It was my friend's turn to have a vision . . .
A river. No walls. God's church. All are welcome.
Sometimes the mystery of God's work is not revealed until we look back. Our first group visit to our sister church community in El Salvador had included a midweek medical clinic and worship with the celebration of baptism. Our next visit was a celebration of Christmas with more baptisms. Our next visit included home visits which brought the community into the church for a night worship in the rain. As we we were planning for the next visit, God gave us the thought of uniting a mission of healing with the spiritual healing of baptism at a worship to which all were invited and all would feel welcomed.
I saw us at the river - at the Chamulapa.
When we talked with our sister church pastor, he agreed that the Chamulapa was the perfect place for a service of baptism. Those who were afraid to come into the Lutheran Church, because of their Roman Catholic roots or the church's humble structure or for whatever reason, would feel comfortable worshiping at the Chamulapa - a river fed by a spring, the original water source for the community, and the local "vacation spot" for picnics and swimming during the rainy season.
We planned. We designed a Sunday School lesson using the story of the Baptism of Jesus. The children would color a picture of a dove on the front of an invitation to come to the river. Each child would make a baptism necklace with pretty blue beads and a yellow foam seashell bearing the child's name on one side and "child of God" on the other. The kids in our home Sunday School did the lesson prior to our trip, creating invitations for us to take with us to hand out around the community. Our 7th and 8th graders created two baptism pitchers, one for our home church and one for our sister church, each with a dove and water design, similar to the cards.
Our friends in El Salvador planned. Parents met with the pastor and prepared for the baptism of their children. Teens met with the pastor to prepare for baptism, first communion and confirmation.
The special Sunday arrived and we started the morning with Sunday School and the Baptism of Jesus lesson. We gathered for lunch and sat around the big table to prepare baptismal certificates for those who were to be baptized that afternoon. A teenage boy came in and asked if he could talk with the pastor. The young man said that he had a friend who also wished to be baptized and confirmed that afternoon. The pastor said he would like to talk with the friend. The boy ran off and returned with his buddy. After a bit of conversation and "quizzing" it was clear that the friend could recite the Small Catechism and talk about the meanings. Apparently, after each confirmation lesson with the pastor, the first boy met with his friend to share the lesson with him. We added one more certificate to our stack, marveling at the spirit of enthusiasm within these two boys and wondering how we might handle a similar situation on confirmation day in our church at home.
At 2 pm we gathered in front of the church to begin the walk to the river. Women carried umbrellas and little ones; men carried jugs of water. In my backpack sat the carefully wrapped pitcher. Everyone wore necklaces with pretty blue beads and yellow foam seashells with "child of God" on one side and a name on the other. As we walked, we sang, and the crowd grew as we passed through the community, walked past the radish fields, walked the dusty path up the hills and down, climbed through the break in the barbed wire fence, crossed through the dry scratchy corn, and finally climbed down the banks to the river.
It was the dry season, so the river was just a trickle. No matter. We gathered at the river and began to worship. We sang, we shared scripture and a message. Then, one by one, children and youth came forward either in the arms of their baptismal sponsors or with their sponsors at their sides. The baptismal pitcher was filled with clean water and each one was baptized in the name of the Father, of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. The clean water was caught in a plastic bowl, and in the end, was poured onto the ground to join the muddy trickle of the river.
I can still remember the heat of the long walk. I can still hear the crunching of the dry corn stalks. I can still laugh at the picture of one of our goddaughters squeezing through the barbed wire in her white dress with little veil in hand. I can still hear the voices of our pastors with North American accents carefully proclaiming the Word in Spanish. I can still see the smiling faces of those two teenage boys with baptism water dripping down their foreheads. I can still feel the cool water flowing over our toes, my friend and I standing side by side in the river, holding hands and savoring the moment as the crowd climbed the banks and began the walk home.
Much later, when we saw the film footage from that day, we realized just how big the crowd was. God's church without walls did have room for all.
Since that day, we have continued the Mission of Healing, seeking to arrive with hearts and minds open to the healing power of the Holy Spirit, always beginning the mission with worship, and welcoming new children to the family through the sacrament of baptism.
One of my all time favorite El Salvador photos was taken on that day when we walked to the river. It is of my friend, standing beside the Chamulapa in her favorite blue dress, with a yellow foam seashell hanging around her neck, oblivious to the crowd with a teary vision in her eyes --
I see us at the river.