Down to the River

Published 9:42 am Monday, August 3, 2009

SOUTH POINT — The gray-black clouds fought to smother out the bright blue sky as the faithful of Sheridan Freewill Baptist caravanned their way to the banks of the Ohio River Sunday morning.

A river was where their savior was baptized centuries ago; another river is where they come now to be immersed in his name.

Then suddenly as Pepper Bailey waded into the Ohio flanked by her pastor, Randy Patrick, and her husband, Jason, the sun broke through like a sword of glorious light. In seconds the young woman was submerged into the murky waters and just as quickly pulled back out, soaked to the skin with the dirt of the river and the promise of a new life in Christ.

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Bailey was 17 when she went to church with a friend one night and found herself led to the altar to embrace her salvation.

“The mood just hit me. I had to get up and be saved,” she recalled as she waited for her church friends to gather for her baptism. “It was just a wonderful healing.”

Sixteen years later Bailey felt compelled again to make a public showing of her beliefs when she asked her pastor to baptize her in the river.

“I want to show my faith, how much I love Him for saving my soul,” she said. “I know the Lord has forgiven me all my past transgressions. I have been forgiven. This is a new life.”

Bailey joined the white-framed church tucked in a corner off old County Road 1 more than a year ago. There she attends weekly with her husband, their 10-month-old son, Braylon, and her 10-year-old daughter, Samantha Davenport.

She and her husband were drawn to Sheridan because of what she calls the warmth and welcoming nature of the church members.

“Anytime I come through the door, I feel it,” she said. “I’m glad I am inside and not outside looking in.”

It was 14 years ago that Randy Patrick took over the leadership of Sheridan Freewill. Patrick, 48, has been preaching since he was 21 and pastoring since the age of 26.

“We don’t have a baptistery. We normally just go to the river. Jesus went to the River Jordan.

“Baptism means to us an outward showing of an inward change following the example of what Jesus did when John baptized him in the River Jordan. Something that takes place in the heart. … Baptism is the symbol of the watery grave, like burying the old man and waking up in newness of life.”

Around noon several dozen from the church gathered on the rocks by the South Point boat ramp.

The brackish water of the Ohio lapped at the shoreline where discarded plastic bottles bounced like miniature inflatable rafts.

Soon Bailey walked down the strip of concrete to wait as Patrick asked choir director Terry Runyon to lead them in a chorus of “Amazing Grace.” Just as the final notes died down, Bailey walked into the dirty river.

“It doesn’t matter if it is clear water or muddy,” Bailey said earlier. “The purpose is the same. I’m cleansing my soul.”