The driving drum beat moved the boys to dance in a circle in front of everyone seated in the shade under the palm trees. Only no one was still seated. We sang. We clapped. We pulsed as the music kept calling us deeper into something. A teenage girl, with perfect hand clap rhythm and an ethereal smile, led this Sunday morning worship, and she took us to a place none of us could get to on our own. One song poured into the next like milk into coffee, becoming one. The brand new, brighter-than-bleach t-shirt that sway against her cocoa dark Ghanaian skin was its own story of beauty and contrast. Behind her the lush green lawn of the hotel sloped down into the shimmering sun-dance lake, hazy mountains framed the water on the horizon, and a perfect blue sky served as a backdrop.
When the music came to an end, the in-country director of Touch a Life, Garret, stood to share how today was special – it was baptism Sunday. Sixteen of the children had studied about baptism and would be baptized today in Lake Bosomtwe. I only knew of single baptisms that trickled out one at a time with weeks or even months between them, controlled and manageable. Sixteen in one day felt like a river spilling it banks, too much unmanageable goodness all at once.
It also felt loaded with meaning in a way that was different than the already pregnant-with-meaning feeling of any baptism. I walked in silence toward the lake as everyone else made their chit-chat way in the same direction. Pressure built inside my heart - an emotion wanted to come out, but at the same time refused to declare its identity. I had to go looking for it. I found myself playing a game of hide and seek with an emotion and it was beating me. I heard it breathing and felt the weight of its nearness, but could not look it in the eye. “Come out, come out wherever you are,” I called, but it was more interested in teasing me than being exposed. And that is how it is with me and weighty emotions: I know first of their presence, next of their size, and in short order of their importance, but nothing of their nature. They all feel the same at first, like an unnamed pressure building up inside to announce it presence, but then stops right there, leaving me to wonder whether this is an attack, a game, a flirt or whatever. I vaguely even know whether the feeling is good or bad. At once I am aware of it presence and at the very same time oblivious to it meaning. And I never learn how to get access to it with any greater efficiency. Emotions outflank me every single time. Sometimes the feeling finally filters out into my awareness and I can name it and sometimes I have to track it through the jungle. This time I had to work to find it.
The emotion this time was big. Approaching the lake with this band of people, most of whom I did not even know their names, to engage in a Christian ritual so consequential and transforming pushed me to wonder whether I even deserved to be here and to witness this. I would wonder this many times over the week that followed. The emotion was not only big, it was growing.
We arrived at the lake’s edge. Some stayed on the grassy lawn while others made their way further to the water’s edge onto the mud flat where the lake was low. Rainy season would engage any day and the locals eagerly awaited the skies to make up for lost life giving rains. But today the sun shone bright and hot and the lake was low. Anticipation saturated the moment. At the edge of the grassy lawn under the palm trees, Pam Cope anointed each child with oil, one by one, holding each of them with the love of a mother, praying over each of them with the authority of a prophet, and then releasing each of them toward the water with the hopeful passion of woman whose been swept up into a mission bigger than she is.
No child walked to the water alone. One by one, each getting special attention from people who loved them, the children were escorted, some holding hands and others with arms over shoulders, into the water and were met by Garret the baptizer at water’s edge. Garret then took then into the water, with gentle hands, with loving hands – unforced. They went waist deep.
That pressure inside me intensified as I watched each child enter the water with Garret, stand with him, nod in agreement that they were giving their lives to Jesus, and then at the hand of a powerful man willingly be put under the water.
What does it mean for these children to be under water?
When was the last time they were under water?
What thoughts come to their minds when they went down into the water?
How does it feel to go under water at the hands of a powerful man?
Questions flooded my mind like the relentless beat of the drums. The imposing and yet elusive emotion pressing me from the inside out hit a climax and I wanted to cry just to see if that would help identify what the feeling was, but I couldn’t. It was almost rainy season, but not yet. The moment was too much to grasp as one by one, each child was plunged into the waters of baptism and reborn into a new life – freed again. I wanted to hold this moment, to capture it, to contain it, but I cannot catch the ocean with a thimble.
Then my mind went to a place I have never seen, but only imagined – Lake Volta. Every last one of these children endured forced labor on that lake. Every single day they endured exhaustingly long hours of dangerous and life threatening labor and were subject to the life draining soul violence of objectification. At the hands of their powerful master, they were plunged into the murky waters of Lake Volta to loosen fishing nets from underwater branches and logs. Under the water, they risked their lives because if they did not, they would be beaten within an inch of their lives. Death haunts everywhere on Lake Volta and is eager to feed. Most of the children saw other children go under the water and never saw them again, swallowed whole by the lake. They witnessed death by drowning and then had to go into the water hoping they loosen enough nets and hold their breath long enough for their master. Death haunts in every direction.
At the edge of Lake Bosomtwe, I stood next to one of the older boys who had been rescued 4 fours years prior. He is an intelligent, strong, and wise young man - a sixteen year old. I drummed up the courage to ask him a question.
“When do you think was the last time these children have been under water?”
He was silent and somewhat stone faced. “Long time,” he said conserving words.
Suddenly, as though I had forgotten for a while, I remembered I was a therapist, a mental health expert. My whole purpose for being here was to observe the children and the context and to make suggestions and recommendations pertaining to mental health. I wondered how traumatizing Lake Volta had been for these children.
What are they doing with their post-traumatic stress?
Does it reach the threshold of a disorder for any of them?
What are they doing with their memories?
Do they have nightmares?
Do they story their pain?
Again the questions rushed my mind. And in the flurry of questions it struck me with profound clarity – theology and psychology are merging at the waters of Lake Bosomtwe. Treatment for post-traumatic stress involves both exposure and narrative. Exposure therapy situates the traumatized individual into a similar situation as the trauma either through memory, performance, or location, but instead of the similar situation being dangerous, this time it is safe. Narrative therapy is the storying and restorying the events such that the assigned meaning changes and is redeemed. The story is eventually owned no longer by the perpetrator, but by the survivor.
Baptism in Lake Bosomtwe was the most beautiful Narrative Exposure Therapy for the trauma experienced in Lake Volta. At both lakes, these children went under water at the hands of a powerful man, but the meaning of each plunge under the water could not be more polar. The slave story of the masters of Lake Volta were being subverted sixteen times over by the redemption story of Jesus in Lake Bosomtwe. And now the story belongs in the hands of the children. Going under water does not only mean death anymore, it means resurrection, it means life, it means freedom!
And that is when the mystery of the mounting pressure of the elusive emotion inside finally resolved. It came out into the light to reveal itself. The feeling: awe. Moses felt this at the burning bush. Isaiah felt this when he saw God. The woman who touched the robe of Jesus and was healed felt this. It is proper feeling to have when God comes near.
As the poetry was performed in sixteen beautiful stanzas in Lake Bosomtwe, I stood in awe, at water’s edge, grateful and humbled to witness how the divine moves among people.