Saturday, February 12, 2005

Take Me to the River

I performed my first river baptism this week.

The church in Sa’a had a three-day youth revival, and three teenagers had given their lives to Christ. I drove up with Pastor Billong on Thursday at noon, picked them up with their pastor, Jean-Blaise Bikoy, and drove to the Sanaga River, the largest river in all of Cameroon.

The banks of the river were crowded with people; hundreds of young men row boats into the middle of the river, dive to the bottom for sand, fill the boats with sand, then return to the riverside where the sand is removed and shoveled onto trucks for sale in the city. Besides the workers, there were women and young girls hawking lunch items, wide-eyed children looking for something to do, and bored truck drivers.

And when we got out of the car, all work came to a standstill. I pulled on a white robe over my black clergy shirt and khakis, and waded out into the river between a couple of boats.

One young diver called out a warning; Billong said, “He says that we shouldn’t go too far out – it gets deep quickly.”

There, about fifteen feet from shore, three young people were irrevocably marked with the seal of God.

What I will remember about the experience, however, is not the candidates and their reaction to the deep plunging, nor is it the feeling of resonance with John the Baptist and all those others who have found immersion to be of such vital theological significance. Instead, my attention was drawn to the crowds on shore, who watched, gawked, cat-called, laughed, and clapped at the spectacle unfolding before them.

I hadn’t imagined this untidy, chaotic group of spectators. I’d always pictured river baptisms as pastoral, gentle scenes, a choir humming softly in the background. But this was different! So much chatter and work going on around us.

After each candidate came up from the water, gasping for air, there was a roar of voices. I asked Billong, “What are they saying?”

He laughed, “Some are making fun. Some are asking to be baptized, too.”

Pastors Bikoy and Billong spent a few minutes speaking to individuals who were curious about what had just happened, but in the end, nobody else wanted to be seriously considered for baptism.

As we left the riverside, I began to reflect on the experience. It began to dawn on me that this was probably similar to the scene at the Jordan as John baptized people. It was a public event, at which all kinds of people showed up. Some jeering, some curious, but no one bored or apathetic.

Baptism in a dirty river demands a visceral response. Either you like it and want to jump in yourself, or you think it’s a farcical and comical gesture. But either way, you watch. It’s a gripping drama. Because right there, in front of everyone, the story of Jesus is being re-enacted – life, death, resurrection.