For Crowd Of Believers, A Baptism By Fire Hose

By Jacqueline L. Salmon
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 27, 2007

Accompanied by brass bands and thundering preachers, several hundred people squeezed onto a narrow street in the District's Shaw neighborhood yesterday to be baptized in the drenching shower of a fire hose.

Weeping and singing, they raised their hands as the water shot up and then poured down on them in a glistening cascade. Ministers from the United House of Prayer for All People, which held the service, exhorted them to repent their sins and embrace the Holy Spirit.

"Oh my God, it feels good, it feels good, it feels good," said Geraldine Howard, a 76-year-old bus driver, her white skirt and blouse drenched, a visor and shower cap protecting her head. "I feel truly blessed. God is good."

The service, in its 81st year, is an annual tradition for the church, which has its national headquarters in the District. Yesterday's mass baptism took place in front of the House of Prayer's flagship church, the gold-domed "God's White House" at Sixth and M streets NW. The baptism service symbolizes healing from sins and physical ailments and the believer's union with Jesus Christ.

With 1.5 million members and 140 branches across the country, the House of Prayer is a church in the Pentecostal tradition, with its emotive style of worship. Each House of Prayer church has a brass-and-drum band, which performs an exuberant beat during its services.

Members say they believe in expressing their joy for the Lord.

"If you hold it too long, it will blow you up," said Apostle R.C. Lattisaw, pastor of the House of Prayer's Alexandria church, one of six in the Washington area.

The tradition of the baptism by fire hose started in the late 1920s, said Apostle H. Whitner, pastor of God's White House. "We used to use the Potomac River," he said, but the church's founder, Charles "Sweet Daddy" Grace, decided to use a fire hose instead, "because a baptism involves sprinkling," Whitner noted.

Baptism is customarily conducted using water and is associated with John the Baptist, who baptized Jesus in the Jordan River. God's White House has a baptismal pool for immersion baptisms, but church officials prefer to use a fire hose. They hold outdoor services across the country during the summer.

At yesterday's baptism, white-clad church members gathered in the street in front of God's White House, with elderly members in wheelchairs. As they awaited their leader, Bishop S.C. Madison -- "Sweet Daddy" Madison -- church leaders set up the fire hose on a raised platform.

The House of Prayer has deep roots in Shaw, where it has had a presence since the 1930s. It was among the first institutions to rebuild after riots devastated the neighborhood in the 1960s, and it now owns a nursing home, apartment buildings and single-family homes that it leases to hundreds of church members at low cost. Its Saints Paradise Cafeteria, adjacent to God's White House, has attracted Shaw residents and office workers for decades with its hearty Southern-style food.

Although many Christian denominations view baptism as a one-time ritual for entry into the faith, the House of Prayer permits multiple baptisms as a way for members to periodically wash away their sins and heal physical ailments. For many in the church, yesterday's baptism is an annual practice.

Damisha Matthews, 33, a federal budget analyst, said she comes every year, "for the redemption of my sins," and brings her two daughters, Mia, 5, and Aliya, 4. She also brings an empty jug to be filled with consecrated water that she and family members will drink and rub on their bodies to help them heal when they are ill.

When the 87-year-old Madison -- with shoulder-length gray hair and clad in black vestments -- arrived yesterday, the crowd surged forward as he was helped onto the stage.

"If you have sinned since last year, you need to get into the water and be baptized," boomed Apostle H. Thompson, next to Madison. "If you have a sickness and need to be healed, you need to get into the water and be baptized."

"You heard the preacher," Madison told the crowd. "If you want to go to heaven, let the waters roll."

With that, the fire hose hissed on and, for 15 minutes, the water tumbled down, the bands played, tears flowed and the healing began.

"All you've got to do is have faith and believe!" Thompson shouted.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company