Jacuzzi Baptisms

Jacuzzi Baptisms

Kate Cammell | kac2261@columbia.edu

 

With the whirlpool setting off, the pastor enters a hot tub set up in the center of the church stage. One-by-one members, dressed in cotton tee shirts and athletic shorts, enter the tub for their baptism. Music swells from the praise band as the pastor guides each person through the process of dipping under water. With each dunk, the congregation erupts in applause.

This is the playbook of the monthly baptism services I grew up attending at Ada Bible, a nondenominational megachurch in Grand Rapids, Mich. Home to over 8,000 congregants, the church has four campuses scattered throughout the 200,000-person city. Each has been shuttered indefinitely as COVID-19 spreads across the nation.

These baptism services, slightly camp but moving, were always my favorites to attend. Kyle Pierpont, the Campus Pastor of the church’s Cascade Campus, often conducts the rite. He affirmed my sentiment as we talked the other day by phone saying, “yeah, people love them.”

Pierpont is a tattooed fourth-generation pastor with a grown-out brown beard and hair pulled into a bun that gives him an uncanny likeness to the Western iconography of Jesus. He’s in charge of pastoral care for the church and noted that it’s been difficult to uplift the community during this pandemic. Congregants are losing their jobs, loved ones are dying in isolation and everyone seems scared.

When Ada Bible closed its doors and went fully virtual on March 13, church leaders were hoping to reopen by Easter. Since then, the State of Michigan has enacted an executive order directing residents to stay at home through April 13, the state’s public schools are closed for the remainder of the academic year and the federal government has extended their social distancing recommendations through April 30. As of my writing this on Thursday April 2, cases in the state have risen past 9,000 and President Donald Trump is in the midst of public spat with Michigan’s governor, Gretchen Whitmer, that’s delaying medical aid to the region.

Returning to normalcy anytime soon is looking increasingly unlikely.

Ada Bible leadership is attuned to this. They’re preparing for a virtual Easter service. The church has been offering online sermons for over a decade, so adjusting to the technology and the congregation’s embrace of virtual pastoring were no problem. But still, there’s a void.

Pierpont said that he didn’t realize how much community took place in the liminal spaces of the physical building. Suddenly gone are things like saying hellos in the hallways, grabbing coffee in the atrium or striking up a conversation with the person who passes you the Half and Half. Gone also are the people who sit side-by-side as they cheer on those submerging in water on stage.

Those moments are now on hold indefinitely.


The author in 2001, wearing a special dress for Easter Sunday service while showing off chocolate from the Easter bunny.

The author's baptism in 1997 before her family moved to Michigan. Ada Bible reserves baptism for older years when people can choose it for themselves.

Pierpont has been thinking more lately about the meaning of baptism. Water washing away worldly sin, the act reminding those who partake that God invites them to an afterlife in heaven. On Easter he’s hoping to baptize people over Zoom. The recorded rite would then be featured during the church’s service. He thinks it’s a small way to remind people of the hope God offers even in difficult times.

While sitting at his kitchen table in front of the banana plant his wife got from Costco, Pierpont hopes to recite a blessing over Zoom as congregants dunk themselves in a body of water at their home, preferably a hot tub. Bathtubs could work too, though he confessed, “I don’t know I feel a little weird about the bathtub thing.”

Though I’m not particularly religious anymore, there’s something comforting during this time about returning to the church where I grew up, now by live stream in my East Harlem apartment. I’m stuck between needing to find meaning in this moment and wondering if I can. But I’m discovering, perhaps in an effort to etch some semblance of normalcy, moments of peace in reconnecting with a familiar community from afar.

One that I’d lost touch with until this pandemic.

Returning to church, I’m remembering that feeling of communion I had sitting at those hot tub baptisms of my youth. Cheering in chaotic unison for people as they cry and stumble off-stage smiling produces a connection that’s difficult to describe.

It’s easy for me to imagine the absurdity of it all to an outside eye—God being present in a hot tub on the pulpit of a warehouse-style church nestled in Midwestern woods. Now maybe even a clawfoot bathtub at someone’s home.

But in these moments of baptism, my church celebrates the idea that the people around us might find release and respite from the mortal world, a place where disease is real and no water can easily wash it away. As we watch the baptisms this Easter, there’s newfound hope that we might feel ourselves uplifted, too.

And, perhaps some congregants, like me, will find a much needed and special kind of levity that only comes from thinking about Jesus administering divine rescue via a Jacuzzi.


Community Never Dies, it Just Evolves

Community Never Dies, it Just Evolves

Esohe Osabuohien | eco2132@columbia.edu

Adam Bettcher/Getty Images

Attending church online was not a new concept for me. Many of the mega churches back home would conduct online services with the option to stream via their websites or Facebook. Even my church home, Russell Street Missionary Baptist, a relatively small Detroit based church with a congregation of about 50 adults over the age of 65 and their grandchildren, would stream service through Facebook live for members to tune into from the comfort of their homes.

However, what was new to me was the need to tune into service frequently.

