Flashback to 1964. I was a fifteen year old know it all living in a suburb of the world’s largest steel town – Youngstown, Ohio. My dad did shift work at the mill as a plumber. It didn’t pay the bills so he also was the janitor at our church. He still had to scramble to make ends meet each month but we lived cheap and as he and my mom believe – god provides.
The Old North (Baptist) Church – Circa 1968
Our family – two brothers , two sisters, mums and dad – were members of the Old North (Baptist) Church. I’ll explain the parenthetical denomination tag in a moment. Old North was an old church. It was founded by 30 parishioners in 1936. When we attended, the church had about 200 members but it was a pretty good Sunday anytime you got more than 90 people at theWorship service. The church kept a scoreboard on the wall next to the altar. The first row of numbers showed total overall members, two rows below that showed many folks were at last week’s Sunday School and last week’s Worship services; the last two rows showed the same things for this week’s service. Deacons must have kept score on who came and went. I never thought about it. We always came for all the services so who cared?
Worship service attendance was the number that counted – that’s when they took the offering. Besides being the church janitor, dad was also a deacon and was privy to how the church made and spent its money. It was fairly simple. 90% of what the church took in came in through the Worship service’s collection plate (the other 10% came through the collection plates on Sunday and Wednesday evenings.). 70% of the money went to the Reverend Garland Brand’s salary. The rest covered mortgages on the church and parsonage buildings and utilities. That was pretty much it.
The Baptists believe that the word of god was the bible and that the bible meant exactly what god said in it. Exactly. So when John (the John The Baptist John) baptized Jesus, he dunked him in the River Jordan. He didn’t sprinkle his head – he lowered Jesus’s whole body underwater, said some mumbo jumbo while Jesus held his breath, then raised him back for some air. It was a bomb. All four evangelists copyrighted it right there.
So Baptists believe in baptism by immersion. Some still go down to a nearby river for the ceremony but most were like out church. They installed a bathtub type thing in the back of the church and filled it on those special days.
The Modal 9533 Baptistry – $1500 + $595 delivery
The Old North (Baptist) Church had its big bath tub in back of the sanctuary. It was a heavy metal box ten foot long, four feet wide and deep enough to cover Reverend Brand’s fairly large belly. Baptism services were relatively rare but when they did occur, they took place during the Sunday Evening service. Sunday’s were merciless days of church going and prayer. Usually when the Sunday Evening service rolled around, my brothers and sisters were pretty cranky. We were missing both the Walt Disney Show (with the real Walt Disney) and Ed Sullivan. We typically tried to make some deal with the mums around extra bible reading or other such thing to get out of going. Except for baptism Sundays – those services usually turned out better than even Wayne and Shuster on the Sullivan show.
Pastor Brand was a roly poly man his early fifties and not particularly strong. His biggest source of exercise was mostly thumbing through the Good Book or books about the Good Book. [As a teenager, I couldn’t even imagine the Reverend fucking dowdy Mrs. Brand but I supposed he got a workout doing that on occasion.] So baptisms were a physical challenge for Reverend Brand – he was the lever that moved the baptisee from standing position to horizontal beneath the water’s surface, doing the mumbo jumbo thing, then returning them upright again. In this performance, the Pastor often failed.
We are in early November 1964. The church had a baptism Sunday the week before Thanksgiving. There were two candidates for the evening. One was a fourteen year old girl named Corrie Woodlock. Corrie was had been ‘saved’ in October at Garland’s Jesus Is Coming annual preaching marathon that he did every late Fall to expand the flock for the Christmas season and its coincidental fund drive. The other baptisee was Myron Cox.
Myron Cox was the senior deacon of the church. It was not liked he wasn’t ‘saved’ or hadn’t been baptized before. He had been saved, as he frequently testified during the testimony segment of the Sunday Evening service, more than twenty years ago. He had been baptized before too – in fact he had been baptized six times before. This week’s would be his lucky seven.
Baptist dogma calls for a person to be baptized only once (sprinkling and baptisms of children under thirteen didn’t count). There was not hard and fast rule against multiple baptisms but generally it was avoided unless a person had a serious and long duration break from Jesus and the church. Myron Cox never could have fit in this category. Since his conversion to Christ as a young furnace bricklayer at US Steel in 1937, he had been a faithful servant of the Lord. At least in the eyes of everyone except Myron Cox. Myron believed his life was relentlessly full of sin. Each day he sinned against jesus Christ and back slid on his covenant with god. Each night, he lay prostrate bore the lord begging forgiveness and though he knew the Lord forgave his wretched life each day but still he continued to sin. Terrible sins. Envy. Anger. Distrust. Even Lust. A lot of lust.
