Greetings in the name of Jesus Christ! The end of February and the first half of March (summer) have been both a very exciting and very hot period. Our first trip out to the beach was with a large group of kids in the Compassion International program based at the Km. 18 church that I work at during the week. We took three large buses filled with kids to a park on the beach outside of Lima (about as far away as Houston to Galveston). It was interesting that most of the time was spent in the shallow pools because the ocean is too rough plus many Peruvians do not know how to swim (for example out of three buses about 10 kids were able to swim and most of those did not swim well). We spent a whole day at the beach park and had a great time enjoying the water and our picnic lunch.
Later that week our campamento (church camp) took place in the same area near the Lima coast. I put in a ton of extra time helping to plan the camp and I felt the four days turned out to be a success, thanks be to God. Everyone camped in tents (about 6 to a tent) and started off each day with a devotional. Also, there were two workshops a day that addressed the faith of the youth and adolescents. We played a ton of games through the week and I was in charge of leading some of them along with the devos. I planned to lead capture the flag, but it was difficult when I arrived because I noticed that there were no trees and scarce places to hide. Therefore, in an open field we played one of the fastest games of capture the flag, lasting about 10 minutes, half of which was explaining the rules. We played with water balloons (I spent an hour picking up pieces the next day) and everyone had fun but we had to play other games because it was over so quickly. There was also a treasure hunt, competitive games and a night walk along the beach during the camp. Seven churches came together to form the camp and it was great to get to know youth from these different churches. This experience reminded me of my fond church camp memories at Camp Cho-Yeh and Mo Ranch. It took a lot of work but seemed to be well worth it in the end. Many of the kids formed strong friendships with youth from other churches they had never met before, though they all live relatively close to one another.
After a full week of herding kids at the beach, it was time to get some quality time at another beach far away (17+ hours in a bus). We had our YAV mid-year retreat at the beach in Mancora (technically Los Organos). Part of our motive for going so far away was that we had to renew our visas by leaving the country and re-entering. Our first full day at the beach we trekked into Ecuador which was less than three hours from where we were staying. We “illegally” entered through a market crossing and had to get directions to immigration so we could enter and exit formally. This turned out to be a series of going around to different border patrol offices and getting told different things. After some delicious food in Ecuador ( I had ceviche that was more Peruvian style), we were able to immigrate into Ecuador and then back into Peru successfully.
The rest of the week was super relaxing. Each day included a devotional led by one of our group and a study on vocational discernment. We cooked our meals (grilled chicken pasta, beef/ veggie fajitas, and grilled sailfish in mango salsa) in teams and I enjoyed grilling on a rustic and rusty pit three of the nights we were there. The time was spent enjoying the sea, cooling off in the pool, reading and reflecting on our experience so far during our year of service. We also looked at what we might want to do differently for the rest of our time and what we wanted to accomplish before our departure. Our last night we had a bonfire on the beach with smores and banana boats (I had fun playing with the fire).
Soon we were all back to our “normal” work schedules, it was during this time that I had one of my most beautiful and chaotic encounters with the Spirit so far. Last Friday night, I got a call and was asked to come to the baptisms that Sunday. This was news to me because I did not know this was taking place and I had been teaching the candidates for baptism, who where only a little more than half way finished with their class. Saturday morning I found out that I would be presiding over the baptisms and had to call my supervisor to make sure that I had the approval of presbytery to preform this sacrament. Saturday after lunch I left to go out to the church (per my usual routine) and stayed the night on that side of town. Sarah accompanied me and we went to a presbytery event about women in ministry. Afterwards I briefly spoke with the church president about the baptisms that would take place the next morning. This was to be my first ever baptismal service and it was taking place in a foreign land, in an unfamiliar denomination, within a different culture and I had no idea what their process was for baptism or even the parts of the service. I was completely uninformed and I was begging for information but there was no time or energy left for people to include me.
