On the basis of the sacrifice of Jesus Christ, have you repented of your sins and dedicated yourself to Jehovah to do his will?
The small crowd sitting in front of the stage responds with Yes!
Do you understand that your dedication and baptism identify you as one of Jehovah’s Witnesses in association with God’s spirit-directed organization?
James barely remembers the questions. He remembers the scene set in the summer of 1985. Coincidentally it was the first year those particular questions were asked as the questions asked to baptism candidates have changed several times over the course of Jehovah’s Witness history. Every time James drafts a pool on AutoCAD he thinks back to that year.
He thinks back to the big day while drafting a concrete detail for the baptism pool permanently imbedding itself stage left. This flashback distraction also means he is probably going to make a few mistakes he’s not going to catch until later… if he catches them at all.
James’s mother, Blanche was talking to Brother Benco in the back of the Kingdom Hall near the literature dispensary in early 1985 in a small town in Texas named Victoria.
Yes, Blanche. Feel free to ask anything.
Brother Benco, James wants to get baptized but I’m afraid he’s just too young.
James, what do you think?
Ten-year old James is sitting between the towering brother and his mother, glancing at the tall beige metal water fountain next to the black-letter-on-gold-background “Men’s” sign set in the signature style of the Kingdom Hall’s aesthetic at the time, carried out in the carpet and the dark stained wall paneling.
It wasn’t that James wasn’t paying attention. He was taking the idea of baptism seriously, but his mind wandered back to a year earlier in a large double-wide mobile home farm-house-type set on several acres of heavily wooded property ten minutes outside the Victoria city limits. The things with the 19-year-old Ministerial Servant who would baby sit James some weekends became intimate after the young man penned James to his mattress face to face, refusing to let him free unless he received a kiss… a French kiss. Twice.
It was confusing, but James didn’t mind the amorous aspects to the request. However, from that point forward James would suffer from an intense form of physical and emotional claustrophobia – being trapped in a corner or in a room with no way to move except at the will of someone else’s desires. After it was apparent that nether of the participating parties were going to go to the elders, the abuser lighted up on his “force” and eventually the intimate nature of the relationship between them grew with a slow progression. In a confused state after his tenth birthday James woke up in the middle of the night sitting on the edge of the twin sized bed. He could smell the signature mix of potpourri and teenage sweat floating against the fragrance of old wood walls, and its slight hint of moisture of the humidity-drenched structure. Turning to the man in the bed one night, James decided that if he got baptized this… this… everything would have to end.
Jehovah must see to it.
James lifts his hand and slaps the man across the face. He wakes up.
What was that?
Nothing. Go back to bed.
Are you upset with me?
No. Why would I be upset?
Because we can’t be doing… this. What we do.
Well, you’re the adult. You stop it.
He grunts an eye roll and turns over to face away from the boy, the window, and the large longhorn horns that were mounted above it. Arguing with a child can be so difficult sometimes. James wanted to get baptized. Then he would be an adult, an adult who can make adult decisions.
At the Kingdom Hall a year later James stands in front of his mother and Brother Benco and decides how he wants to answer the question.
I want to dedicate my life to Jehovah. Is there any reason why I should wait to tell Jehovah that my life belongs to him? I mean, Samuel was five years old when his mother sent him to live at the house of God. I’m already twice that age!
James was golden.
There are a series of over 120 questions set out in the back of the Organized to Accomplish Our Ministry book, and the answers are given via scriptures. It is up to the student to present the answers well in the three or four settings it takes to answer all the questions. One elder is assigned to each setting.
About two weeks went by and James was approved to start his questioning process with Brother Tylich, a tall statuesque man of impeccable grace and design in his red brick ranch style house with white trim and white sectional sofa. A week later he was sitting in front of Brother Benco in his newly built, modern stucco and brick house with his over stuffed couch and matching Lazy-Boy chair. And a week from that point James found himself at the Hasdorff residence nestled in a 1960’s style home with the best of the era’s interior design of classic green and brown taste, angled legs on all the furniture, and the most beautiful stainless steel starburst clock sitting over the sofa. It was precise and orderly as the TVLand rerun it was lifted from, and comforting as if it were an old friend.
It wasn’t long and James and his mother were waiting in the kitchen of their Crouch Road home built by hand by James’s father, Steve. The large, three foot deep terracotta colored linoleum counter top in the back of the simple 2-story A-frame was the only working phone at the time. James paced back and forth until the phone finally gave its frightening bell scream.
