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How the pandemic is reshaping baptism rituals in churches across the country

As churches reopen, Christian leaders are debating how and when to resume baptisms.

The Rev. Grace Imathiu, right, baptizes a 14-year-old congregant with a garden hose on May 24, 2020, in Evanston, Illinois, in order to respect social distancing rules.
Provided by the Rev. Grace Imathiu

SALT LAKE CITY — If you’d asked the Rev. Grace Imathiu to describe baptism a few months ago, she probably wouldn’t have said, “It’s like watering God’s plant.”

A few months ago, she’d never baptized someone with a garden hose. But COVID-19 changed all that.

The pandemic made it unsafe to stand next to someone and sprinkle water on their head, which is how baptisms in the Rev. Imathiu’s church in Evanston, Illinois, typically go. To perform the ritual while under social distancing restrictions, she had to come up with a new approach.

The Rev. Imathiu and the 14-year-old boy she recently baptized considered several options before settling on the garden hose. They thought walking into Lake Michigan might be too cold and water balloons would be too hard to aim.

A garden hose, by comparison, seemed convenient and simple. They agreed to hold the baptism in the boy’s backyard and invited key church leaders and loved ones to watch.

“There were eight people, as well as a dog,” said the Rev. Imathiu, who leads First United Methodist Church, about the May 24 ceremony.

Even without the hose or dog, the event would have been notable just because it took place. Many churches put baptisms on hold in response to the coronavirus outbreak.

“I had around 12 babies lined up to baptize” in the past two months, said the Rev. Elaine Ellis Thomas, rector of All Saints Episcopal Parish in Hoboken, New Jersey. “I’ve told all their parents that I’ll let them know” when baptism is possible again.

As houses of worship begin to reopen, that date is drawing closer. Many religious leaders have begun to brainstorm safe ways to resume the ritual and others, like the Rev. Imathiu, have already debuted a new approach.

Pastors overseeing pandemic-fueled changes to baptism said they have mixed feelings about the shifts. It’s wonderful to resume the ritual, but painful to put so much energy into keeping participants spread out, the Rev. Thomas said.

“Bringing (someone) into the body of the faithful at a distance feels very odd,” she said.

Baptisms on hold

In the early days of the pandemic, nearly all Christian churches postponed planned baptisms because of group gathering bans. Although many religious activities, including sermons, prayers and songs, can be moved online relatively easily, baptism can’t.

That’s because, in most Christian traditions, the ritual hinges on physical touch. Religious leaders either fully immerse the person they’re baptizing into a pool of water or hold them in their arms as they sprinkle water on their heads, as with infant baptism.

“There’s only been one time I asked the father to hold the baby. She was older and bigger and about to slide out of my arms,” the Rev. Thomas said.

Rather than try to adapt baptism practices when COVID-19 hit, many religious leaders decided to postpone any scheduled ceremonies for at least a few weeks.

The Rev. Imathiu said she’s still broken up over having to cancel one little boy’s special day, which had been scheduled to take place on his first birthday in March.

“That was so heartbreaking. It was supposed to happen on the first Sunday we couldn’t meet,” she said.

Across the country, few churches have resumed the ritual of baptism, even though it’s been more than two months since they paused the practice.

In many cases, it’s because congregations are still meeting online. But some religious leaders said baptisms will still be on hold after their church building reopens.

“Most parents don’t want me to baptize their baby until all their family can be there. That’s one of those complicating things” that makes it hard to imagine performing the ritual anytime soon, the Rev. Thomas said.

Even if the whole family was local, obstacles would still remain. For example, the Rev. Thomas said she’s been struggling to imagine how to make the ritual germ-free.

“Normally, I take (the baby), snuggle them and kiss them. Just imagine all the ways in which I have put my germs on those babies,” she said.

To resume or not to resume

Christian leaders generally share the Rev. Thomas’ sense that it’s impossible to perform a baptism without exchanging a few germs. But they disagree on whether that’s reason enough to continue avoiding the ritual.

The Rev. David Templin, who serves as pastor of Veribest Baptist Church in Veribest, Texas, said he and his deacons believe baptism is too important to leave on hold. Now that the church has resumed in-person services, he’s open to leading baptism ceremonies again.

“It’s very possible that we’ll have multiple baptisms on one day coming up soon,” the Rev. Templin said.

Veribest Baptist Church is treating the coronavirus like any other illness, he added. If someone preparing to be baptized shows symptoms, they’ll need to stay home.

“Our stance has always been that if someone is sick, we’ll postpone their baptism until they can be there,” the Rev. Templin said.

Other churches that have resumed the ritual did so only after making some notable adjustments to their typical baptism routines.

For example, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is allowing some friends and family to video conference in to watch baptism proceedings in order to reduce the number of people who are actually in the room.

“When needed, baptismal services may proceed with as few as four people: the baptismal candidate, the priest (or priesthood holder) performing the baptism, and two witnesses,” explained the guide to essential ordinances released by the church in April.

The Rev. Imathiu said that, for the time being, she’ll only perform baptisms in extreme circumstances. She moved forward with the water hose ceremony because she realized that the 14-year-old boy wasn’t taking no for an answer.

“He said he wanted to be baptized as soon as possible,” she said.

Using the hose wasn’t the only change she made to keep him and others safe. The Rev. Imathiu also limited the number of witnesses and had the boy’s parents perform the part of the ceremony that involves rubbing oil on his head.

“To see his mom and dad anointing him (with oil) was quite moving,” she said.

The Rev. Thomas acknowledged that she could make similar adjustments to her baptism process in order to resume the ritual sometime this summer. However, she’s worried restricting who can attend and reducing physical interactions would undermine the true meaning of the event.

Baptism is as much a community celebration as it is an individual achievement, she said. In the Episcopal tradition, the whole congregation is meant to witness the ritual and agree to support the newly baptized individual in their faith journey.

“It’s not a private thing. Baptism involves being baptized into a body (of people) and that body needs to be present,” the Rev. Thomas said.

The Rev. Imathiu agreed that community participation in baptism is essential, and said safety-related changes to the ritual need not ignore that fact.

Several church members were able to participate in the recent garden hose baptism from the safety of their cars, she noted.

“We went out by the street and they all paraded by honking and hooting and holding up ‘Happy Baptism!’ signs,” the Rev. Imathiu said.

The event circumstances certainly weren’t ideal, she added, but they were memorable. It ended up being a blessing to experience baptism in a new way, the Rev. Imathiu said.

“Most people don’t remember” their baptisms, she said. But this one will probably be impossible to forget.