Baptisms Behind Bars by Rev. Lynn Litchfield
Often we are asked how does a baptismal service take place behind prison bars. We have no river or swimming pool (contrary to popular lore) and security is tight. I can’t speak to every prison because each one will have its own peculiarities but I can share with you some of my story.
When I served as Chaplain at Fluvanna Correctional Center for Women, we offered Baptism twice a year. Because women came from all over the state and sometimes they were new to us – and sometimes they’d been with us years, I strongly encouraged (required) women to take a six week Baptism Class with me. I wanted to get to know the ladies and I wanted them to get to know me. A baptism should be special – something meaningful and holy – and we can make that happen even behind bars. God’s pretty resourceful that way.
On Easter Sunday, I would get up very early and slip off to the prison in the dark. It was a special privilege to gather on the ball field outside the recreation and programs building for a Sunrise service. We were blessed and a little stressed to honor the time each Easter. We would gather the inmate worship leadership team to help carry the cross and candles and a table out to the ball field. The women would begin to arrive in the dark – coming escorted by their building’s correctional officers. It was cold… and we were quiet. The ladies understood the solemnity of Holy Week and Good Friday. We offered a Tenebrae and Holy Week Observance earlier in the week which left the altar stripped, the candles extinguished and the cross shrouded in black. Even now, thinking back, it moves my heart.
As the women gathered in silence, the officers stood round. Because so many came to the service (300 or more), the facility stationed officers outside the fence with visible firearms. Against the backdrop of a fence and firearms silhouetted in the new glow of the dawn, we would begin.
Christ is Risen. He is Risen Indeed! God is Good! All the Time!
After a service of celebration and a sermon of resurrection, we would sing and allow ourselves something rare in prison… to hope in a big way. Death does not win. This world is not all there is. Mistakes can be forgiven. God still loves us deeply. Yes, even still.
They would then return to their buildings.
But wait! Where is the Baptism?
Ahh, my friends, it is coming!
That afternoon, after a nicer than usual lunch, we were permitted a smaller number of women to gather in the Gym as our worship area. The baptismal pool that also served as our altar (picture a giant rectangular box with a lid – 7 feet long, 3 feet tall, 3 feet wide and on a specially handcrafted cart on casters) had been filled with water that we always tried, unsuccessfully, to keep warm. As the women gathered, they brought with them a change of clothes, which required special permission. The women of the Baptist Church, the WMU, had sewn 50 white Baptismal robes in all kinds of shapes and sizes for the ministry when the prison opened. Each woman could find one that was comfortable for her to wear over her grey prison purchased sweat suit or her navy nightgown. Why over her sweat suit or nightgown? Practically speaking, the robes were made of similar cotton found in sheets. We all liked to be modest. If she didn’t have the money to purchase a sweat suit, over the years, we’d received special permission to have them borrow a pair of sweats from my office – white ones to be sure we knew which were which.
Once dressed, another lovely privilege was to have a picture taken by the Chaplain’s Office. Pictures are hard to come by inside a prison and we had the opportunity to have a photo of a the woman taken either in front of the altar or against the wall – sometimes she would invite me to join her in the picture and other times she chose to be photographed solo – but never alone.
Volunteers from the community who gave generously of their time came to support the women that day. We had women assigned to escort the ladies to and from the baptismal pool (box). These ladies calmed nerves, helped with details like holding eyeglasses and held the towels the women brought from their rooms/cells. Some on the worship leadership team gathered with mops, others put out non slip flooring we borrowed from the kitchen.
When it was time to begin, we had already worshiped together, so we celebrated with song and got started. One by one, about twenty women would have their moment, surrounded by the classmates they had come to cherish and a few of their inmate friends invited to witness their commitment. We had stairs that were steep for older legs and two gentlemen volunteers stood by to assist each woman up the stairs without tripping on her robes. Women, if they had the means, could bring their own handkerchief to use – and then retain as their keepsake. If they didn’t, I provided a hankie but they were never permitted to keep them. Prison rules about personal property are very strictly enforced. Some women designed their handkerchief with art work of faith and hope, even the names of those they loved who had guided them to this place in their life. They would step into the cold water, walk the few feet across the molded plastic of the tub to where they stepped down into a “well” of sorts. There they stood, usually shaking from the cold and the Spirit, while I spoke personally about each woman. I tried not to be too wordy – it really was cold. I stood outside the pool at the back… and as they were ready, each woman was baptized in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. She would sit on the molded plastic and I would help her lie back into the water and rise to her new life in Jesus Christ. Some wept – but they all smiled.
I wrapped each woman in a giant hug and helped her find her feet where she reversed the process of stepping out of the well onto the molded plastic inside the tub to get to the stairs and down to go change. She was met by the gentlemen volunteers who helped her carefully on the slippery stairs, the women volunteers who held their towel and other needs. Sometimes, we would have women who were wheelchair bound – but bound and determined as well – so they would take the steps they had to take (often with lots of help) to make the effort to the pool. The ladies would go off to change into dry garments and return to worship.
Once all had been baptized, we would gather for communion and sing once more.
Of the many amazing parts of serving as a prison chaplain, seeing people understand the love of God for the first time, watching someone grow as a disciple, witness the powerful transformation of a heart and life… it is this service of baptism that has lodged its place in my list of “all time favorite experiences.” I got to do it for 10 years – ten very holy, sacred and special years.
And, for many of those years, my women and gentlemen volunteers were Averill and Paul Holtz and Willie Mae Byram (a GraceInside Volunteer of the Week) and her husband TJ. They were such faithful and present support. TJ was killed in a tragic accident while riding his bicycle just outside our shared neighborhood in 2004. His faith was strong and his heart was full of service and Jesus Christ. Paul, too, his brother in Christian service, has passed into eternity. I am certain when they arrived at the Pearly Gates, many met them who had been touched by their lives. We’ve lost a number of women to death since those days – as death comes to all of us eventually. I like to think TJ and Paul greet these ladies and welcome them into their new life in Heaven – much the same way they did on earth each Easter and Christmas Eve escorting them safely up and down the stairs.
As we approach our Easter Campaign at GraceInside, we chose Luke 16:9 as our scripture. NLT: Use your worldly resources to benefit others and make friends. Then, when your earthly possessions are gone, they will welcome you to an eternal home.
We have many who need to find resurrection behind bars in our prisons. You can help. I hope you will. They need you.
PS. And, if you make to the other side before I do, please tell Paul and TJ I send my love and greetings. They ministered to more than “just” the ladies.