...played out almost as 'participatory theater':
I baptized my very first person yesterday and it was an event that I won't soon forget. I was out at the Challenger Memorial Youth Center and one of the young men scheduled to depart this next week had been preparing for baptism. The plan was to baptize him during our weekly communion service. I was able to execute that plan, but just barely.
The service started uneventfully--young men from the various camps had been brought in and were seated in separate sections to keep both friends and enemies from interacting with each other. After the opening prayer, when it came time for the readings, the first young man who had volunteered as a lector (from Camp Mendenhall) came up to the microphone. He gave a respectable reading and then, as he was walking away from the microphone, took the opportunity to blurt out "F--- [some neighborhood]". He did it very quickly and it came out somewhat garbled so the counselors didn't notice. He was far enough away from me by that point that all I could do was give him a really nasty look as he sat down.
The responsorial psalm went off without a hitch. Then my catechumen (from Camp Munz) came up to read the second reading. I noticed that one of the other boys in his camp kept looking at him and giving him little conspiratorial nods, but the reading started without issue. The problem came at the end when he confidently proclaimed:
"The Word of the Lord and F--- [some other neighborhood]!"
The counselors caught that one and, apparently so did the first lector. He must have been from that particular neighborhood since his counselor had to hold him down in his seat as he started wildly yelling "No, F--- you!" At that point, my catechumen's co-conspirator began responding in a kind of responsorial fashion with "No, F--- you" as well. Radios began crackling to life as the counselors all called for backup.
At this point, I was staring at my catechumen with what must have been a pretty fiery stare. He began to turn a few shades lighter and looked to be in a kind of shock. He realized what he had started and what it might mean.
In the midst of the chaos, I strode up to the counselor from Camp Munz and, with my gaze still fixed on the young man, said "I want to speak with that one for a moment." Radios were still crackling all around. "Uh, sure."
I escorted the catechumen back into the far corner of the gym just as the guys with the zip ties and leg irons were arriving. I knew that I might not have much time to talk to him. "Tell me what that was all about," I insisted. He answered sheepishly, "He disrespected my neighborhood." "Is that what you are interested in, your neighborhood? When I asked you ten minutes ago what you wanted from God's church you said 'baptism'...which do you want: your neighborhood or new life?" More sheepishly, "I guess I want both..."
There was no time to mince words now, as the security guys were talking to each other trying to decide who needed to be dragged away and I wouldn't have much time before they figured it out. "You can't have both. Your neighborhood is what's holding you back from becoming the man that God created you to be. You've made one bad choice today...now you get a second chance: do you choose your neighborhood or do you choose new life?" I could see the tears welling up in the corner of his eyes. "New life, I want new life." "You reject your neighborhood?" "Yes, I don't want it anymore..." The security staff was now all staring our direction. "I can't promise you anything...but I'll try."
I walked him over to the security staff and the assistant director from Camp Munz who was now there trying to figure out what was happening. I wasn't sure it would work, but I walked up as confidently as I could. "He has made one extremely bad choice today. Let's give him a chance to make a better one. Leave him here until the baptism is complete."
It worked. They agreed to let him stay (under increased guard) until the end of the baptism. At that point I was able to restart the service with the Sunday Gospel for this week: the parable of the Good Samaritan. Who is my neighbor? All the chaos, as disturbing as it was, was a great segue into my homily--and I can tell you that it was a very different homily than the one I had planned to deliver.
To make an already long story a little shorter, after the homily I was able to carry on with the baptism in the normal manner. I certainly prayed that pre-baptismal exorcism with my whole heart, mind and spirit! Within a couple of minutes, my wayward catechumen had become a neophyte. Communion was distributed and the service was over. I had to walk him back to the security guys who were still waiting to take him away.
"Did you learn something today?" I asked him. "Y-Yes, I did. I got a second chance." "Yes, you did. You made a bad choice today and God washed that bad choice away in the water of that font and made you a new creation. Do you believe this?" More confidently: "Yes." "Now you have to live it. They will be locking you up for a while where you will have a chance to think...think about who you are now and trust that God has wiped the slate clean. The person who made that choice--you aren't him anymore." He nodded and was able to manage a little bit of a smile.
With that, my neophyte was taken away to the Secure Housing Unit to spend a few days of 'quality time' with himself--a kind of involuntary post-baptismal retreat. He is most likely there now as I type these words. I pray that the drama of sin and redemption that he lived out that day in the Challenger East Gym will truly penetrate to the depths of his heart. I pray that he will see clearly what St. Ignatius called the "Two Standards", the choice between good and evil that we all face in our daily spiritual battle. I pray that he won't forget whose 'neighborhood' he now belongs to.
I certainly won't forget.