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Wilderness Baptism

In the summer between my sophomore and junior years of college I volunteered at a missionary training camp in northeast Alabama. If I mentioned the nearest town, people would ask, “Where is that?” And I would have to say, “In the middle of nowhere.”

My main job was to work with the various youth groups who would come on mission trips for a week. Most of that work took place in the Third World garden, where we practiced growing food in a Third World setting, without pesticides, machinery or store-bought fertilizer. We made a lot of fertilizer through composting, mixing dung with soy leaves and letting it cook. Weeding was also at the top of our list. Sometimes we rounded up chickens, picked plums, or dodged geese determined to drive us off. It was hard work but it only lasted for a couple hours between breakfast and lunch.

The highlight of the week was Thursday evenings when we brought youth groups down to the model Third World village. It had no electricity and no running water. The only sleeping accommodations were hammocks. We cooked rice and beans over an open fire and rewarmed it for breakfast.

I never figured out how to sleep in a hammock. After dinner I would stake out one of the wooden benches, put my sleeping bag on it and doze on and off until morning. It was a stark lesson on how most of the world lives, and we taught it every Thursday night.

The camp was never short of interesting people. Former communist revolutionaries from Bolivia, couples who’d spent their lives as missionaries in Nepal, French-speaking missionaries from Mali and, of course, Ken and Sarah Carson, the directors, who spent more than ten years as missionaries in the Bolivian jungles. One of their most vivid stories was of how they’d been living on mildewed rice for so long that their children started eating cockroaches in protest. Every week there would be someone else from a different part of the world with a different story.

During the week I had little free time. The other volunteer and I got up before five to help cook breakfast. Then we would work in the garden until lunchtime. Then there was a bit of program after lunch, and we’d be back for dinner. Sometimes, maybe a lot of times, we’d be with the youth group in the evenings for Bible Studies or whatever they were doing.

From what I understand, we had it easy. Every previous summer they’d worked the kids and the volunteers in the afternoon as well. The problem was that it was so hot that they needed to buy Gatorade so the kids wouldn’t get sick. In the end they decided that the work the kids did in the afternoon wasn’t worth the cost of Gatorade.

Once the kids left on Saturday mornings the camp became a ghost town. The kitchen was closed, and the fulltime staff was gone until Sunday night. I lived in what we called the glass bottle house made of mortar with glass bottles stuck in the walls so light could get into it during the day. It had no electricity, no running water, and was closer to the Third World village than the main buildings. But watching a lightning storm through those bottles was worth whatever inconvenience. On the rare occasions when I did drive my car out to the ridge above the house, I could literally roll down my window and pick blackberries without getting out of my car.

That summer was a time of incredible spiritual growth for me. I experienced the Holy Spirit on a regular basis. During the week I was surrounded by mature Christians who had given, were giving, or were expected to give their lives for Christ. During the weekends I took up the disciplines of prayer, Bible study and fasting. The fasting was more a matter of convenience. To get food I would have had to walk out of the woods, get in my car and drive for half an hour to get the food and another half-hour to get back. I usually made a foray on Saturdays, but I would fast from sundown on Saturday nights until the evening meal on Sunday when the next youth group came in.

One Sunday morning I woke up absolutely convinced that the Holy Spirit was telling me to be baptized again. In human terms that was a somewhat difficult proposition. I couldn’t remember my home church ever baptizing an adult and certainly not baptizing someone who’d already been baptized as an infant. But I made my way to the side of the river and started upstream. I was praying the whole way, seeking an inspiration on how I could baptize myself. After a twenty-five minute walk I was sure that I couldn’t do it alone. I started back.

Five minutes later I found myself in the middle of the river with no idea how I’d gotten there.

I guess I could have slipped, or “accidently on purpose” slipped, and forgotten the moment. But that day I felt that God said, “So you want to be baptized?” and shoved me into the middle of the river.

Since then, I’ve never worried about being baptized. If I am willing to trust my Christian community and accept the urging of the Holy Spirit, I am born again. Every day, God shoves me into the river.

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