Some 30 people, with the support of more than 200 of their fellow parishioners of the Well Community Fellowship in Modesto, were baptized in the Stanislaus River at Jacob Myers Park on Sunday.
“The Bible tells us that Jesus was baptized in the Jordan River,” said lead pastor Randy Balling. “I believe it adds a novelty and it’s a special opportunity for the bunch to come together in a picnic setting at the park while people are proclaiming that they love Jesus.”
It’s the first time The Well has held baptisms in a river – they are more traditionally done in church – but based on the response, Balling said he likely will do it again.
Some of the parishioners were being baptized for the first time Sunday. Others participated in the ceremony for the second or third time to demonstrate their renewed faith.
“I am at a new commitment level with my belief in Christ,” said Shirley Newman. “I’ve gone through some really rough times ... I have held strong in the Lord and he has answered every one of my prayers, so I felt like I want another public presentation of my faith in Christ and what he has done for me.”
Newman’s daughter died in 2000. She was baptized once as a child and once when she was 50, but said she can’t remember either date.
During her last baptism, she said, she was “still caught up in the depression and the grief and all that comes with the loss of a child that I hardly remember.”
As part of her ministry and to help others remember the sacred ceremony, Newman has made more than 50 baptismal towels that are embroidered with the name of the person, the date they were baptized and the church’s logo.
She will have 30 more to embroider after Sunday’s ceremonies.
The people baptized range in age from 9 to 70. They come from diverse backgrounds and all had different reasons for taking part. Husbands and wives were baptized together, and even three generations of one family – a grandmother, daughter and her son – participated in the ceremony.
Before it started, Balling asked his parishioners to name at least one difference that Christ has made in their lives.
A woman said Christ taught her not to take her husband for granted. A man said he took away his pain. Another woman said he took her away from a childhood of abuse and gave her a new family.
Leah Kham said Christ has helped her survive mental illness and stop using drugs.
Born in Cambodia in 1974, Kham was an infant when she and her family fled from the killing fields of the communist Khmer Rouge regime. They lived in a Thailand refugee camp until coming to the United States in 1979.
Kham said she was first baptized as a child after arriving in the United States but was too young to understand and appreciate her faith.
“You’re just giggling in the water; you don’t take it seriously,” she said.
On Sunday, she smiled and held tightly to one of the assistant pastors as he dropped her into the water and came back up to the applause of her parish.
“It feels great,” Kham said afterward. “You come up and it doesn’t feel cold. It just feels like God is giving you a warm blanket.”