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.”
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.”