Early the next morning I arrived at the church frustrated, stressed and still in the dark about what was going to take place. There was a large bus that was taking the congregation to the place where the baptisms would be held. I was told that we were going to Club Retamas and to bring shorts to get into the water. That meant as much to me as it does to you. I am sitting on the bus stressed and anxious about my role with no sign of the church leader, who was about an hour late (which is normal in Peruvian culture). I had asked another member of the church what the usual service of baptism was like and got that they had a short service where they sang songs, prayed, the candidates gave testimony, a sermon was preached and then the candidates were baptized. Although very vague, I was happy to have any idea of what was going to take place. Finally, I got a chance to talk to the church president as the bus pulled away from the church.
I found out a few more details about the service, though there was no official order in which things were done. One of the details was that I would be preaching during the service. Really? A two hour heads up for a sermon in my second language for a special occasion, where some family and friends were with the church for the first time. It was only by the grace of God and every ounce of self-control I could muster that I did not explode. Those of you who know me well, would agree that I am a pretty flexible, laid back, fly-by-the-seat-of-my-pants kind of guy, but this was too much. I vented in English to Sarah and did a ton of praying. I did my very best to “let go and let God” because I did not have any other real choice.
With the help of the Spirit the service went well, though the 4 candidates (I only knew of 3) had not been informed about giving a testimony and a couple got stage-fright. As we closed the first part of the service, a fifth person decided they wanted to be baptized (to God be the glory) and she was quickly introduced. The congregation dispersed as the candidates and I put on our white tunics. We were informed that the river current was too strong and dirty to do the baptisms. Thus, we walked to the public pool area since we were in a park. The pool was filled with people playing, splashing and screaming. The president was trying to negotiate a corner of the pool that we could use with a lifeguard. Many people in the gathered congregation noticed how complicated a baptismal service in these conditions would be and started to suggest other options.
Someone had seen a run-off of the river, which had clear water and a slow moving current. We arrived at the creek, which was shallow and looked like a ditch. Some men of the church climbed into the water and started removing rocks. I joined in and we built a make shift dam to help raise the level of the water so full submersion would be possible (they don’t teach that in seminary – sure glad I was a Boy Scout). Even after the dam was made the water did not even reach my knees. One by one the candidates entered the river on make-shift steps. We got down in the river to pray and the Spirit took over.
Each baptism was unique and included for me equal parts of terror and beauty. The first baptism was of the youngest, an 11 year-old girl. I had her sit down in the water for her baptism but the water was cold and she was hesitant and squealing as she tried to sit. I promised her it would go fast once she was seated. She was then baptized and was able to get just below the water. When she arose the congregation burst into a capella singing.
As the next candidate entered the river, the president said that he wanted to bring the candidate down into the water from a standing position. I was sure that would not work and was worried about the young man’s safety. I was overwhelmed with a peaceful thought to stop my worry and trust. Giving over control, I baptized by lowering the youth with the help of the president slowly beneath the water and back up again.
Between each baptism, a song was sung accompanied only by clapping. A young man from my youth group, a large grown man who I had barely met and a young woman, who was little more than a brief acquaintance, were consecutively baptized. Moved to have some kind of confession of faith from the last girl, I asked her some questions about her faith so I could baptize in good conscience. I was asked to close in prayer and was inspired to add some impromptu liturgy before the benediction that included splashing the gathered witnesses and calling them to remember their baptisms. I am very thankful for my Sunday and Sacraments workshop taught by Dr. Jennifer Lord because I at least felt I had practiced full immersion once leading up to this experience. I see this as an instance where the Holy Spirit was preparing me for the future.
Though the circumstances where chaotic and filled me with all kinds of anxiety, God was in control. This encounter with the Spirit in the river is a memory I will never forget. I feel blessed that my first baptisms, messiness and all, took place in such a breathtaking manner. During the baptisms my fear turned to joy; this holy mystery I can only explain as the work of the Holy Ghost! To God be the glory!
For those of you who have not yet seen the photos on Facebook, please enjoy the pictures and the video clip. Also, I will be linking videos to the blog of sermons, work in Peru and the baptisms. God’s peace be with you.