“So how’s everyone doing today?” Taylor asked as I drove west beyond the Jeromeville city limits, where Fifth Street becomes Grant Road.
“I went grocery shopping,” Danielle said. “And I saw my abnormal professor in the store.”
“You saw who?” I asked.
“My professor for Abnormal Psych.”
“Oh,” I said. “Abnormal Psych. You said ‘my abnormal professor,’ and I didn’t know what that meant. I was gonna say I’m a math major, so all of my professors are abnormal.” The others groaned and chuckled.
Grant Road continues west in a near-perfectly straight line for about three miles after leaving the Jeromeville city limits, past an idyllic landscape of fields, pastures, and orchards. Beyond that, the road turns sharply; I was caught off guard by the coming right turn, so I pushed the brake pedal hard. Some of the others in the car reacted audibly to the sudden change in movement. “Sorry,” I said, as I turned sharply to the right, then to the left a short distance later. “I never understood why this road has all these curves in it. Everything is completely flat here.”
“To follow property lines, maybe?” Pete suggested.
“That could be it.”
“Have you been this way before?” Danielle asked.
“Once,” I said.
“You know where we’re going?”
“Of course he knows where we’re going!” Taylor said. “Greg doesn’t get lost, remember?”
I had only been this way once, when I took a side trip on the way back from my parents’ house just to see what this part of Arroyo Verde County looked like, and I had never been west of the town of Summerfield. But a bunch of us had met in a parking lot in Jeromeville about ten minutes ago to carpool, and Cheryl of the Jeromeville Christian Fellowship staff had been there to hand out flyers, and the driving directions were very clear, just straight west on Grant Road for about twenty miles.
I had been hearing announcements at Jeromeville Christian Fellowship over the last few months about baptisms in the creek near Lake Montecito at the end of the school year. I had not expressed interest in being baptized. I had started to take my faith seriously this year through the nondenominational JCF, which was not affiliated with a specific church. The students in JCF attended a few different churches around Jeromeville, but very few of them were Catholic like me. I did not know enough about baptism at that point to know if I needed to be baptized again, and I did not want to turn my back on the Catholicism of my childhood and family without knowing the details of what I was doing.
However, I wanted to attend this baptism event. I knew most of the people in JCF on an acquaintance level, so I wanted to be there for the people being baptized. Also, one of those people was Sarah Winters, one of my close friends. I had known her since the first week of freshman year, and when I heard that she was getting baptized, I definitely wanted to be there for her.
In addition to friends from JCF, other friends and family of the people being baptized were attending this event. Danielle was not part of JCF; she was Catholic, and attended mass at the Newman Center with me. But all of us in my car were friends with Sarah from our freshman dorm, and all of them also lived in the same apartment complex as Sarah.
I continued west on Grant Road, through more occasional sharp turns and zigzags over the next few miles before the road straightened out again, now heading southwest. The midafternoon sun was still high enough that I did not have to put my visor down. “This may be a dumb question,” I asked, “but what exactly happens at a baptism in the creek? I’ve only seen Catholic baptisms, when you’re a baby, and they just sprinkle water on you in church.”
“I was going to ask the same thing,” Danielle said.
“You proclaim in public that you’re a follower of Jesus,” Charlie explained.
“And then you get dunked!” Taylor added.
“That’s pretty much it,” Charlie said.
“Why is it that Catholics baptize babies, and other Christians don’t?” I asked.
“Because if you get baptized as a baby, you’re not really making a conscious decision to identify as a Christian,” Pete said. “So if you wait until someone is old enough to make their own decision to be baptized, then it really comes from them, and it’s more meaningful than if parents just baptize a baby because you have to.”
“That makes sense,” I said.
“It’s not just Catholics versus Protestants, right?” Charlie added. “Aren’t there some Protestants who baptize babies?”
“Yeah,” Pete said. “I know Presbyterians do.”
We continued west past Summerfield. The road turned to run directly adjacent to the redundantly named Arroyo Verde Creek as the hills, which I could see from home off in the distance to the west, rose around me. Oaks dotted the hills, surrounded by grass that sprung up green and bright every year during the rainy season, but was now in late spring turning brown. The hills would remain golden brown, as they did every year, until around the following January, when the rains of November and December had sunk in.
