On the Seawall

Our little church on the Mississippi coast didn’t have a baptistry. Sometimes folks got baptized in the swimming pool at the apartment complex down the street. Other times they got dunked in the Bay of Saint Louis.

Daddy gave an altar call at the end of every sermon: Sunday mornings, Sunday nights and Wednesday nights. “An invitation,” our church called it. “If you’re here tonight and you need to be baptized, come forward!” he’d holler. “If you’re here tonight and you need to re-dedicate your life to Christ, come forward!”

On the night Mr. Draper came forward, we drove to the bay.

I first met Steve Draper when he showed up in our front yard. He came to build a swing. Steve Draper wore cut-off blue jeans and a button down denim shirt, untucked. He looked a bit like Mark Twain. White hair covered the tops of his ears, and a white bushy mustache curled down around the sides of his mouth. He climbed up the trunk of a tall pine tree and tied a rope around it. Then he climbed up the trunk of another pine tree and did the same thing. In between the trees, he attached a wooden seat. It was a swing for one person, and the one person was usually me. I could swing higher on Mr. Draper’s swing than all the playground and school yard swings I had ever been on.

After he built the swing, Mr. Draper started coming to our church. On Sunday, he wore slacks and he tucked his shirt in. He also brought his machete. That’s right, machete. Mr. Draper was a land surveyor, you see. He spent his weekdays chopping his way through the wet grasses of Hancock County, taking measurements. In the churchyard, he tossed and spun that machete high into the air, then he caught it at its handle. Children cheered. Mothers cringed. And Mr. Draper said, “Want me to do it again?”

When he was visiting with people inside the church, Mr. Draper would pull a handkerchief out of his pocket, fold it, and tie little knots until it turned into a mouse. Then he’d make the mouse run up his arm and around his neck and down the other arm. 

The night Mr. Draper got baptized in the Bay of Saint Louis, we church folk stood along the seawall, and Daddy led Mr. Draper into the saltwater. Waves flapped gently against the sea wall as the preacher spoke.

“Do you believe that Jesus is the Christ, the son of the living God?”

“I do.”

“Upon your confession, it’s my privilege to now baptize you in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Ghost, for the forgiveness of your sins.”

Splash down. Splash up.

Mr. Draper stepped onto the sea wall, dripping from head to cut-off blue jeans. He fell to his knees and wept. He cried long. He cried loud. He cried unashamed. 

After that, I’m sure someone handed Mr. Draper a towel. I’m sure we all sang a song like “Happy Day” or “I Have Decided to Follow Jesus.” But I don’t remember those details. What I do remember is a tree-climbing, swing-building, machete-wielding, mouse-making, Mark Twain sort of man on the seawall of the Bay of Saint Louis, dripping with water and dripping with tears.