Before moving to New York, I might have watched our streaming services once or twice; video lag would often keep me from enjoying the Word. Nevertheless, I would always connect to my faith in some other shape or form be it: reading my Daily Devotional on the Bible app, listening to religious and spiritual podcasts, reading a religious WhatsApp message from Nigerian Aunties, or just listening to gospel music. But, since moving to New York City and starting grad school, I must admit that I had fallen off with keeping my faith.

In the last nine months I had gone to church four times, once in September 2019 when I was trying to find a new church home in New York City, once in January 2020 when I went back home to Detroit, and twice in February for reporting assignments. My Bible app and WhatsApp messages went unopened, taking my 362-day reading streak in the Bible app back down to day one. I rarely felt inclined to tune into church service be it through my church’s Facebook live, listening to Bishop T.D. Jakes’ podcast, or attending the virtual service of another popular Detroit based church.

I felt as though God knew my heart. I was still a member of the flock, following and trying to lead by example, but I was also busy.

However, this all changed in March. As the novel Coronavirus (COVID-19) started sweeping through the nation, I felt the need to reconnect.

On Sunday March 15, I attempted to tune into my church’s Facebook livestream, the lag bothered me so I tried a different service and called my mom to see if she was tuned in as well. She was. She was also trying to help my 91-year old grandmother who lives alone and does not have a smartphone, but knows all about what’s trending on Facebook and social media listen in. Despite some technical difficulties, we were connected. On Tuesday of that same week, I tuned into an Instagram live tarot reading hosted by TatiannaTarot, a New Orleans based Diviner, spiritualist and Iyanifa – a priestess of the Yoruba tradition. I wanted to see if she had any messages for the week, or anyone I could connect to for follow-up on my story about followers of the Yoruba tradition. During her four-hour or more session, there were at least 500 people tuned in and asking questions or seeking guidance from either her or their ancestors, she responded and gave a reading for almost every question.

Both the Sunday service with my family, and her reading gave me something that I had been missing for a while, spiritual restoration and a globalized sense of community.


'Your Name is Higher Than Covid-19!'

'Your Name is Higher Than Covid-19!'

Kelly Davis | kwd2111@columbia.edu

Danita Delimont/Getty Images

WICHITA, KS. – Seemingly undaunted by an empty church, the worship leader stands at the altar and belts out gospel classics, enthusiastically encouraging the congregation to clap and sing along. His audience, watching at home on Facebook Live, politely obliges.

This has become standard practice for Sunday services at Heart of Christ, a United Methodist Church, in Wichita. For the last two Sundays, in the midst of the rapid spread of the novel coronavirus across the nation, services have moved exclusively online, shaking up church infrastructure and many other houses of worship along the way.

On March 22, Heart of Christ began streaming services online. The church’s Facebook page shared an announcement from the Great Plains United Methodists, which represents parts of Kansas and Nebraska, citing that they would be following CDC guidelines and moving to a digital platform. The statement also says that despite the fear around COVID-19, specifically around the negative financial impact that the virus has had, the bible tells us to “fear not.”

The head pastor of Heart of Christ, the Rev. Ronda Kingwood, put out her own statement, encouraging the church that although the congregation would not be meeting inside church walls, ministry would still continue.

“We will be ministering to our elderly, our single parents, the nursing homes in our community and others that may need help in this time,” Kingwood wrote on March 20.

On March 29, after the worship leader finished his song, Kingwood’s sermon from the church sanctuary seemed fitting for the times. She started off her message with a prayer, encouraging viewers that God is doing a great thing in the midst of the chaos and turmoil in the world. With her emphatic voice, Kingwood said that the origins of the pandemic came straight from the pits of hell and pleaded the blood of Jesus over the virus.

“Your name is higher than Covid-19!” Kingwood proclaimed.

She lifted up in prayer healthcare workers across the globe on the front lines fighting the virus, as well as those suffering from physical ailments.

“Let healing flow through hospital hallways,” Kingwood pleaded.

She prayed that the families of the sick would be strong in this time and asked that people would use common sense to practice social distancing and take the CDC guidelines seriously. She ended the prayer by giving glory and praise to God in the midst of it all.

Kingwood then jumped into the book of Ezekiel, citing the passage in chapter 37 where God brings Ezekiel to the valley of dry bones. Despite the death and decay all around him, Ezekiel still remembers that God is sovereign and that He can “breathe life into these dry bones.” Kingwood related this scripture back to what is happening across the world today. She reminded her congregation that although it may seem like we are all in a dark valley of anxiousness and uncertainty of the future, God’s people should use Ezekiel as an example that He can turn around any situation, no matter how bleak it seems.

Just like Ezekiel, God is showing us that He got this thing,” Kingwood declared. “God can use any situation and then turn it around. There is nothing impossible for our God.”


Sometimes the Body of Christ is a Chocolate Chip Pancake

Sometimes the Body of Christ is a Chocolate Chip Pancake

Madeline Simpson | mms2331@columbia.edu


Jill Brady/Portland Portland Press Herald via Getty Images

Associate Pastor David Gungor opens Trinity Grace Church’s service with worship songs. He plays an acoustic guitar, his wife plays the violin, and three other people sing harmony. They all stand at least six feet apart from each other.

