I WAS AFRAID THE THIN and drenched cotton gown would cling to my bony haunches as the preacher led me up the steps of the baptistery. In the faith of my upbringing, the Church of Christ, baptism was the most important moment for me: If I upheld my end of the bargain, it promised to carry me through eternity. But I was twelve or thirteen, a budding teenager, and I thought and behaved like one. The steps up the tank of the baptistery could be clearly viewed from the front right pews of our little congregation in Wichita Falls—seats always claimed by pals and peers and maybe, if I got lucky, a girlfriend or two. I should have been praying in gratitude for my spiritual breakthrough. Instead, I fretted about showing my ass.
I don’t remember which preacher baptized me, much less the sermon that broke down my resistance. As chapters and verses of Scripture piled up like driftwood on a shore, I habitually tuned the sermons out; eventually I was snatched back from my daydreams by a shuffling commotion of songbooks being pulled from slots on the pews and opened to the page of the invitation hymn. Those songs—“Just as I Am,” “Softly and Tenderly Jesus Is Calling,” “O Why Not Tonight?”—are the part of the faith that abides in me still. But I don’t recall which one inspired me to walk down the aisle to have my sins washed away.
My mother was sick that night. Daddy, a Baptist who then seldom went to church, was working at the refinery. When neighbors dropped my older sister and me off at our home, she marched me into our parents’ bedroom and announced that I had something to tell Mother, who eyed me with an apprehension all parents know. “I got baptized,” I blurted.
Tears glistened in her eyes, and she said, “I’m so proud.” But I wasn’t proud. I was mortified by the emptiness I felt. I knew I had only succumbed to the pressure.
I don’t dredge up these memories out of apology, nor to harbor some grudge. My parents are gone now. The preacher who put a folded handkerchief against my mouth and gently bent me backward and dipped my head beneath the water has almost certainly passed away too. That little congregation no longer exists. A few years after that, I rebelled against much of my upbringing, and I never came back to the faith. I like to think that the tenets I retained became my ethics and that my treatment of