Debbie Ray, 20, dressed in a plain white dress, barefoot with a towel slung over her shoulder, strode the sidewalk last Sunday in front of her church, the United House of Prayer waiting to be baptized by a fire hose.
Even though she had been baptized last year in Newport News, Va., she wanted to do it again. "Why? Because it felt good," she said. "You get clean on the inside and on the outside."
Using a fire hose for baptism is a decades old tradition of the United House of Prayer, 601 M St. NW, that may be discontinued after this year. Church elders say they intend to hold all future baptisms in a more conventional manner in a new indoor church pool scheduled to be completed next year.
Debbie joined a half-city block full of white-clothed fellow believers, who swayed for a full 15 minutes with arms raised under a falling spray of water coming from a hose attached to a fire hydrant nearby and aimed high in the air. A "shout" band from North Carolina, imported especially for the occasion, played a jumping tempo as the crowd clapped their hands and sang "Amen" in the streets.
The baptism and the street parade that followed were the highlights of the last day of the 52nd annual convention of the United Church of Prayer for All People, an organization with 150 churches nationwide. There are seven churches locally that belong to the group.
Bishop Walter (Sweet Daddy) McCollough, head of the oraganization, gazed down on the rites impassively from his white seat under a lime green patio umbrella placed on a flat-bed truck for the event. Flanked by two women attendants who wiped his glasses whenever water fell on them, the bishop eventually rose and danced himself, smiling sweetly at the crowd.
Washington was the fifth stop on a 22-state tour during which conventions are conducted by the church hierarchy at congregations around the country. Baptisms and parades conclude the conventions held at each stop. "We'll be in Newport News next week," said Elder Charles McCollough, the bishop's son. "That baptism in the James River is really something to see."
In the crowd of onlookers packing the sidewalks to view the event was one man who came down from Baltimore just to see it. "I saw the one in Baltimore last week and I wanted to see this one. You hear so much about these kids in the streets doing bad things and all and nobody ever hears about things like this."
The church, which claims to have 3 million members nationwide, is a "faith, not a religion," said Elder McCollough. "We take rejects from other churches. We believe if we live right, we die right. Whatever you are on earth you will be on resurrection day.
"Baptism is for the remission of sins and the Bible says as often as ye shall sin ye shall be baptized," he said, gazing down on the hand-clapping crowd. Several of them overcome with emotion, had to be supported in order to stand.