In the hospital chaplains are occasionally asked to baptize babies, particularly those who are very sick or deceased (an issue for another blog post). Recently, however, I was asked to baptize an adult. He is not in immediate danger of death but rather is a long-term patient on a closed psychiatric ward. In his mid-50s, this patient has a history of being abused, some drug use, multiple suicide attempts, and borderline personality disorder, among other things. Despite this laundry list, he is a highly functioning individual when properly monitored and medicated. However, when released from a controlled environment he often attempts suicide, bringing him back to the hospital.
Except for the patients and staff of the psych ward he has no community, no family, no place to call home. He is unable to leave the floor to go to worship, and will likely move to another facility in the coming months that will be equally limiting. It’s not that the medical staff doesn’t want him going to church, but that they don’t have the resources (nurses, aides, social workers, etc.) to accompany patients to various churches on Sunday mornings. It’s a small ward full of diverse folks – not likely "worth the time" of a church to come in and do services (sad but true).
So, given that this man does not have a faith community and will likely not have one any time soon, but has an honest desire to be baptized, what would you do? He tells me that his mother didn’t care enough about him to get him baptized or to take him to church. He has occasionally gone to church as an adult, but his disease and transience has made it difficult for him to truly and actively participate in a community of faith. He prays and reads the Bible as he is able.
Baptism is an entry into a faith community, a grafting into the body of Christ, a cleansing of sin, and a promise of salvation. Yet without a community, how would this person be encouraged and nurtured in faith or reminded of these baptismal promises? Does a hospital baptism become an empty gesture, a feel-good ritual that wears off in a few days?
What would you do?