Folks in my hometown landed in one of two groups — those who went to church and those who didn’t. Churchgoers were mostly either Southern Baptist or Methodist. The Catholics on the east side of town kept to themselves except for their annual Christmas tamale sale. I joined the Southern Baptist delegation at the Lake Lavon Baptist Encampment the summer after sixth grade. My initiation took place around a campfire on one of the first evenings at the lake. Moved by the chorus of pre-teen girls, I drifted forward when the counselor encouraged the lost to come and be found. After the twelfth or thirteenth verse of “Kumbya, My Lord”, I doubt if even the most devout atheist could have resisted the call of that sweet fellowship.
Every summer my best friend Ann and I boarded the church van to travel fifteen miles to the Lake Lavon Baptist Camp. If we were lucky, we’d bunk in a dorm with air conditioning and working showers. By the end of the week, the sleeping quarters stank with a mixture of wet bathing suits, hairspray, and mildew. We spent the days attending mission classes where we learned how to spread the gospel using puppets and crafts sessions where we put together old socks and cloth scraps to make the puppets. Each afternoon we enjoyed one hour of swimming in the pool where I faithfully practiced my dog paddle.
My lack of swimming skill, combined with a terror of being singled out for attention ultimately made me doubt my salvation. After my march down to the fireside that summer I thought my Christian duty complete, but one of the camp counselors informed me in order to seal the deal I would have to be baptized.
“You need to make a public profession of faith,” she said.
My problem centered on that one word, “public.” If only I’d hooked up with the Methodists, those Christians who proclaimed their salvation by slight dampening. I had gone and hooked up with the Southern Baptists, those believers in full immersion. I might as well invest in a snorkel and wetsuit in order to establish my place in the Kingdom of Heaven.
“Do you think I could be saved without being baptized?” I asked Ann.
“I think so,” she replied, “but do it to be sure.”
“What if I choke on the water when the preacher dips me under?”
I didn’t fear dying in the four-foot deep baptistry. I worried I might cough and embarrass myself, a fate far worse than drowning in the eyes of a teenager. I’d seen those awful white robes they made you wear. I imagined water dripping off my nose, my mascara running in black trails across my cheeks while the preacher called for others to come down and be saved. My luck no one else would be moved and we would have to float there through eight or nine choruses of “Just as I Am.”
Eventually I put my lack of a public profession aside. Except once a quarter when the Baptists would extend the Sunday morning worship to include communion. I agonized on whether I should accept the tiny, flat cracker they passed around. I glanced around at my neighbors. Every one of them scooped up a wafer. Seeing as it was so close to lunch time I would give in, washing down the inadequate snack with a swallow of unsweetened grape juice that represented the blood of Christ. Even though we were symbolically consuming his flesh, I felt that Jesus would have approved a larger portion.
To prove myself a loyal church member I devoted myself to bible study and Sunday School attendance. Our church hosted a twelve-week session on the disciples, and each week they gave out a prize, a small charm with the image of each of the twelve apostles. I came down with strep throat the week they gave out James, and despite trying to convince my mother that a 102-degree fever was no big deal, I missed collecting the entire set.
Along with Ann, I joined Acteens, the young girls’ mission study group. This weekly program included an opportunity to advance to “Queen of Mission Studies”, or some such other title I can’t remember. Besides earning a nifty scepter and tiara any young lady who reached the title of Queen would be invited to a special missionary tea at summer camp. Most importantly, the Queens earned an hour of swimming at midnight on the last day of camp.
Ann and I threw ourselves into this competition that was not meant to be a competition. We memorized the customs in foreign lands where our fellow Baptists labored to convert the lost. We walked three miles from Ann’s house to church carrying a large cooler filled with curried rice the week we were studying India. In December we organized and put on a splendid Christmas pageant, refusing to allow the boy’s mission study group–the Royal Ambassadors, to take part. They spent too much time playing basketball to be of any help.
We progressed through the steps, I remember them as something like handmaiden, duchess, princess, and finally–Queen. The ceremony to grant us our crowns was more embarrassing than any baptism would have been. One by one we paraded down the aisle during a Wednesday night service and kneeled at the altar while our mission study leader tapped us on the shoulders with a plastic scepter and bobby pinned a rhinestone tiara to our heads. There was no water and instead of a white robe I wore a pink dress that brushed the floor and put my hair up under the crown.
That summer would be our final trip to the Lake Lavon Baptist encampment. When our special day arrived at last, Ann and I dressed in our long gowns and put on our tiaras, and walked across the hot, dry campgrounds to the wooden building with screened windows where the missionary tea was to be held. Unfortunately for us the meeting room was not air-conditioned. I sat there and drank lukewarm Kool-Aid while the sweat dripped off my face and the long dress stuck to the back of my legs. I don’t remember much more of the event, except a great disappointment that the missionaries did not share stories of life-threatening danger. Stationed in Canada as school teachers, the greatest peril they faced was a shortage of chalk.
When the midnight hour arrived, Ann and I dressed in our damp swimsuits, gathered up our towels, and made our way with the other lucky girls to the swimming pool. We carried flashlights that looked like fireflies twinkling across grass. When we got there, we put down our towels and my summer friends jumped into the dark blue water. I stood on the edge of the pool, watching their heads bob up and down, drops sparkling on their brows like jewels.
“Come on in, jump!” Ann called, and I curled my toes under the rough cement ledge and pushed off, jumping out into the deep end of the pool. Down, down I sank until my toes scraped the slick tile on the bottom. I kicked my legs and shot toward the surface, bursting from the water and spreading my hands out above into the cool night air. I looked up and saw the face of the Man in the Moon, soft and bright as God’s love, shining down on us, the Queens of Summer Camp.