Eventually Myron broke down under his sins and came to Pastor Brand crying for more forgiveness, begging for some new penitence and searching for a way to rededicate himself to god and the holy spirit. At some point, Brand would suggest another baptism. And that was when Myron would start gathering himself together, let the tears dry from his eyes and give thanks to his merciful god(??).
This was not an easy path for Reverend Brand to take. Four times before, Brand had baptized Myron Cox and in each of the four times, he had dropped him in the water. The last time – three years ago, he not only dropped Myron but split the back of pants an event unnoticed by him and the congregation until he turned his back to the crowd has he helped Myron up the steps from the baptistery and felt the church’s air-conditioned air wafting between his butt crack and scrotum. At the same time, he heard the congregation’s collective gasp and immediately realized his naked ass and privates were displayed to all. A fat man’s butt cheeks and shriveled balls were not a pleasant sight for the children to see.
Brand wore underwear at baptisms after that. But still it was only with great reluctance that he offered Myron the seventh baptism. A reluctance only overcome by the exhaustion of listening to Myron’s plaintive sobs for five hours and his fear of the rising ire of Mrs. Brand for the Reverend’s cow toeing to a sixty year old man-child and her suspicion that Garland was using the ‘Myron Excuse’ to once again avoid dinner with her sister Eunice.
So the date was set for November 17, 1964. The evening service was well attended – even better than Christmas. Members of long standing in the church remembered Myron’s four earlier baptisms with fondness bordering on glee. Everyone remembered the pastor’s embarrassing rear end – we kids incessantly cracked jokes about it no matter the amount of shushing from the parents.
The Reverend Garland Brand
Reverend Brand, of course, was the person most nervous that evening. Garland Brand had a beautiful baritone voice and loved to sing at any services. That night, he skipped the singing. His voice was wobbling and unsteady in the opening prayer. It didn’t improve as the service progressed.
The theme of the sermon was, of course, the meaning of baptism. Most of Brand’s sermons were long endurance exercises. A regular penitence for the faithful. But not tonight. He mostly read scripture; gave a listless ramble around its symbolism and wrapped up with a short prayer.
The choir sang all three verses of There Is A Fountain Filled With Blood while Reverend Brand, little Corrie Woodlock and hunky Myron Brand went back behind the sanctuary to get ready to step into the baptistery.
As the choir finished its last verse, Brand entered the baptistry. He said a prayer. No one listened. Corrie Woodlock was first and he beckoned her down the steps. Corrie stood on his left as Brand asked if she accepted the Lord Jesus Christ in her heart and as her savior. Corrie affirmed and Brand pushed her lightly on her chest with his right hand and lowered her down with his left. Down she went to ‘Buried in the sins of the earth’ Five second pause, then ‘Raised by the blood of Christ’ and up she came.
Brand murmured a few words in Corrie’s ear, they both smiled and he led her back up the stairs. The choir sang the first verse of There Is A Fountain again. When they finished, there was only the sound of heavy footsteps splashing down the stairs as Myron Cox came into the baptistery.
Myron was not basketball tall but he was taller than Garland Band. He towered over Reverend Brand as he moved into place. Brand asked Myron if he was ready to renewed his life in Christ and serve the lord. Myron looked at the pastor and replied hoarsely that he did. Brand’s left arm wrapped itself around Myron’s back; his right pushed on his chest. Brand started the ‘Buried in the sins….’ and pushed Myron back. Myron fell backwards suddenly and deeply into the pool. Water splashed up the wall, over Reverend Brand and out onto the alter. Myron seized Brand’s hand that was on his chest as he was going down, pulling the preacher down into the water with him. As they both floundered about trying to regain their footing, water flew everywhere. They were probably only submerged for a second or two but it seemed much longer as water flew, limbs pounded against the metal box and both men gurgled for air.
There was silence as they finally stood upright out of the water. Brand recovered quickly putting both of his hands on Myron’s head and saying the finishing ‘Raised by the blood of Jesus Christ’ to which he added an exhausted amen.
To me, this was as good as a church service could get. We joked and laughed about in youth group for the next six months. The adults, however, didn’t say much. On the way home, my dad observed to my mother how it ruined the night for little Corrie Woodlock. He put the blame on Myron – the man had already been baptized six times. The ninny needed to buck up and behave like a man.
Three years later, Garland Brand moved on to another church. By then I was in my senior year of high school and I had quit going to the church at all. But I had developed a little admiration for the pastor. He did what he had to do in the face of certain failure. I wondered if he ever thought that god had let him down. He preached how faith could move mountains, heal the sick, and bring peace to the tormented. But neither faith or Jesus or any of the other rigmarole helped him baptize the blubbery Myron Cox.
N.B. – No, I didn’t forget I promised to explain the (Baptist) in the Old North (Baptist) Church’s name. It just that it is another story. You’ll see.