Drowning in the Baptismal Waters

She was eleven years old.

She had been at an evangelical church camp–a week full of morning Bible studies and evening assemblies with emotionally charged music, stories, and sermons. On the final night, the guest preacher spoke of their need to be forgiven of their sins to be saved from eternal hell and to beg for the gift of heaven.   

The girl walked up the aisle and said she wanted to be baptized.  The people applauded and shouted “Amen!” Her tears flowed freely and the preacher explained it was because the Holy Spirit had gotten hold of her.   

I was one of the spiritual guides at that camp and I was assigned to “counsel” her on the spot. While she sat in the pew, sobbing, I knelt in front of her so I could see her face. 

“Have you been baptized before?” I asked. 

“Yes, but I need to do it again,” she said.

“You don’t really have to,” I said. “You’re already saved.”  

“Yes, I do,” she insisted. “Because I’ve been so bad since then!” 

“Why don’t you wait till you go home and you can talk about it with your parents?” I suggested. 

“No! I have to do it now!”

I was afraid she was about to reach a new level of hysteria.  I said, “Okay, but first let’s call your parents on the phone. They’ll want to know.”

She nodded.

As I led her from the crowd, she said in a broken voice: “I’m so happy…”

After talking to her parents, she decided to wait until she got home where she could be baptized in her own church. I was relieved that we slowed things down so she could rest and be with her family first.   

“I’ve been so bad,” she said. 

At eleven years of age, what could she have done that was so bad? Did she sass her parents? Had she snuck out at night to be with her friends? Had she gone “all the way”?

Did these things make her evil? Did she deserve to burn in hell forever? That’s what we taught her.  In fact, there were many lesser things, including “bad thoughts,” that would send her to hell.  Her only escape was to have special words said over her and then dunked (again) underwater.

It was a long time ago and I’ve had darker questions since then.

What if she had been molested?  What if someone had told her it was her fault? It has taken me a long time to see that our religion could be a tool to prey on the vulnerable.  The baptismal waters come closer to drowning them rather than cleansing them.     

I’m ashamed that I was part of a system that says people are evil and deserve to burn eternally.

At the time, I thought of myself as a reformer who was changing the church from the inside in Jesus’ name. I did my best to shield people like this girl from abuse but I was merely helping adjust things enough to allow an unhealthy institution to continue functioning.

I wish I had never been a part of it. Yet I also wish I had helped her more while I was there.

“Honey,” I could have said, “I don’t care what you’ve done, there’s nothing evil about you. You are a wonderful person. You don’t need to be saved. If there is a god, I’m sure he likes you fine.”

In fact, I wish I had stood up and told all the kids the same thing and then said, “You’re all marvelous, just as you are, and you don’t have to listen to this crap.  In fact, we can all stand up, march out of this place, go home, and be happy.

“C’mon. I’ll go first.”   


8 thoughts on “Drowning in the Baptismal Waters

  1. I grew up Presbyterian USA so the whole sin thing wasn’t heavily emphasized, so no altar calls, etc. Our church owned a camp where I was a counselor for a few summers. During that period I was “converted”, not by the camp programs but by others, then some of us tried to bring more evangelical views into the camp and at the church, we felt like missionaries in the church trying to bring them to our more rigid belief system. I remember being appalled when the camp director told us he didn’t like the song Amazing Grace because he wasn’t a wretch. How could he think that? We were all wretches! Now I look back and wonder how I ever held such a toxic viewpoint. We were wretches but it wasn’t because of original sin, it was because we were trying to convince the world that they were all wretches. Ugh.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Ah yes, I do remember something like that; I was that little girl and I’ll tell you I was so bad. I got baptized 3 different times bc the different churches I attended did think my previous baptism was quite right; hadn’t gotten all the sin-dirt off me I guess. Only their evangelical baptism would do it. And, of course, I believed all that s–t too. Sad little girl w/ a black heart.
    That God/Goddess I escaped from that meanness. I call myself a Recovering Evangelical A-thiest Ecclesiastically promiscuous Sinaholic now. Much happier.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I remember regularly sitting on the side of my bed crying, probably during elementary school, explaining to my mom I was crying because “I’m so bad,” and my mom countering, “You’re not bad, Elizabeth.” It was maybe just a year ago I happened to remember that and to connect it with the theology I was hearing in church. What a tragedy!

    It’s taken more than 50 years to work a way through these early teachings — to keep the good and be free of the bad. I’ve determined I’m a pan-compassionist freethinker, so I can value the teachings of compassion from all traditions, from fundy to secular. I hope the little girl you helped was a little swifter than I’ve been : )

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Elizabeth, I’m 80 YO now and it’s taken me all these years to work through that awful stuff we were taught about ourselves. I remember as a 5 YO going up, once again, responding to the “alter-call to get saved” and sobbing and sobbing. A lady asked why I was crying and I didn’t know. I just knew I was going to go to hell. I’m so sorry you had to endure that kind of nonsense too. I wish you a blessed recovery. By the way, you and I are not bad at all. Good on us.

      Liked by 2 people

  4. Thank you, Emily!

    I’m 82, so you’re just a kid : ) Looking back in time — my mother often described the tent meetings she attended as a child back in the 1910s, going with her mother who played the piano when they came to town; and how scared my mom was. If I remember right, she said she went down to the front every time. As an adult in her 70s, 80s, and 90s, she had left that behind and her religion was pretty much just the 23rd Psalm. She said she didn’t try to understand all this theology; that she just prayed, and was helped. To hear her say the Psalm was pretty awesome.

    I think somehow we have to find a way to recognize and counter our “dark side” in a way that makes sure it doesn’t warp our ideas about ourselves. ….Then there’s the instance of our president, who supports atrocities, torture, and war crimes and is pretty close to the opposite of every value I hold. Rather than the flattering prayers over him at the recent evangelical meeting, a little firey wake up message could be beneficial. On yet the other hand — maybe the best approach is Ram Dass’s, who would like to help him, saying, “You have a heavy load of karma.”

    Happy we’re both adventuring on in this intriguing journey!!!! Thanks again!!!.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. I remember church camps – every evening ending in a campfire with an altar-call. I would be in tears the whole time – what a horrible way to spend a week of evenings in what should have been a time of great fun with friends. I refused to let my children go to church camps with their friends because of this – I didn’t want them to be held captive (very rural camp locations with no cell signal) and experience the same thing. They did go to other camps – the county sheriff had a week-long camp, robotics camp at the local college where the kids stayed in the dorm…all much better experiences.

    Liked by 2 people

  6. Oh yeah Sonja. I sure do remember those torturous Bible camps. It’s was just more of the same. You know it’s so different from the fun church camps my husband went to. They actually had fun and weren’t threatened w/ hell and damnation….and needing to get “saved” again. Good grief!

    Liked by 2 people

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