Baptism in a river, New Bern, North Carolina, around 1900 (Public domain)
I will never forget the day I was baptized. It was November 1, 1998, and my brother and I had expressed our desire to be baptized to the pastor of our Missionary Baptist church. Ever the aquaphobe, I remember my eight-year-old self praying, "Jesus, if I don't die while I'm under the water, I'll serve you forever." And in the flash of a liturgical second, I emerged from the water alive (and a bit panicked, nonetheless). The panic I experienced for a moment under water was a foretaste of the panic, uncertainty, chaos, and doubt that is a natural, necessary part of lifelong Christian formation. These elements are natural and necessary because they are unavoidable. Loved ones die. Significant others depart. Jobs are lost. Life is transitory and baptism is a sacramental participation in those often unpredictable changes.
When I was baptized, I had no idea what experiences lie ahead of me. I had no idea that my baptism would lead me join a fundamentalist denomination at the age of 13 or that I'd eventually enroll in one of that denomination's colleges. I had no idea that I'd be confirmed in the Episcopal Church at the age of 20. More than confirmation and denominational journeys, my baptism has led me out of comfort zones shaped like neighborhoods, states, countries, and hemispheres. In the words of Rowan Williams, "being baptized is being led towards the chaos and the neediness of a humanity that has forgotten its own destiny." From impoverished villages in Honduras, to a refugee humanitarian center on the U.S./Mexican border, to the streets of the West Bank, the dangerous waters of baptism have left their residue all over my body, reminding me that the God revealed in Jesus Christ is God on the margins of society, on the edges of history.
And so, again, I'm taking the plunge with Jesus Christ by taking a trek to Ferguson, Missouri with 50 other Washington, DC residents to witness the beautiful tension of history taking place there. I don't know what I will see in that Missouri suburb. At times, the stories have been devastating and at other times, hopeful. And that's what baptism does for the world: it teaches us that God is right in the middle of the chaos of contemporary life with us. God was with Michael Brown's lifeless body when it lay in the sun for four hours. God was with the protesters who were blinded by tear gas. God is in the cries for justice being voiced by people all over the world. So, as I see the faces of activists, protestors, and bystanders this weekend, I will remember that the chaos of the past few weeks - of the past few centuries - is the very neighborhood of God.