- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 20, 2005

VAN LEAR, Ky. - The Rev. Ted Dawson stood waist-deep in an eastern Kentucky creek preparing to dip two new converts beneath the surface in a baptismal service that many Appalachian churches prefer — outdoors in free-flowing water, evoking Jesus in the Jordan River.

These Protestants believe full immersion in water for professing youths and adults is a necessity, and that there is no better place for Christianity’s initiation rite than the great outdoors.

“We were raised that way,” said Susie Hall, who was baptized with her husband by Mr. Dawson in Johns Creek earlier this year. “I feel closer to God in nature.”

But these days, the tradition is threatened in eastern Kentucky by rampant water pollution resulting from so-called straight piping of sewage into streams.

“Most of the people I baptize want to be baptized in the creek,” said Mr. Dawson, pastor of the Old Log Church located near this historic coal town, best known as singer Loretta Lynn’s childhood home. “I would say 80 percent of our baptisms are in the creek,” and fortunately the water in Johns Creek is very clean.

“But there are some creeks you can’t baptize in, they’re so nasty,” said Mr. Dawson, a fiery Free Will Baptist minister who is also glad to baptize indoors if that’s what a congregant wants.

For several years Kentucky health officials have had advisories in place against swimming or “other full body contact,” which includes baptizing, in designated streams. The reason: high levels of fecal coliform bacteria that can cause illness. The Environmental Protection Agency said in a 2000 report that 48 percent of Kentucky’s streams were at least partially unfit.

Most churches have been slowly getting away from outdoor baptisms but creeks remain the norm for small mountain communities, said Bill Barker, director of the Southern Baptists’ Appalachian Regional Ministry. “It’s the traditional way of doing it and change comes slow in the mountains,” he said.

Some churches do creek baptisms in winter, even if that means chopping a hole in the ice. “It’s such a way of life,” Mr. Barker said, “that I don’t think pollution even crosses their minds.”

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