Prisoners denied baptisms
But for these prisoners — and many other inmates across the nation — redemption must wait.
In New Mexico, one county jail recently started allowing baptisms twice a month, but only after a congregation enlisted the help of the Liberty Counsel, a religious liberties legal organization.
To be sure, many jails and prisons accommodate baptisms, be it in portable baptisteries or inflatable kiddie pools.
But even then, baptisms often require patience — and paperwork.
“They don’t happen the same hour of the night,” said Roger Price, prison minister for the Gatesville, Texas, church, which has baptized 150 inmates this year.
Ron Goodman, who directs two Tennessee ministries that baptized 460 inmates last year, said he’s unaware of “widespread difficulties” in gaining permission to baptize inmates. “As always, there are isolated incidents where brethren are refused the right to baptize, or at least, it is made very difficult,” he said.
In Clovis, N.M., an attorney sent a letter that claimed the county jail’s failure to allow baptisms violated inmates’ constitutional right to free exercise of religion.
Ultimately, the 16th and Pile church decided against a lawsuit, fearing it would “be a bad mark on the church,” elder Bob Norris said. Still, jail officials relented and started allowing baptisms twice a month.
“It all worked out just right. The Lord has a way of doing that,” said Norris, one of four men, including jail minister Charles Singleton from nearby Portales, N.M., who teach Bible studies at the jail.
A horse tank, outfitted with a water heater and pulled on a trailer by Norris’ pickup, serves as the baptistery.
In Norcross, Ga., the Campus church baptized roughly 200 inmates at the county jail in recent years, elder Charles Westbrook said. But then the facility halted the periodic baptisms, blaming a shortage of deputies to provide security.
Until last year, the Anchorage church baptized inmates monthly at a major correctional facility. But then crowding forced the housing of inmates in a gymnasium where baptisms had occurred, Olson said. Baptisms were stopped.
Olson said he had heard about the New Mexico case. “I’m praying about that,” he said of possible legal action. “I don’t want to go that course if I can help it.”
He prays that inmates denied baptisms might be transferred to prisons where it is allowed.
“I keep encouraging them to stay in the word and keep studying,” he said.
As minister at the Oildale church in Bakersfield, Calif., David Garner tried to baptize an inmate charged with manslaughter. But the chaplain — a Foursquare Pentecostal pastor — took issue with Garner’s contention that baptism was a necessity for salvation.
“If the facility, ultimately, won’t let you baptize them, all you can do is pray to God that he might bring about a situation where it can happen,” said Garner, now minister at the Vacaville, Calif., church.
Typically, chaplains do not share Church of Christ members’ beliefs on baptism. That can make it difficult to persuade them to accommodate baptisms.
“The biggest problem is when we have an inmate who’s taking Bible correspondence courses, and he expresses a desire to be baptized,” said Crossman, the Kansas evangelist. “We will contact the local congregation, and when they try to make a contact for a baptism, they are rebuffed and just put off.”
An inmate denied a baptism could file a grievance, alleging violation of his rights, Crossman said.
“But this takes a sense of faith and obedience which a person who is just starting out does not have,” he said.
Charles Baggett, a member of the Beltline church in Decatur, Ala., works as the full-time chaplain at the Limestone Correctional Facility, about 30 miles away.
When Baggett first visited the prison 20 years ago, baptisms were not permitted. But since then, he said, “We’ve been able to baptize several thousand. … If you say you want to be baptized at Limestone, you’d better hold your breath because we’re going to put you under water.”
Baggett attributed the change to church members working with the system, not against it. He said he never would advocate legal action to force baptisms.
“As Christians, we ought to be willing to do what it takes to try to work it out,” Baggett said. “We should take a deep breath, step back a little bit and be the kind people that we’re supposed to be anyway.”
Bud Tibbles, a full-time prison minister in Hominy, Okla., agreed that patience, understanding and relationship building with prison officials are crucial.
Since 1983, Tibbles — overseen by the Garnett church in Tulsa — has baptized hundreds of inmates.
“I think a key is probably longevity,” said Tibbles, who has worked with eight wardens and four chaplains at the Hominy prison. “We started a long time ago, and we’ve kept our commitments.”