After worship, Pastor Michael Rudzena enters the stage and gives a sermon about the biblical character Lazarus, who Jesus raised from the dead. Rudzena speaks of Jesus’ intellectual depth, his emotional intelligence and his hopeful courage as he learns about and mourns his friend’s death. Rudzena addresses an empty chapel.

The service flows from sermon to Eucharist, the Christian tradition of eating bread and drinking wine to honor Jesus’ body and blood. On a typical Sunday, the congregation would approach the front of the church to receive Eucharist from the pastor or church member.

But I know that today is different. I am not in Good Shepherd Chapel, where Trinity Grace holds service—I’m in my parent’s living room in White Bear Lake, Minnesota, watching Rudzena on a flat-screen TV. Instead of wine and bread, I have coffee and a piece of a chocolate chip pancake.

“Last week we said this is the weirdest Eucharist we’ve ever done,” Rudzena says. “But here we are again. Communion is about our connection to each other. Though we are not in the same room, we are deeply connected, not only by God’s spirit but by our love for each other.”

Trinity Grace is one of thousands of houses of worship in the United States and around the world impacted by the coronavirus. On March 21, the White House issued an ordinance for Americans to avoid gatherings of 10 or more people. Most evangelical church services fall in this category, and churches around the nation scrambled to set up technology that would allow the community to continue to meet.

It is the second Sunday in a row that I am attending “virtual church”—a result of social distancing and the “stay-at-home” orders to protect from the COVID-19 virus. The service is aired live on Trinity Grace’s YouTube channel, with a chat capability where congregants can talk in real-time throughout the sermon. I learn that I am not the only one watching out of town.

“Greetings from Baltimore!”

“Hello from two blocks away in Tribeca!”

“Grace and peace, everybody.”

For my church-going family, spending a Sunday morning at home usually meant a snowstorm had shut roads down. Raised in a conservative evangelical home, I grew up going to church a few times a week, including every Sunday morning. Skipping church was not allowed.

But now, we have no choice. My parents’ local church in Minnesota closed in the same way that the churches in New York did. There is nowhere to go on Sunday mornings except YouTube.

We adjust as the world adjusts.

“Let’s let this table move us towards unity in a time of strife,” Rudzena says, leading the online congregation in the Eucharist liturgy. “Let’s join in prayer, and start with gratitude. The Lord is here. His Spirit is with us... We lift our hearts to the Lord… It is right to give thanks and praise.”

And then, around the country, we eat our chocolate chip pancake, our cracker, our sourdough bread, and drink our wine, our coffee, our juice. We recite, separately but together, “Jesus Christ is holy. Jesus Christ is Lord. To the glory of God the Father. Amen.”


Preaching in the times of Corona

Preaching in the Times of Corona

Zoé Chevalier | zc2504@columbia.edu

picture alliance / Getty Images Contributor

This Sunday is not like any other. There is no singing and dancing, no coming together and hugging at the United Pentecostal Church in Harlem. Instead, Pastor Michael Grattan is alone in his office, preaching on Facebook Live, while comments pour in: “I’m watching from Wisconsin,” says one, many just send “Amen,” another one just says “I made it!”

It was not easy to connect to the Pastor’s sermon this morning. There were technical glitches, and the video stopped in the middle, leaving only a 7-minute segment available. These are the realities of preaching in the times of Corona.

The Church on 125th closed its doors on March 22nd for Sunday services but remains open for weekly prayer and Bible study on Wednesdays and Fridays. There, the few congregants sit on different benches and avoid getting close to each other.

If Bible study became online, the pastor fears that he would lose the back-and-forth conversations that are at the heart of the experience. He also fears that he will have to simplify his lessons because he thinks it is harder to explain complicated concepts online: “I see these TV evangelists,” he says, “they have 10,000 people in one room, but everything they say is so basic.” Especially now in this time of crisis, Grattan says he wants to focus his next lessons on the book of Revelations. “There is a hunger for it,” he says.

The Book of Revelation is the last book of the Christian Bible, written by an unidentified “John”. According to Pastor Grattan, the book recounts how the Antichrist will come down to earth and tempt humans to follow him, those who do will be stained by the “mark of the beast” and have their soul destroyed. This apocalyptic tale fascinates believers according to Grattan, as all try to find resemblances between the text and modern-day life. The virus is only intensifying a question that Christians have been asking themselves for hundreds of years: “Are we in the end times?”

Grattan’s Sunday sermon focused on a more positive message, one of hope: “Once we overcome the fear of death, we are able to overcome all anxieties in life,” he says on the screen, adding: “If we do what we can, God will do what we cannot.”

The cancellation of Sunday service came as a relief to some according to Iris Grattan, the daughter of the pastor. She says that worshippers were worried about sinning by not going to Church to protect themselves from the virus. “[They thought] am I being fearful and not believing in God? Iris says.

Grattan worries about his ability to connect with less technically-savvy members of the community, like those who do not have access to Facebook. Some older members have only an old flip phone, others do not even have a cellphone. Grattan tries to stay connected with them through texting and calling, but he does not know how he will keep the connection strong in the future. “I don’t have answers yet,” he says, “I have never been faced with this before.”