Twenty miles west of Jeromeville, Arroyo Verde Creek once passed through a narrow canyon just downstream of a valley. This canyon was identified long ago as a perfect place for a dam, which was built in the 1950s. The relatively small dam across the canyon flooded the entire valley behind it, creating Lake Montecito and providing a reliable water supply to the vast agricultural areas to the east. We stopped at a public parking lot just downstream from the dam; I recognized a few JCF people standing around. “There they are,” Taylor said.
The five of us walked toward the crowd. People trickled in as we mingled among the crowd, saying hi to our friends, until about a hundred people stood among the rocks and sand on the bank of Arroyo Verde Creek. I could see the dam about half a mile upstream from where we were, towering three hundred feet above the creek and spanning the entire canyon.
Dave McAllen, who with his wife Janet were the head staff of JCF, waded a few feet into the creek and announced, “Welcome.” He stood in ankle-deep water, wearing a t-shirt with swimming shorts. “You have come to watch four of your friends make a public identification as part of the Body of Christ. Baptism is an outward and public sign that you have decided to follow Jesus. Baptism was commanded by Jesus himself, as part of the Great Commission, in Matthew 28: ‘Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.’ In Acts 2, when the Holy Spirit comes at Pentecost, Luke writes that the people who heard Peter’s message were baptized.” Dave continued for another few minutes talking about the theology and history of baptism, about how being submerged in the water and resurfacing is symbolic of dying to your old life and being reborn in Christ. I wondered about my current situation, having been baptized as a baby in the Catholic Church, and whether or not that was acceptable to these people as a valid baptism. My question was answered as Dave said, “Before we begin our baptisms, Kieran would like to say something.”
Kieran, a freshman who had been in my group the previous weekend at the Man of Steel competition, stepped forward, not quite getting into the water. “Hi,” he said. “I’m not one of the people getting baptized today. I was baptized as a baby. But I didn’t really know Jesus until high school, when my friend brought me to youth group. Since I was already baptized, I don’t feel like it’s right to get baptized again, like it didn’t count the first time. But I just wanted to say in front of all of you that I am living for Jesus Christ.” People applauded as he finished that last sentence, and I joined in. I did not know if I would ever be brave enough to say that in front of the crowd, but Kieran’s proclamation suggested that I did not need to be baptized again.
Dave stepped aside as Janet, took his place in the water in front of the crowd. “First, I would like to welcome Sarah Winters. She’s a sophomore.” Janet gestured to Sarah to begin speaking.
“I didn’t really go to church growing up,” Sarah said. “I was a good student, I stayed out of trouble, but I also made some decisions that weren’t so great.” Sarah paused, clearly not wanting to talk about the suboptimal decisions. “But then I started going out with a guy right at the end of high school, and he was a Christian. They say missionary dating isn’t a good idea, but it brought me to Christ.” Laughs and chuckles spread throughout the crowd. I had never heard this term “missionary dating,” but I figured out from the context what she was saying. “He shared with me what it meant to really follow Jesus, and he lived it out in his life. We broke up on good terms last year, but it was for the best. And now I’m ready for whatever Jesus has for me.”
“Sarah?” Janet asked. “Do you believe that Jesus Christ is your Lord and Savior?”
“I do,” Sarah replied.
“Then I baptize you in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit.” Janet put one hand on Sarah’s back as she lowered Sarah backward into the water. After being fully submerged for a few seconds, she brought Sarah back up, and everyone cheered. Sarah smiled, dripping wet, as she climbed out of the creek and wrapped herself in a towel.
Three more people were baptized that day. Each had a different story, but all of their stories ended with finding Jesus and making a decision to follow him. I had a story like that now too, and it was humbling to know that this united me with so many millions of Christians throughout the centuries.
After the last baptism ended, I walked around looking for Sarah. Janet McAllen found me first. “Hey, Greg,” she said. “Wasn’t that good to hear everyone’s stories?”
