Baptismal Font Goes on the Move
Even though heavily endowed, Grace Memorial Episcopal Church in Kelso, Ohio, a town just outside of Columbus is facing hard times. The Rector, an Assisting Priest, and a Deacon have only three remaining Church members. That is when the Reverend Alice Fairweather and her staff got an idea on how to reach out to others. At the beginning of Lent In 2012, the staff took to the streets of Kelso to offer ashes to anyone who wished them. “This January, as we prepared for the Sunday that remembers the baptism of Jesus, we realized we should do the same only this time with the baptismal font,” said the Rector Fairweather. “We removed the silver bowl lining from the stone font, blessed the water and headed downtown to our main intersection. We wanted to offer baptism to anyone who wanted it.”
The staff faced an immediate crisis because the temperature was so cold the water started to freeze. “That is when we headed to the Tri-Cities Mall,” said Art Dunning, the Deacon of the congregation. The group moved to the fountain inside the Mall’s rotunda and set up a sign declaring “Free Baptism for Anyone.” The group drew a crowd, but at first folks were reluctant to step forward. Finally Jimmy Dietsel, ”Moonshine” to his friends, a 17 year old son of lapsed Roman Catholics stepped forward and asked to be baptized if he could do it while standing on his skate board. “At first I thought it was some kind of joke,” laughed the heavily tattooed Dietsel, “but they even blessed the skateboard.” According to Jimmy, the experience was “cool.”
By the end of the day, nine people had stepped up and received baptism. Unusually, Margo Schwartz, a member of Beth-el Temple in Kelso, accepted the invitation. “I felt bad for the folks, all dressed up in their special clothes and all and no one coming forward,” Schwartz declared. So I asked myself, “What would Moses do? And I went right up to the fond.” Rev. Fairweather poured the water over Margo with the words “May the Holy One fill you with new life.”
“It was sweet,” said Margo, “but then Sparky started barking.” Sparky is Margo’s purse size Chihuahua. “So I asked if Sparky could be baptized too.” “Why not,” said Fairweather. “Sparky is one of God’s creation.” Sparky seemed to enjoy it all and after a few shakes of the head, ducked back inside Margo’s purse. Deacon Dunning explained that “We are a very welcoming and inclusive community and baptizing Sparky seemed like the right thing to do at that time. After all, many churches do animal blessings and there really isn’t much difference if you think about it.”
In the aftermath of the mobile baptism, there has been some controversy. The Rev. Harold Glummer, long time pastor of First Lutheran in Kelso said, “I think the whole thing was ridiculous. Maybe Grace Church should change its name to Cheap Grace Church.” This was a reference to an obscure 20th Century theologian. The Rev. Fairweather however was undaunted. In a later written statement she said, “There are and always have been reactionary people in the religious community that resist change. In the Episcopal Church, we had those who disliked our 79 Prayer Book, then women’s ordination, then same sex blessing. We can’t let such people stop us from doing what is right.” “Besides”, Fairweather added, “John the Baptist, and Jesus and his disciples didn’t sit around in churches and wait for people to come to them. They went out in the world and baptized anyone who wanted it.”
Some people questioned the appropriate use of Tri-Cities Mall, a secular retail center, as venue for the event. When asked, Joe Marshall, the Mall’s manager said, “At first we weren’t sure what to do, but then Rev. Fairweather pointed out that this was a spiritual act and not a religious one, so we let it go on. It really drew a crowd after a while and it seemed good for business.” Mr. Marshall did not say whether such events would be encouraged for the future.
The Rt. Rev. Sydney Atwater, Episcopal Bishop of Central Ohio, was asked his take on all this. In a statement released by his diocesan office, Bishop Atwater, who was attending a House of Bishop’s meeting in the South of France dealing with “God’s Mission and Global Hunger, was quoted as saying, “I commend the leadership of Grace Memorial for their creative action and I have called for a taskforce of key Diocesan leadership to study ways that this action of inclusiveness could be extended to other congregations.”
Although none of the nine people receiving baptism (nor Sparky) indicated any interest in attending services at Grace Memorial, all felt that the baptism was a good thing to do. Bishop Atwater also noted that, “Nine new baptized persons in one day was the largest number of baptism at one service in the Diocese since 1988. In addition, the baptized membership of Grace increased over 300% in one day. Now that is a story of a real miracle and is exactly the kind of mission activity that The Episcopal Church needs to rebuild our membership at a time when so many are disillusioned with the Church’s seemingly irrelevance to society,” Bishop Atwater’s concluded.
Very interesting Kevin. This pushes both my "missional" button and my "sacramental" button at the same. On the missional side: Yay! We are going outside the hallowed walls and reaching out to the world! On the sacramental side: An essential part of the Church is a community that shares life together, as well as the other rites and rituals that make up our panoply of sacraments. In fact the community IS the Church, the ekklesia. So, if we are baptizing people in the knowledge that they will almost certainly never share in true community, have we baptized anyone at all? Or have we just gotten people wet?
Of course, if Baptism is seen as confession of personal faith or a ritual that guarantees eternal salvation, then I suppose one-off baptisms could be seen as bringing souls into the (after death) kingdom. But I don't find that theology of Baptism compelling. But some do.
Baptism is rather, for me, the rite of adoption or new birth into the Christic Community, whereby we grow together into the fullness of Christ. And if there is no intention for Community, I'm not sure if it is actually baptism.
But then again, from the missional side, perhaps this outreach might actually bring some people to share in Christian Community. Perhaps a small minority, but then again, perhaps only a small minority of those who encountered our Lord 2000 years ago actually joined his community too.
So there I am, playing both sides.
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