About 300 people gathered on a cool, cloudy Easter morning to watch 25 people receive baptism in the Middle Bosque River at Camp Hope, until recently called Camp Val Verde.
The river baptism, recalling the earliest days of the Christian faith and the baptism of Jesus himself in the Jordan River, has been an annual event for about 14 years for Waco’s Church Under the Bridge, pastor Jimmy Dorrell said.
The 20-year-old church is affiliated with Mission Waco, which was co-founded by Dorrell.
Camp Hope is owned by Gary and Diane Heavin, of Waco, founders of Curves International.
Church Under the Bridge holds Sunday services under the Interstate 35 bridge over Fourth Street, but it goes out to the river for baptisms on Easter and sometimes one other time during the year, Dorrell said.
“We recall Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount, preached out in the open air to all sorts of people,” he said. “Our church has no stained glass. While most churches do things for the poor, we do things with the poor. They’re a part of us. You can look around and see we’re not just a church of the poor; we have all kinds of people, and usually at any gathering we’ll have two or three millionaires. But we’re actually doing what others try to do. We have people from every walk of life, all classes, all races.”
Before the 11 a.m. service started, the sky almost looked rainy before partly clearing off. The tops of tall trees on both sides of the river bowed in the wind, but the trees sheltered congregants sitting on well-worn folding chairs.
The crowd might have been considered unruly for a church service. People moved around and talked freely, a few parents and children wandered to the riverbank and skipped stones, and a few people even smoked in the chairs.
But Dorrell and other service leaders challenged the crowd to respond with cheers at every mention of the raising of Christ from the dead, including references to it in the Apostles’ Creed, and they drew a heartfelt response.
Dorrell’s wife, Janet, also a co-founder of Mission Waco, was lead singer of a five-member praise team made up of guitars and drums. Associate Pastor Charles Benson read Scriptures from the Gospel of Luke about the Resurrection and the encounter between Jesus and two disciples the same day on the road to Emmaus, where the disciples did not recognize the risen Lord.
Benson also helped Dorrell with the baptisms, which took place in a swimming hole graced by a rope swing that came into play as soon as the serious business was over.
The swimming hole is in a deep part of the river backed up by a dam.
“We usually do this in the shallow water below the dam,” Dorrell said, “but there’s not enough water this year because of the drought.”
Another soloist was an autistic man who got a great deal of help from the praise team and ended by looking and sounding like a full and equal member of the group.
Didn’t mind the damp
The people who were baptized wore all kinds of garb, from shorts and T-shirts to sharp casual, and nobody changed clothes when they went into the water or when they got out.
The only person not baptized by immersion was Shatzie Moore, a member of the church for two years who suffers from a serious illness and is at risk for infection if she got wet. Dorrell baptized her by pouring water on her head.
The youngest to receive the rite was 11-year-old Kaitlin Bohn, baptized with her father, Fred Bohn.
All the people baptized were given a moment at the microphone before the walk to the water. Most credited God for recovery from drug or alcohol problems.
One woman said she was raped at age 15 and thanked her parents for their support through the ensuing pregnancy. The child, now her 32-year-old son, was with her at the river.
Dorrell lightly scolded the church for “sloppy agape,” referring to the biblical word for the love of God and the highest love of Christians for each other.
‘Call them back’
“If you see these new Christians getting out of line and forgetting what their baptism means, then call them back to the right way to live,” he said.
He told the congregation, “We’re usually a slap-happy church, but when I say, ‘He is risen,’ you answer, ‘He is risen indeed,’ like you remember that if this day hadn’t happened, we wouldn’t be here. Shout it the way you would if you were at a football game.
“When we say, ‘On the third day, he rose from the dead,’ we’re standing in the shadows of men and women who gave their lives 2,000 years ago because they said that. People around the world are still suffering for it.”
He warned his listeners against “spiritual hardening,” which he said is a dullness that springs from moral failure and a sense of futility that comes from a preoccupation with “stuff.”
He said, “In that condition, you may still go to church and pray, but you don’t feel it. The angels at the Resurrection said, ‘Didn’t he tell you that he would be crucified and rise after three days?’ And people still saw him but didn’t recognize him. They weren’t seeing with their eyes open.
“If you have your eyes open, you’re seeing what God sees and you know what to do. We don’t see, we harbor secret sins, because we’ve become hard. The Greek word is ‘skleros,’ as in hardening of the arteries.”
He reported visiting a leper colony in India and seeing people with hands bandaged because they could not feel the fire they were trying to cook on.
“We’re afflicted with spiritual leprosy when we can’t feel the pain of others. Compassion means entering into the pain of others.
“Usually, it’s only when people are broken by some personal cataclysm that they’re ready to see in that way, but it doesn’t have to come to that. I ask you to pray that God will do whatever it takes to open your eyes so you can recognize the things you need to do, day by day.”