A Baptism in the County Jail

This post originally appeared on the School for Conversion Blog.

Wednesday morning was a thoroughly rainy day, a perfect day for a baptism. As the rain hit me I gave thanks for my own baptism as an infant in a Presbyterian church. Although I don’t remember it, my parents have told me the story many times. The pastor held me in front of the church, baptized me by water and the spirit, and I thought it was hilarious. I was smiling the whole time. The minister said, “I’ve never seen someone so happy to join the kingdom of God.”

Wednesday’s baptism would look a little different. Ken and I buzzed into the main entrance of the Watauga County Jail. “How can I help you?” said the man behind the intercom. I reply, “Luke and Ken are here for the Bible study.”

A supervisor turned a big key and let us in. Ken carried a bag of Bibles. I carried a metal basin, a plastic pitcher, a cup, and a heart full of excitement. I’m a Methodist minister in the United States; it’s not everyday I get to baptize someone.

We were buzzed through a few more doors and entered a pod where twenty-four men were waiting for their court dates. Some are there for a few days some for two years. It’s a time of unimaginable waiting; waiting for a court date, waiting for a sentence, or waiting for release. The time ticks away slowly, but on the outside the rest of the world continues, as their children have birthdays, their families gather for holidays. Meanwhile, these men sit and wait. James is one of these men.

James was arrested a few months back on some serious drug charges. Not long after arriving at the jail, someone gave him a Bible. A month later he gave his life to Christ. Every week James, Ken, and I open the Bible together, trying to let it speak to us, trying to live lives that look more like Jesus. Over the past months a surprising friendship has grown between us. We pray for James and he prays for us. When we sit around that metal table fixed to the floor, the labels of inmate and visitor are dissolved, the mistakes of all of our pasts are forgotten, and a glimpse of beloved community is felt.

Following Christ in jail is not easy. We’ve seen James wrestle with this new life he’s being called into. James regularly shares his challenge with non-violence. It pushes him greatly to walk away from people who disrespect him in the jail; normally he’d settle disputes the old-fashioned way. Yet over and over again James has chosen the narrow path.

Last week James told us he wanted to be baptized, but didn’t know it could happen. I replied, “How about next week!” The whole week I was elated, but tried not to get my hopes up. Nothing is predictable in jail ministry. He could get moved during the week, they could be having a crazy day in the jail and turn us away. Nothing is guaranteed. 

But everything went smooth and we entered the pod with a pitcher of water, ready for a baptism. The automatic metal door locked behind us with a loud click, a noise that used to startle me. We sat down with James at the metal table and went over the basics of baptism. We talked about how in baptism we are cleansed of sin, initiated into covenant with God, incorporated into the Church, made an heir of the divine kingdom, and spiritually born anew. We went over the vows, which seemed to take on a deeper meaning in jail. The second vow says, “Do you accept the freedom and power God gives you to resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves?” In this place where freedom is taken away from James, he would be accepting a greater freedom that no bars could keep away from him.

I asked him if he still wanted to be baptized. He said, “Absolutely.” We stood up in the common area of the pod, a few other inmates came out of their cells. James committed to his vows and I prayed over the water. James leaned over the metal basin and I baptized him in the name of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. The water was dripping down his smiling face. I announced proudly, “Now it is our joy to welcome our new brother in Christ.” The pod erupted with applause. The men standing in the pod clapped, Ken clapped, I even noticed one of the men still sleeping in his cell, pop his hands out of his blanket and clap. James was beaming. We laid hands on him and prayed. One of the first things he said was, “I can’t wait to tell my grandma.”

When Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove visited Boone earlier this year to encourage us in our work in incarceration, he said, “You have to go to prison to learn to be free.” In other words, it is only when we share life with those behind bars that we learn about true freedom. James is proof of this. My friendship with James has taught me that God’s grace is abundant; there is nothing we can say or do to render us unforgivable. Our friendship has taught me that society’s labels mean nothing; we are all brothers. Our friendship has taught me that God continues to set prisoners free.

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