I have been baptized a total of five times. I don’t know if there is a Guinness Book of World Records regarding the most times a person has undergone baptism, but if there is, I’d like to throw my name up for consideration.
I don’t recall every detail of each baptismal event, but I do recall the similarities and the feelings I experienced undergoing them. The first occurred when I was 6 when I was baptized in a Catholic ceremony in the North Toledo parish of the St. Vincent de Paul church. I would also attend the parish school for the next three years. I recall being very excited and pleased about having the priest make such a solemn fuss over me as he murmured in Latin and gently poured a small dish of water across my forehead. It was a moment that I always compared my subsequent baptisms to, and all comparisons failed to impress.
The reason why I had to require four more baptisms is simple. I am not certain why we stopped attending St. Vincent’s as I have never asked my mother about it, but my father is the son of a minister who led his own church at Zion Church of God in Christ, so there may have been a compelling reason to bring that religious stream into our lives as well. In any case, to be fully recognized as a fully – fledged member of my grandfather’s church, I and my sisters would have to be baptized again. At this I resisted. Why would I have to be re-baptized? Didn’t God recognize my first baptism as valid? But as a child these thoughts were pushed aside and I relented, although a bit offended, and allowed myself to be dipped into the pool of cold water behind my grandfather’s pulpit. Everyone in church was very pleased.
Fast-forward several years. My parents split up. I still want to attend my grandfather’s and I do at various times in my teens, but my mother doesn’t feel comfortable there, so she takes us to other churches in the neighborhood. I had to endure further baptisms to gain admittance in each church, and the ceremony quickly became tiresome and absurd. I became to doubt the efficacy of baptism itself, and certainly became very suspicious of churches in general. The questions kept coming. Did God really care that I had to be baptized into every church I attended to be acceptable in His sight? Or was this some requirement dreamed up by the pastor to fulfill some church quota or something? What did Jesus have to do with all these desperate and worn out black faces that I observed every Sunday who came here worship Him and His Son? Nobody here was alive when all these stories about Jesus were told. What if it was a joke? What if none of it ever happened? These thoughts would produce a nausea in my stomach and I quickly pushed them away, and I tried to get back into the sermon being delivered by the preacher.
But I was never satisfied. The priests and ministers I had to listen to were nowhere as memorable as the Latin Mass at St. Vincent’s or my grandfather Reverend. T.T. Thomas’ dignified orations. In fact, I found subsequent ministers more outlandish and even crazy. But with each church I had to attend I also had to be formally introduced with being dressed in white and plunged into an ice-cold pool of water. With each drenching a payment of new doubts entered my mind.
Have you heard of “salvation?” It’s something that happens to you when you accept Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior. You are “saved” from an eternal fate of damnation and separation from God through accepting the story of Jesus’ blood-sacrifice as true. And if that was all that would be required of a Christian, the story would be easier to believe. But one also has to gain the favor of the Holy Spirit as well, according to the Pentecostal doctrine of my grandfather’s church. Of course, the Pentecost refers the to singular event in the book of Acts where the Holy Spirit is said to descend upon the Apostles in the form of tongues of fire that allegedly appeared above their heads, causing them to “speak in tongues,” sometime after the death of Jesus.
Since I had been tormented by the scary stories about the End Times according to the Book of Revelations from childhood, I very much desired to “have” the Holy Ghost. I was led to believe that this was crucial in being saved. I had witnessed various saints, always women, it seemed, “speaking in tongues.” I was told it was the language that the angels spoke, and it sounded like a frightful convulsive string of elongated and abbreviated vowels and stuttering. The people speaking in tongues never knew or remembered what they were saying. Their bodies and faces were contorted in painful ecstasy and a kind of possession. It was weird to witness and marked for me a major difference between the Catholic and Protestant churches I attended. It was also “proof” that the Holy Ghost was indeed valid and real, and thus their Christian faith was valid and real, at least to the believers.
One night while having been forced again to attend another tiresome mid-week church service, I was led to the front of the church during a call for new members who were wanting to accept Jesus into their lives. The music, shouting and clamor were especially raucous this hot summer evening, and somehow I found myself standing before the congregation in tears. Apparently, this made me “saved.” An old black man was overjoyed as there was seven of us standing before them, “one saved soul for each day of the week.” One the ride home I was completely still within the knowing that I had not been changed or transformed in any way. I had fooled them without intending to deceive. They couldn’t tell I was the same as before. It was all a joke.
In any case, I longed to have the Holy Spirit, to cease my curious mind from doubting so much. Often I would pray to receive the Holy Ghost. But nothing ever happened. I was told to receive the Holy Ghost was a life-changing and beautiful experience. When church members would ask me if I was going to be a “preacher like your granddaddy” (whom I strongly resembled in appearance), I often didn’t know what to say, because I didn’t have the Holy Ghost, so until that happened, I couldn’t actually say I would be a preacher. I wanted to be. But I didn’t have it.
One night I witnessed the choir’s organist, who was bad-ass on the organ and piano, being called to come to the altar to repent his sin of homosexuality. He pitifully broke down and repented. But it was obvious to me that he was still going to be gay, just as he was still going to be a bad-ass organist. It was just who he was. I didn’t understand how that kind of separation his sexual identity could occur within salvation. But this caused me to pray to receive the Holy Ghost even more fervently. But I never received it. And I gave up. For some reason, it was never gonna happen for me. I was either unworthy of the Holy Ghost, or it didn’t exist.
My experience as an African-American within the African-American religious tradition that I just recounted here is not unique. Although I did not realize it at the time when I was a teen, similar experiences were reported by other important African-American authors like Langston Hughes, Richard Wright and James Baldwin , among others.
At the time I could not understand why the Holy Ghost had seemingly chosen to forsake me. As I further delved into college textbooks and became more aware of the subject of comparative religions, the more I began to lose touch with the religious framework (which seemed to all be based on unverifiable stories first told in the dim past). I realized I had no more at stake in defending the reality of God any more than I had to defend the reality of say, Neptune or Hercules. Yahweh, Neptune and Hercules all share one point: they have all been created and given existence through the consciousness of human beings. And it is through this conscious creation that all manners or evil and cruelty can be committed and justified. It will be a better world when religious ideas are set to the side by a mature civilized world. I don’t know how we will get there, but since nobody fervently insists that Hercules or Neptune be worshiped today, there is a chance we might be able to dispose of all religious superstition if we can make it through this bleak existential gap of insanity and despair.
 2.1. When the day of Pentecost arrived, they were all together in one place. 2 And suddenly there came from heaven a sound like a mighty rushing wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. 3 And divided tongues as of fire appeared to them and rested on each one of them. 4 And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit gave them utterance.
5 Now there were dwelling in Jerusalem Jews, devout men from every nation under heaven. 6 And at this sound the multitude came together, and they were bewildered, because each one was hearing them speak in his own language. English Standard Version (ESV)
 …”being in the pulpit was like being in the theatre; I was behind the scenes and knew how the illusion worked.”… “If the concept of God has any validity or any use,” he wrote, “it can only be to make us larger, freer, and more loving. If God cannot do this, then it is time we got rid of him.” James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time (1963)..