VThe Rev. Ted Dawson stood waist-deep in an eastern Kentucky creek preparing to dip two new converts beneath the water in a baptismal service that many Appalachian churches prefer: outside in free-flowing water, evoking Jesus in the Jordan River.
Such Protestants believe that full immersion in water for professing youths and adults is a necessity and that there's no better place for Christianity's initiation rite than the great outdoors. "We were raised that way," said Susie Hall, who, along with her husband, was baptized by Dawson this year in Johns Creek. "I feel closer to God in nature."
These days, however, the tradition is threatened in eastern Kentucky by rampant water pollution resulting from so-called straight-piping of sewage into streams.
"Most of the people I baptize want to be baptized in the creek," said Dawson, pastor of Old Log Church near this historic coal town, which is best known as singer Loretta Lynn's childhood home. "I would say 80 percent of our baptisms are in the creek," and fortunately the water in Johns Creek is very clean.
"But there are some creeks you can't baptize in, they're so nasty," said Dawson, a Free Will Baptist minister who is also willing to baptize indoors if that's what a congregant wants.
For several years, Kentucky health officials have had advisories in place against swimming or "other full-body contact," including baptizing, in designated streams. The reason is high levels of fecal coliform bacteria, which indicate the presence of untreated or inadequately treated sewage.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency said in a 2000 report that 39 percent of the nation's tested streams were at least partially unfit for swimming because of bacteria or other types of contamination. In Kentucky, 48 percent were at least partially unfit; that figure improved only slightly, to 45 percent, two year later.
Kentucky Division of Water spokeswoman Maleva Chamberlain said bacterial contamination in streams carries a risk of diarrhea and other infectious diseases.
Most churches, even in rural areas, have been slowly moving away from outdoor baptisms, but creeks remain the norm for small mountain communities, said Bill Barker, director of the Southern Baptists' Appalachian Regional Ministry.
"It's the traditional way of doing it, and change comes slow in the mountains," he said.
Some churches do creek baptisms in winter, even if that means chopping a hole in the ice. So, it's not surprising that they show little concern about contamination, Barker said.
"It's such a way of life," he said, "that I don't think pollution even crosses their minds."
Gary Farley, former director of town and country ministries for the Southern Baptist Convention, said Appalachia is one of the last bastions for creek baptisms. How many occur is anyone's guess because most practitioners come from "subfamilies of Baptists who don't really report much to any central organization," he said.
Some Southern Baptist Convention congregations do baptize outdoors. For example, NorthStar Church in Kennesaw, Ga., baptized 67 people in Lake Allatoona in July. The eight-year-old Southern Baptist congregation simply doesn't have a baptistry yet, said Pastor Mike Linch, so new members are immersed in lakes, swimming pools, even hot tubs. The church plans a baptismal pool in the lobby of its future building.
As for indoor vs. outdoor, "We do not believe one is better than the other," Linch said.
That contrasts with the Little Rosa Old Regular Baptist Church in McDowell, Ky., which split five years ago because some members wanted to install a baptistry so converts would not have to enter a creek.
Half the congregation left to start a new church a half-mile away.