instead, it was the experience of that one young woman that got me thinking about why I got baptized at the age of nine on June 10, 1989.
A few years later, I was walking home from school when I saw her again, the young woman who was dragged by the older women. She was wearing a colourful dress and she had an afro. I stopped when I saw her because it was so unexpected. She stopped and looked at me. There was a lost look in her eyes like nobody was home. The baptism did not help her. Forcing her to the altar did not help her. She seemed far worse than she was those few years ago. Now she appeared to be in another world, wandering wherever her soul would take her.
I didn’t say anything to her. What could I say? “Hey, I remember you! We were at the same baptism, right?” I think I was more afraid to say anything. But when we saw each other, there was a knowing without words. I went home as quickly as I could, with all kinds of crazy thoughts going through my mind. As I walked the two hills on my street, one thought wouldn’t leave me:
Could that have been me?
I never saw that woman again.
When I think about that young woman, I think about freedom and what it really means to live in the “free” world. In 1771, there was a slave revolt in Steeletowne, now called Mt. Irvine Bay. The manager and the overseer of the sugar plantation had to run for their lives when those who resisted enslavement took over the Great House. During slavery, many Africans were forced to accept Christianity, a religion that was not a part of their culture. At the same time, particularly in the West Indies, many slave owners did not care for their slaves to be Christians because they didn’t want them to be free. They were afraid that a conversion would make the slaves their equals and they were not having it. I think about the woman forced to be baptized and myself who was not forced but who did it because all I knew was that life. I was also living in fear of God’s rejection if I didn’t make this decision. I think that we were both trapped in a sense, both enslaved because we didn’t have a choice and even if we did, we didn’t know it. We were both baptized in the waters from which we could see what was once a sugar plantation and now a beach resort with a world famous golf course.
Several months after the baptism, the evangelist that preached about the end of the world and getting your life God before it was too late, was involved in a high-speed chase with the police. For several minutes they chased him on a freeway in Trinidad. His crime was drug trafficking. I was shocked when I saw this on the news. When the police finally caught up with him, he got out of his car and they put the handcuffs on him. He was wearing a brown suit.
I wonder how long he was involved with drugs before he got arrested and became breaking news? Was he selling drugs or even using while he was holding the meetings? Or was this something he just started out of desperation? Maybe this was the reason why I didn’t trust this man, even though I was baptized in his crusade. Like I said, it wasn’t his preaching that convinced me to be baptized. I already wanted to be baptized before the meetings began because of my fear of separation from God and all the nightmares I had from the book of Revelation. Your fears can chase you on the highway of life, catch up to you and arrest you, making you a prisoner. Jesus knew what he wanted before he was baptized by John the Baptist. They say he is all about setting prisoners free. And he wasn’t afraid to challenge the authorities while here on earth. This is my reason for revisiting this moment in my history and questioning my reality. I am setting myself free.