Quaker Baptism

A few years ago I was sitting on the sofa in George and Theresa Walumoli’s living room listening to a group of young Quaker missionaries passionately and energetically discussing why Quakers do not baptize. It seems that some of the local Quakers in Bududa, Uganda, on the slopes of Mt. Elgon, baptize. I don’t need to repeat their concerns because what they said about baptism is what most unprogrammed Quakers would say in the United States. These missionaries were from the home church of my wife, Gladys Kamonya, in Nairobi, Friends Church-Ofafa.

I sat smugly listening to them. For I have already been baptized twice! The second time was when I was about 11 years old—in order to be confirmed in the Episcopal church my parents sent me to, I had to be baptized. So one Sunday after service I was taken to the font at the back of the church, the priest said some prayers, sprinkled some drops of water on my head, and that was that. It wasn’t until I was in my 30s that I learned that I had already been baptized. My aunt, Laura Kilian, was a devout Catholic who played the organ at St. Stanislaus Catholic Church in St. Louis until the day before she died of a heart attack.

She was my babysitter when I was young. She was worried that my brother and I, if we died, would not go to heaven because we were not baptized. So one day when I was about a year old and she was babysitting us, she took my brother and me to the bathroom, said some prayers, and sprinkled some water from the sink on our heads. It seems that in extraordinary circumstances, which my aunt clearly considered this to be, it was correct for a lay woman to baptize someone.

Then last fall I was at Kagarama Church in Kigali, Rwanda. After two-plus hours of mostly entertainment from the many choirs (children, teenager, orphans, adult, youth singing group, and a guest choir), a guest preacher gave the sermon. He had that jump-up-and-down, loud (as if God cannot hear well), demonstrative style that I dislike, but I have been to enough silent meetings to hear the sermons (as my wife, a programmed Friend, calls them) given in all kind of styles to know that the style should not interfere with my attempts to understand the words of God that are being presented. In this case, he was talking about Job, who had lost wife, children, cows (important to the Rwandans), and everything and still praised God. His message was that those in the church, regardless of what they had lost, should still praise God.

I could never give this sermon, even in my rational, quiet style. I know the stories of too many Friends, both at the church that day or at other Quaker churches, to be able to do this. The Bible doesn’t say how Job lost everything, but the stories I have heard would make me doubt that God even existed. Was this rationale comforting to those who had lost so much? I don’t know—I am too far from their shoes to be able to empathize.

I had been to one of the African Great Lakes Initiative’s Healing and Rebuilding Our Community workshops, where Fidele had seen the killer of her oldest son for the first time since the genocide in 1994. He stood up and admitted that he had killed someone’s family member in the workshop and asked to be forgiven. She responded with a long, emotional description of her eldest son who had just graduated from high school and was given a scholarship to go to college because he was good at traditional arts. He had been killed only a block away from where we were holding the workshop. In the end she forgave him, but asked him to never do that kind of thing again, and to make sure that his friends didn’t either. She also had lost her husband and all four other children and who knows how many other relatives during the genocide. I thought she ought to get the last chapter in the Book of Job!

Then I was surprised to hear that there would be a baptism after the service of a young woman who looked about 25. I was all eyes. I was told that a person was only baptized if requested—in other words it was not mandatory. How would Quakers baptize? I hadn’t really thought about this, but we went behind the church to a baptism pool which I had never noticed. Ah yes, the Quakers would have to baptize like John the Baptist did—total submersion. I was also told that the pool was so nice that other nearby churches used it for their baptisms.

I was surprised to see that Innocent Rwabuhihi, the treasurer of Rwanda Yearly Meeting and my co-worker as coordinator of the Alternatives to Violence Project (AVP) in Rwanda, was the one who would do the baptizing. He got into the pool with the young woman, said a short prayer, and dunked her backwards as I expect John the Baptist did to Jesus.

Did it make her feel better? I suspect it did. The genocide in 1994 was a horror for everyone—victims, perpetrators, and bystanders alike. Something to mark a separation between those days when God deserted Rwanda from the hope and possibilities of these days is important, a sign of a new life.

Do Quakers baptize? Yes, some do, and I am not here to judge the wounded hearts of others.

David Zarembka

David Zarembka is a member of Bethesda (Md.) Meeting, sojourning at Lumakanda Friends Church in western Kenya.