Unlike a lot of other religions, in the Seventh-Day Adventist church you aren’t baptized as an infant. The premise is that each soul needs to make his own decision to accept Jesus Christ as his personal savior, that giving yourself over to Christ is your personal choice, secure in the knowledge that you’ve gained through the years. And once you’ve decided that you want to be baptized, you go through a series of sessions with your pastor before your baptism, then it happens. Mine took place on my tenth birthday.
There are two ways to become SDA: through conversion and through birth into the religion. Conversion is simple. Because being an SDA means being a witness to others, many come to the faith through tent revivals, through word of mouth from friends, and through coming in off the street into a service, then staying. Conversion must be amazing, I always thought, because you’ve been going through your life a certain way for so long, going through your patterns, and through your routines. Even more interesting to me are people who have converted to the faith who were previously a part of a different religion. I mean, to be involved enough in another religion to be a part of it takes consideration, so to decide it isn’t for you and another one is, that’s a major decision. People who convert usually come over later in life, so I guess perhaps they were jaded or disenfranchised with their previous religion. These converts rarely leave.
The second way is the path I took, simply because both of my parents were Seventh-Day Adventists when I was born. Both my sister and I were born without that choice, which seems like we were forced, but it was just a way of life. Our parents went to church every Saturday, so we did as well. However, it was also a type of limbo, because while we were blessed in a special ceremony when we were infants, we weren’t baptized until we were ready. You’d think, because both of my parents were highly influential and highly involved in the church, that we would have been pressured to get baptized as soon as possible, but one thing I credit my parents with is making sure we understood what we would be doing, the decision we would be making. Whenever I wanted to talk about getting baptized, my mother or father were there to just talk with me. I value that so much the later I get in life.
You see, baptism is symbolic of death and rebirth, a sort of phoenix being reborn from the ashes. The watery grave buries the old sinner, and when you rise, you rise a new person in Christ. And as an SDA, it’s taken very seriously. The ceremony is a solemn one, with many rituals performed before, during, and after. Then there is a feast in your honor, celebrating the choice you’ve made, and your inclusion in the church family as a whole. I have seen many baptisms over the course of my life, and each one has been special in its own way. Sometimes there is open weeping by participants, or prayers of “Thank you Jesus”, or even dancing down the aisle on the way to the baptismal pool. And the rest of the congregation is so joyful, singing hymns before and after. It’s an amazing spectacle to see, but it’s even more amazing to have it happen to and for you.
I had made my decision during the summer of 1986, at the age of nine years old, after a particularly eventful camp meeting. Every year each conference has its own camp meeting, a coming together of all the member churches at a central location for a two week extravaganza of tent meetings, for fellowship, and for meditation on all that God has done for us and done through us. It’s an electric atmosphere that is impossible to capture in mere words. Most people who come see each other that one time a year, as most members stay at their home churches so don’t get the chance to fraternize, so it’s a big reunion celebration, with those who arrive early in the week scoping out the scene to share with those who get in later. Our family would always pitch a tent in “tent city,” while others would reserve the cabins further up the hill. There was a large pavilion where the major sessions took place with dynamic preachers and inspirational music, but there were also smaller tents for specific youth groups: the children’s tent, the juniors tent, and the youth tent. It was at the juniors tent where I was inspired and decided to give myself over to Jesus.
Now, everyone knew me throughout the campgrounds because of my dad, so I really couldn’t go into any of the tents without being noticed. It was true about the juniors tent. At the time we were traveling the grounds in a group, with me, my sister, my best friend Robert, my sister’s friend Karen, and another boy named Lionel. We were hopping from tent to tent, and talking to others in-between, who we met on the worn paths. But once we arrived at the juniors tent we had sloughed off some of the kids who were hanging with us. Inside the tent they were singing “Kumbaya,” and I have always loved that song, so I hung on the fringes of the tent and sang along quietly while the others in my group sat down in folding chairs. There was a preacher that night who spoke about being a light in the darkness of the cruel world, and it just resonated with me. For the first time I was honestly touched by a sermon, and I knew then and there that I wanted to be baptized.
So, the day came, after being counseled by my pastor for several sessions, and I hadn’t been dissuaded. My birthday just happened to fall on a Sabbath that year, so it was a joint celebration for me, even though it was completely coincidental. And there were eight others who were in my baptismal group as well, all of them much older than I was, half of them converts. I remember I was in the middle of the group, and I was just calm that whole day. My entire family was there, and I saw them from afar beaming with pride at my choice. And I knew I had made the right choice, then and there, in that moment. I felt like I was there with God, and that it was a blessed moment. Then it was my turn, and I walked up in my gown into the cool water. The pastor took my hand in his, said a prayer, and dunked me under. It was phenomenal. I can’t describe the feeling. In that moment I just couldn’t imagine those people who had only been baptized as infants, who never got to feel what I felt right then.
It was a moment I will never forget.