Take me to the river

0712_baptismThere is salvation in Hilton Head Island’s waters.
The voice of 73-year-old Reverend Ben Williams has been reverberating off the walls of Mount Calvary Baptist Church on Hilton Head Island for 37 years. (photo by Scott Salisbury)

AUTHOR’S NOTE: Christopher C. Wuensch and Scott Salisbury spent the summer of 2009 following the members of Mount Calvary Baptist Church, a small Hilton Head Island congregation keeping the divine art of river baptism afloat. The following is their tale of soul salvation, a tightly-bonded community and a reverent reverend named Ben Williams.

When Jeffrey Davis Herndon arose from the murky waters of Skull Creek, he offered no hallowed declaration of salvation found.
No rejoice smoothed the creased contours of his face.
The most the 11-month-old was able to bleat was a quick yelp of certain surprise.
It isn’t always in the Lord’s modus operandi, after all, to forewarn someone that he’s blessing their soul — regardless of age.
And while the Almighty may not operate according to any earthly calendar, his presence can be felt the first Saturday of every month in the waters of South Carolina’s Lowcountry. Here the parishioners of Mount Calvary Missionary Baptist Church continue to stave off the death of the nearly-antiquated tradition of river baptism.
For young Herndon, his path to righteousness was a sleepy one.
The infant slept as the church members congregated in the cramped dining room of the Hilton Head Island church, located on Squire Pope Road, to swaddle the June candidates in white linen robes.
He dozed as the holy reverberations of Reverend Ben Williams rattled the 99-year-old walls of the church — the ones seemingly held in place solely by myriad faded photos of Martin Luther King, President Barack Obama and congregation members both present, past, and passed.
He snoozed as the entire processional hummed and hymned its way down the rocky, crushed-shell-lined roadway to the water’s edge where white egrets, common terns, and brown pelicans sought breakfast, rather than avian salvation.
He even slumbered to the backdrop of reed-engulfed docks, the lazily churning tide and even slower-trawling shrimp boats as the members of his family entered their metaphorical “liquid graves” before him.
Any parallels with the afterlife, however, end there.
Mount Calvary’s river baptism in Skull Creek is all about the spiritual rite of rebirth.
“This is a new beginning of our life,” said Clayton Lyndsey, 38, the godfather of Jeffrey Davis, his linen robe still clinging to his body after his own baptism.
Lyndsey and the Davis family were among seven people submitting their old lives to the water under threatening morning skies along the river embankment located a mere seashell toss away from Hudson’s Seafood Restaurant.
Mel Rose Williams (no relation to Ben) was among them. When the 62-year-old Savannah resident arose from the water, she began to violently tremble as the enormity of the moment seized hold of her soul.
Afterward, while drying salt water from her body and tears from her face, the moment subdued her to a calm, almost relieved smile.
“Awesome,” Mel Rose whispered to describe the moment. “I am complete.”
Similar enlightenment has been occurring throughout Beaufort County and beyond for 37 years — ever since Williams, now 73, first crossed the swinging James F. Byrnes Bridge.
Those seeking rebirth have walked incalculable miles in many pairs of life’s shoes to the shores of Skull Creek — a Lowcountry version of the River Jordan — and a reverend who was baptized in the same ancient holy waters as Jesus Christ.
They’ve been local fishermen and parishioners. They’ve ranged from the wheelchair-bound ill to the affluent and all walks of life between.
They’ve been as young as Jeffrey Davis Herndon and as iconic as Sugar Ray Leonard.
The pugilist sought out Williams in the ’80s while training on the island for a bout against “Marvelous” Marvin Hagler.
Like a boxing match, the reverend’s sermons are never without their sense of pomp.
“I wanted to be a black Billy Graham,” laughed Williams.
That’s evident the next morning in mass for Jeffrey Davis Herndon’s baptismal service. Williams playfully chided the boy’s father for removing the grouchy child from the sermon.
“If a child’s not crying, your church is dying,” the reverend bellowed to the ovation of his constituents.
On a good day, the congregation of Mount Calvary numbers close to 400 members — a very good day, winks the reverend.
That wasn’t always the case.
When Williams arrived in the Lowcountry after a stint living in New York City, he didn’t approve of the island’s circuitous trail of worship.
Every Sunday a different church would open for mass and all the parishioners of the island would be forced to travel.
Williams’ initial dreams of a new life in the Lowcountry as a husband and eventual father of two didn’t involve becoming a full-time pastor. The responsibility was simply too great, even for someone who graduated from New York City’s Bethel Bible College.
After about a year, however, the conditions of the island’s faith began talking to him and he joined Mount Calvary as its full-time pastor.
“If one person comes seeking salvation and the church doors are closed and if I’m your pastor, then God’s got some questions for me,” explained Williams.
Before long he was among those leading the island’s facelift through charity work and countless volunteer hours.
With the eventual modernization of the church system came the upgrading of the actual churches — most notably the addition of baptismal pools.
One by one river baptism began to disappear as the island’s old churches switched to convenient indoor pools. 
Central Oak Grove Baptist, at 125 years old, uses one. So, too, does St. James Baptist, at just north of 140 years. Even the island’s oldest church, First African Baptist, which celebrates its 150th birthday this year, have all conceded to their new baptismal pools.
Mount Calvary was among the churches getting a new indoor pool.
In 37 years of performing the ritual, however, only one person has requested that the smooth-talking reverend baptize them in the pool.
The savvy salesman of the Lord coaxed that person to the river and the Mount Calvary baptismal pool remains unused to this day.
To ignore the potential powers of the waterways around Hilton Head, said the reverend, would almost be a sin.
River baptisms in Warrenton, N.C., where Williams was born and raised, often involved hacking through the brush and trees to get to a small river.
To a young boy growing up in the rural countryside, baptism was more of an opportunity to get a much-needed pair of new clothes — rather than a spiritual wake-up call.
Ultimately, it was up to the reverend to discover his own path in the Lowcountry.
The impact of the man who organized the island’s first-ever Martin Luther King parade, will forever be felt in the water as well as on the land.
Today Mount Calvary’s Achievement School for youngsters, of which Williams is the executive director, is nearing its 20th anniversary.
Like Williams before him, one day Jeffery Davis Herndon will need to seek his own pilgrimage to his own water.
On this late morning in June, however, a short squeal is about all the once-sleeping toddler can muster.
With that, he opened his eyes and a sense of calm spread across his baby face.
As if held back by some divine timing, the clouds could contain the rain no longer.
And the heavens opened up.