Baptism goes on the road

CNJ staff photo: Sharna Johnson Garvin Chandler, left, and Bob Norris lift the lid of the portable baptism tub they designed for use at the jail. Chandler, a farmer by trade, chose the tank and designed the lid with built-in baffle. Norris built a heating system.

By Sharna Johnson: CNJ staff writer

Since inmates can’t get to the church to be baptized, the 16th and Pile Church of Christ comes to them — tub and all.

A modified horse tank is loaded onto the back of Bob Norris’ pickup truck and driven into the sally port at the Curry County Adult Detention Center twice a month. Under a customized lid complete with a baffle to prevent sloshing during the trip, approximately 250 gallons of heated water awaits the immersion of the faithful.

Providing ministry to inmates is a calling Garvin Chandler and Norris believe their faith requires of them. Along with other church members, they have provided Bibles and weekly scripture lessons to inmates at the jail for years.

In April county and jail officials granted them the opportunity they said to take their ministry to a higher level by offering baptisms.

It has been more than two years since Curry County inmates have had access to baptisms, which the church has also offered to Roosevelt County inmates for years.

Warden Leslie Johnson said the program had to be abandoned because there wasn’t enough staff to provide additional security for inmates undertaking the ritual.

Chandler said six inmates, men and women, have been baptized since revival of the program.

Johnson said she has worked in many corrections institutions, but this is the first time she has seen full baptisms offered. Her only hesitation was in making sure she could provide security.

“It is a good thing, those that want to be baptized when they’re here in jail,” she said.

Names of those who want to be baptized are submitted for Johnson’s approval. Inmate participation in faith-based activities of any kind is strictly voluntary, she said.

“When we first talked about this, I still saw it as a positive (even though there were security considerations). There’s nothing wrong with the principal of doing it — it’s a fine thing to do,” she said.

“We’re trying to get as many positive things (as possible). (Inmates are) already as negative as they need to be.”

Curry County Manager Dick Smith said having a library, GED and college credit programs, life skills classes and several faith-based groups at the jail are all part of efforts to give inmates access to positive activities.

“The faith-based groups do a lot of good in our detention center. It’s a calming thing and it’s educational. It’s probably an environment where people do find they need a little more spiritual guidance at that time in their lives,” Smith said.

Smith believes the infusion of activities for inmates has made a difference at the jail.

“The number of incidents have gone down amazingly since we started these programs,” he said. “Before, it was either watch TV all day or (find ways to get in trouble).”

Chandler, Norris and the members of their congregation are glad to do it.

“We’re not doing anything that they didn’t do in the apostles’ time,” Chandler said, referring to scriptural accounts of the baptism of criminals.

“To us it is a requirement and we see it as necessary,” Chandler said of baptism. “We have our scripture authorizing us to do this,” he said.

Total immersion and witness by a third person are required for the baptism to be complete under their faith, Chandler and Norris said.

Their beliefs led to the creation of the portable pool, a collaboration between the two men.

They said they see the inmates only as people in need of spirituality and do not see their crimes. They do, however, tell the inmates they must live their beliefs.

“We tell them they’ve got a debt to society and being baptized isn’t going to change that,” Norris said.

It’s all about the spirituality, they said.

“When a person places their trust in the scripture and they’re dealing in an unacceptable life in the ways of the laws of the land … that person is looking for a better life,” Chandler said. “Their souls are as valuable as the next guy’s.”