Clay Eaton smiles after performing baptisms at La Hacienda’s riverfront on the beautiful Guadalupe River.
In the Christian faith, baptism is the act of committing one’s life to Jesus Christ. It is also recognition of the start of a new life. Both meanings are relevant to the sacrament as practiced at La Hacienda.
Shortly after noon on Wednesdays, a dozen or so patients, staff–and sometimes family–gather beside the Guadalupe River under towering cypress trees.
It’s a simple ceremony. Alumni Support Representative Clay Eaton reads Scripture about the meaning of Christian baptism and its origin. He slightly improvises with the well-known verses from Matthew 3, saying, “Then Jesus came from Galilee to the Guadalupe River to be baptized … .”
The sound of the wind through the trees, bird calls and the burbling of running water accompany his words.
Start of a New Life
Clay, who grew up as a Southern Baptist in West Texas and is now non-denominational, tells those awaiting baptism that the sacrament symbolizes the death of the old life and the start of a new one.
“As we go into the water, the old person is buried with Christ, and dies with him, and then we come up out of the water and walk into the newness of eternal life with Jesus.”
He leads the women and men being baptized in a responsive Sinner’s Prayer. It concludes with an “Amen!” or “Hallelujah!” and the group moves to the river.
Into the Water
Clay enters first, followed one-by-one those who who are receiving the rite. He lowers them backward into the clear water and brings them back up, The baptized person sometimes shouts “hallelujah!” and raises their arms in celebration. Or they may be more pensive, quietly contemplating what they have done as they wipe the water out of their eyes.
Back on shore, the baptized and witnesses gather again as alumni support staff members Alan Amentorp or Sabine Kuenzel read from Scripture the Parable of the Sower. They link this story with taking what the patient has learned in treatment and the 12 steps and putting that knowledge to best use for a successful and lasting recovery.
“This is what we want for you,” they tell the baptized patients.
The river baptism is a brief ceremony, as staff and patients are due back up on the hill by 1 p.m.
Former Counselor Started Tradition
Clay inherited performing baptisms from Counselor Lee Roy Loeffler, who did more than 1,000 in his 18 years on staff. Counselor Ed Johnson assisted Lee Roy, and then Clay joined the team. Now Clay is supported by Alan, Sabine, and other members of the staff.
While there is a voluntary Christian Focus program on campus, Clay says that patients asking for baptism don’t necessarily come from that group.
“Many patients find the conviction to be baptized and profess their faith through the movement of the Spirit that is evident in this place and the program. As the Big Book says, ‘We were reborn.’”
“Some of them just come to my door and ask, ‘Are you the guy to talk to about being baptized?’”
An Act of Christian Faith
Clay speaks with these seekers about their desire to be baptized and what it means.
“It’s an opportunity to sit and talk about their faith and how it dovetails with recovery.”
Some non-Christians inquire about baptism, he says, but declaring Christian faith is necessary to receive the sacrament.
River baptisms tend to be seasonal according to the weather, but if a man or woman wants to be baptized, Clay says he will perform the the rite no matter the air or water temperature.