“Yes. It’s always good to hear how God works in different people’s lives.”
“Have you been baptized?”
“I was baptized Catholic as a baby.”
“Oh, okay,” Janet said. “We usually don’t recommend you get baptized again if you were already baptized as a baby.”
“I had been wondering about that earlier today, and then when Kieran shared about that, it was perfect timing. Like he answered the question I didn’t even ask.”
“Do you know where Sarah went?”
“I think she’s over there,” Janet said, pointing to a cluster of people standing a little ways upstream.
“I’m going to go find her.”
“Sounds good. I’m glad you could make it here, Greg.”
I walked in the direction that Janet had pointed and eventually found Sarah. The people I came with had found her first; they were all standing together, along with Sarah’s roommate Krista and a few others.
“Congratulations,” I said as Sarah noticed me approaching.
“Greg!” Sarah exclaimed. “Thank you so much for coming!”
“I’m glad I could be here,” I said. “It’s always so good to hear stories of how people came to know Jesus.”
“Yeah. God works in everyone differently. We all have a story.”
I stood around listening to people make small talk for a while. Later, I started walking around to talk to other people, and I congratulated the other three who had been baptized as well.
The crowd gradually thinned, and we left about half an hour after the last baptism. We returned the same way we came, along Grant Road. At one point, near the inexplicable sharp turns, Danielle excitedly exclaimed, “Look! Sheep! And they’re real!” She pointed out the car window to a flock of sheep grazing in a pasture.
“Did you say ‘they’re real?’” Pete asked.
“Yeah! Right there!”
“‘They’re real,’ you said? So do you normally drive past fields full of fake sheep?” Taylor added.
“What? No!” Danielle said. “You know what I mean!”
“I don’t,” I said.
I never did figure out why Danielle was so excited about the sheep being real. Sometimes things make sense in someone’s head but do not get explained properly. But, as we drove home, my mind was more on what Kieran had said, how he had been baptized as a baby and did not feel it was appropriate to get baptized again. Although I had not studied the issue in detail or prayed about it, that was my current position. I did not want to turn my back completely on the Catholicism of my family and generations of my mother’s ancestors. Jesus commands his followers to be baptized, but from what I had learned this year from really studying the Bible for the first time, the act of baptism itself is not what brings salvation or eternal life. Catholics consider baptism to be a sacrament, but I could not find anything directly in the Bible stating that baptism affected one’s eternal fate.
It was surprising to me, therefore, when a few years later JCF held another baptism event, and Kieran was one of the people getting baptized. He made no mention of having been baptized as a baby that time. I never asked him what made him change his mind. By that time, I had had enough encounters with Christians who disparaged and belittled Catholicism that my position had become further entrenched that I did not want to be baptized a second time. I did not want to acknowledge these people’s mischaracterization of Catholicism, and getting baptized a second time felt like taking their side.
However, I did change my mind eventually, in my early thirties. By that time, I was no longer attending Catholic Mass. I knew that many churches that do not baptize babies require baptism as a condition of becoming a full church member and being able to vote on the church budget and new pastoral appointments. I had made up my mind that this would not be a dealbreaker to being part of a church, that I would get baptized as an adult if I found a church requiring adult baptism that I was otherwise ready to commit to. In the first letter to the Corinthaians, Paul wrote that, as a follower of Christ, he is no longer under the Old Testament law, despite having a Jewish background. It is not necessary for Christians to follow the rituals and customs of the Jews. However, when ministering to Jewish communities, Paul would follow their customs anyway, in order to be part of their community and build the relationships necessary to share the Gospel of Jesus Christ. I felt the same way about baptism by this time; being baptized as an adult was not necessary, but if I was going to become part of a community that believed this, I would be willing to follow their customs. In 2007, the church I had attended for over a year called a new pastor, and I really liked this guy, so I was baptized and became a member in order to be able to vote in favor of this new pastor. And I know that my parents did not see my second baptism as an act of turning my back on my upbringing, because they were there on that day to support me, just as I was there to support Sarah on the day she was baptized.