The Rev. Benjamin Williams remembers the first baptism he administered as leader of the Mt. Calvary Missionary Baptist Church on Terry Grant when she was 8 years old.
He remembers his own baptism in a river near his hometown in Warrenton, N.C., when he was 8 years old and his re-baptism in the Jordan River in the ’70s when he visited Israel.
Williams says he’s probably done thousands of baptisms in his lifetime. He’s 78 years old.
A small crowd of people gathers in a back room of Mt. Calvary Missionary Baptist Church on Saturday morning in preparation for the day’s events.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to The Island Packet
In celebration of “homecoming” — which church members describe as something similar to a family reunion — a friends and family cookout with prizes and bouncy houses is in store for the afternoon.
But before the fun can start, something even more joyful is in store — baptisms.
In the back room, volunteers dart in and out of the church with supplies for the cookout. Amid them are two deacons and four candidates (those preparing to be baptized) dressed in all-white clothes.
When Williams enters the room, everyone stops and there’s instant silence.
“Baptism alone does not save you,” he says, addressing the crowd and the candidates at once. “It’s a process.”
Williams, who has served as this church’s pastor for 41 years, speaks of the baptism as a “liquid grave” from which the candidates will rise up to meet their new life.
When he gives the order, the congregation exits the small church on Squire Pope Road and begins a parade down the driveway to Hudson’s Seafood House on the Docks to reach Skull Creek. As they walk, some begin to sing.
At the edge of what Williams describes as “our river of Jordan,” the crowd gathers and watches as the two deacons wade in knee-deep water. Williams will not perform the baptisms, but leaves the task to the deacons.
The first candidate, a young boy, enters the river. Deacon Michael Major dunks the boy’s head back into the river in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost.
The congregation responds in song, smiles and even a few tears.
Among the candidates is 20-year-old Cayenne Green, who’s having a rededication baptism. Green said she was baptized about three years ago, but after a rough patch, she began to drift from the church.
A week ago, during the Sunday service, after the serving minister opened the church doors to symbolize letting Christ in, Green cried and asked to be baptized again.
“I wasn’t nervous,” she says after the baptism. “I knew I was doing a good thing. When I got in the water, (the church members) were there for me when I got back. It felt really great, I felt blessed.”
After the baptisms have been preformed, Williams sits in his office inside the church. One of the pictures on the wall is from an issue of National Geographic from 1987 when the magazine wrote a piece on culture among the Sea Islands. In the picture, the pastor is coming out of the river after performing a baptism.
Carolyn Grant, a member of the church and the sister of Williams’ first candidate, looks at the photograph.
“That’s the thing about technology,” she says. “Hardly anyone had a camera. Now you have a record, and a lot of older members, they just have a memory.”
Williams says that when he first came to the island, many Gullah natives weren’t using the rivers and the ocean for the baptisms, only to fish.
“As I saw it, being born here ... the beaches and waters were not special to them,” he says.
He asked the original owner of Hudson’s if he could perform baptisms at the edge of the river near the restaurant. From then on, the church continued to cleanse candidates in Skull Creek, he said.
Though he did not perform the baptisms Saturday, Williams says the practice always made him feel happy.
“It’s a renewed inspiration of feeling for me,” he says.
Williams says most of the candidates are children and he’s seen many different reactions over the years. He recalls when the church tried to baptize a boy three different times before Williams finally asked why he was so afraid.
“Someone told him crabs were in the water,” he says and laughs.
When Gullah traditions were rooted in the church, Williams says children were often sent out into the wilderness to “seek” and return to tell a godparent of a revelation or dream they had had on their journey. Mary Green, the 77-year-old spiritual mother of the church, says she was sent out to “seek” when she was a child.
Though “seeking” and other traditions like it are not practiced at Mt. Calvary Missionary today, Williams says it was important to remember and honor biblical based traditions, like the baptism.
“It’s a culture that we want to hold onto and pass it on to our children so they know where they came from,” he says. “Hopefully, it will give them a sense of pride.”