In a few months time the Perez family are entering into the parking lot of the Astrodome in Houston, the same venue that had Judy Garland and the Supremes performing on opening night. At the Saturday morning session the baptismal candidates are asked to sit in front of the stage. Walking into the Astrodome on the field level is the emotional equivalent of seeing the Grand Canyon or Niagara Falls for the first time. The expanse is overwhelming in its breath. The curve skylights were so far away it seemed impossible that anything, including sound, could ever reach them. The massive curved trusses seemed to be made of toothpicks painted grey. For the first time in his life, James felt the soft cushion of the world famous AstroTurf installed after the grass kept dying from lack of sunlight in 1966, the same year Jehovah’s Witnesses released the book Life Everlasting – In Freedom of the Sons of God that pointed to 1975 as the implied ‘end of the world’.
The stage was set at second base and the words “1985 Integrity Keepers District Convention” in twelve inch high white letters held up with a double wire prop provided a semi-circle announcement around the pitcher’s mound. The other three bases were decorated with various plants and flowers while next to home plate two above ground swimming pools were being filled with water. A young man who had been studying for a year found James earlier and the two entered into the arena together.
So many years later he cannot remember the guy’s name but he was in his 20’s, reddish blonde hair, ecstatic and joyous. If the young ten year old were overwhelmed, this man provided the excitement James was suppose to be feeling. Both had their bags of swimsuits and their bibles, note pads, pens, and programs. Both had palatable anticipation of the beginning of their new life. Careful to avoid the perfectly placed white lettering, the two found their seats on the left side closest to third base, in the middle just six or seven seats from the one center aisle.
The Saturday morning session starts and the first major wave of bizarre is standing in the center of 48,000 people as he hears the mighty surge of voices in the opening song. James thought if he was ever going to be a rock star, this feeling would be impossibly addictive.
The talk comes to dedicating oneself to Jehovah and the organizational structure of receiving spiritual knowledge, but the language of the technicalities is always vague enough to mean “general Christian”. The candidates are asked to stand and are asked the two questions.
Having answered “yes” to these questions, candidates are in a right heart condition to undergo Christian baptism.
During the song, they are escorted off the field and into the dressing rooms.
The water was cold. He could tell because the ‘soon-to-be-brother’ who was taking care of him went first in pool #1, and his nipples had an immediate reaction through his tight white tee-shirt. Due to the lack of logos or exposed skin, the normal observer would see very little of the scene other than people dedicating their lives to Jehovah. But up close, it seemed a little less subtle than what was intended.
The setting is exciting and tense. Baptism is a symbol, like a wedding ring (it is explained). It proves to others that you are in dedication to this idea, this concept, this religious blanket of hope and redemption. It has no bearing on whether it’s reality or even at the age of ten what you know or what you are running from. It is a public celebration like a wedding or a funeral whether or not the reality of the inward soul knows what they are doing, it is being done and people in the masses are celebrating its existence.
It’s confusing if you are not confident, and no ten year old is that confident.
The young (now) brother exits the pool, drenched from the total immersion necessity of the process. There were three brothers assigned in each pool and three brothers outside the pool watching to verify that the person being baptized clears the surface of the water like referees at an Olympic event. He has the biggest smile on his face and is beaming from his bright brown eyes. He looks up at James as they pass on the stair into the pool. The brother stops to watch his young friend who is beyond neck deep in the water as he is pointed to a brother who will perform the baptism. James looks at his friend who is waiting for him. The brother has all his wet clothes clinging tightly to him.
James holds his breath and is submerged… then lifted out of the water by a foot so everyone can see the rise from his dramatic plunge for his life before God. James emerges as someone who can now be called “brother” in the Jehovah’s Witness Organization.
The cheers are lost to water in the ear mixed with the vastness of the building. It was a 16mm film projector stuck in looping brokenness. He couldn’t breathe. There was a lot of energy directed on him and he couldn’t tell which end was up and which way to safety. With a head rush and so much going on, he couldn’t find his bearings.
A hand came into view and grabbed him. A large arm with reddish blonde hair pulls him up the stair.
No problem, James. Congratulations!
James was spitting out water. Tens of thousands of people and only one person noticed that he was drowning. He was thankful for his new brother. When they were safely on the concrete shy of the AstroTurf, they hugged. This was the new James, and he was ready for adult decisions.
James P. Perez © 2013