I woke up with images of the river in my mind. More precisely, images of my grandmother’s photo albums, the old ones with the sticky sheets the photos cling to and the clear pull back film that protects them, filled with photo after photo of baptisms. In every photo there is someone standing waist deep in the water with the preacher, while others are gathered on the bank with a picnic basket of fried chicken at their side. There are three photos of each baptism. A photo of the preacher praying over the person, one of the person being dunked into the water, and one after they come back up; a sort of before and after collection of cousins, aunts, grandparents, great-grandparents, and close friends of the family. These Ozark rivers have been cleansing the souls of my line for generations. So when I woke up with this in my mind, I knew I could not leave this place without being baptized in these rivers.
I wanted to honor the importance of the Ozarks in my life, my Southern heritage, and my early years of going to church services with my grandmother where she would often speak in tongues and was nearly just as often the guest preacher. My own spiritual path diverged from my family’s early on, around age 11, when I began reading books about Paganism and witchcraft. My path took another turn, deepening, when I discovered Unitarian Universalism at age 21. Recently my path has started expanding, at the age of 31, with the discovery of author Anne Lamott, the impact my best friend has had on me, my exposure to Buddhism, and befriending liberal Christians who believe, like I, that love is the most important value and practice we can hold. As I write this, I find it interesting that every 10 years I’ve experienced some shifting and growth with my spiritual practice. I look forward to 41.
I don’t believe in the need of a preacher to commune with God, but I do believe in the power of gathering with those with whom you share a spiritual bond and holding ritual together. Seven of us met on Friday the 13th at a local river spot, one of my favorite swimming holes where I’ve shared a lot of good memories with the women in my former coven. In addition to these 7, there were 6 others across the country holding space at the time we gathered, all sharing in singing “Down to the River to Pray” together across the miles. We sang this as we waded out into the water. One of us hung back to the edge of the river to take photographs for me in the tradition of my family. The rest of us waded out waist deep and cast a circle together.
There was an amazing blending of traditions in this ceremony. Among those gathered were witches, Pagans, atheists, Christians, and Unitarian Universalists. A heron flew, nearly continually, over head calling out every so often as if taking part. A frog went leaping across the river and of course countless fish, minnows, and probably a snake or two were also about. The energy of the owl and the hellbender felt very present as well. We called on the spirits of the land, our ancestors, guides, and our Gods into that space. Then one of my circle sisters said a few words in prayer, dunked me under the water in full immersion, and helped me stand back up.
The trust I felt as I fell back into the water was incredible. The trust in my sister who was dunking me under, the trust that the River Spirit was indeed going to cleanse my soul, the trust that I was in alignment with my highest self and highest good in that moment and that God was with me. Trust and Faith filled me completely. The whole thing took only moments. I came out of the water feeling refreshed as if my soul had drank from a deep cool well.
Here I am fully immersed in the waters with two sisters on either side of me. This is my favorite pictures from the event because it captures the moment I felt cleansed and filled with faith and trust.