The multipurpose room of the Chinese for Christ Church in Berkeley, California had all the elements of what a non-denominational Chinese church should have, I guess: gray short-thread carpet, metal cross on a wall, next to a framed poster of the Chinese translation of Psalms 23 — Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want — hung above the double doors which led to the church’s kitchen areas.
I forgot what the church looked like until I saw a photo of it on Google Street view, and there it was, just as I remembered it — it’s where our entire family went every Sunday, my grandmother and my parents and my sister and I.
The pillars had a fresh coat of paint; no sign of the grubby handprints from the same kids playing tag, numerous home bases for dozens of years: Kiki and Nelson, there every week, along with Joy and Johnny who were the kids of Ina, the Sunday School teacher, and Mary and Christine Ma, two sisters who had fair skin and blue eyes, but spoke perfect Mandarin. We fidgeted in our folding chairs as Ina would tell the stories of the bible, from the fall of humanity through Adam and Eve in Genesis to the fall of humanity in Revelations, paper figures in peril against felt backdrops representing hell; our church was non-denominational, but a little fire and brimstone didn’t hurt anyone. We sung our prayers in the form of a memorized Chinese song, then line up afterwards for lunch and eat with the adults from the Chinese language services — white rice, usually served with ground pork, and pickled vegetables on Styrofoam plates.
Today was a special day. In the corner of the room was a baby blue hot tub without any working jets, used as a baptismal pool. Usually, the hot tub would be covered with a secured piece of plywood and casual visitors would just assume the structure was part of the architecture of the room, like a corner alcove not planned out well enough. But there we were, baptismal pool uncovered on a Sunday afternoon, sitting in rows of metal folding chairs pulled out from the storage closet, more than usual during Sunday School. Grandma was with me, and while she’s pretty much the reason why we all went to church, it was a special event for her not rush home back to the senior center in the afternoons to play mahjong.
We watched a group of eight to ten men and women wearing canvas-colored tunics walk out of the double doors — mostly older Chinese immigrants from Taiwan and Mainland China, maybe some in their twenties.
My teenage sister, noticeably younger than the other people standing next to her, sat at the end. Also in her plain tunic, hair to the side, face looking rounder, eyes looking smaller without the pair of giant eyeglasses framing her face.
I squirmed in my seat, uncomfortable seeing my sister in anything but jeans or a brightly colored t-shirt, and grabbed onto my grandmother’s hand. “Shh, not now,” she said to me in Mandarin, and placed her weathered hand on my head, grooming my hair.
Tien Mushi — or Pastor Tien — stood by the baptismal pool to greet the participants. A shorter man in his fifties with his hair slicked back; he had a poised, slightly effeminate demeanor, as if he was an understudy to the lead in Madame Butterfly, waiting for his big break to come. But he was a man of God, and when he spoke in his sing-songy Mandarin, it was about his love for Christ rather than anything salacious.
A couple of weeks before, I saw Tien Mushi talking to my sister upstairs in one of the side rooms overlooking the main chapel, where mothers could bring their crying babies while the sermon piped in through an old speaker. Dad was up there too, his brow crinkled, arms crossed. Their whispers were urgent, pointed, a direct contrast from Angela’s heavy sobs. “I’m sorry,” she wailed, loud enough to pull back from the door where I was pressing my ear. The three continued throughout the afternoon, the wailing of my sister, then their heads bowed in prayer, then more hushed voices, prayers, and Angela crying some more.
Grandma squeezed my hand. The sacrament started and we watched the pastor and his assistant stand in the baptismal pool, barefoot and their black dress pants rolled up above the knee. I remember thinking I wouldn’t like it myself if I stepped in puddles and the bottom of my pants got wet, and he must have hated that, too. One by one, each person walked to the front, affirmed their faith in silent prayer, and then Tien Mushi pulled them back, submerging them in the water, bringing them up immediately as they transform into a new brother or sister in Christ. The room is silent, save for his repeated monologue, the sound of water splashing everywhere.
When it was my sister’s turn, she stood in front of us, eyes to the floor, hair draped over her face. The men braced her as Tien Mushi repeated his script in Chinese, and then again in English with a heavy accent: I baptize you, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and the Holy Ghost.
They pulled her into the water. She’s down for one second, two seconds, three seconds, and was this how baptisms work? Were they trying to hurt her? I could feel her struggle but by the time I want to stand up from my chair they are already raising her upright from the water. I could see her overwhelmed by the sensations, the loud splashing and cold, wet fabric from my sister’s robe and the pastor’s shirt clinging against her skin. She covered her face with her hands and wiped the black hair away from her face, and her shivering turned into something louder, angrier. The heaving started and I’m not sure if was the chlorine water up her nose and mouth, but after a while it was apparent she was sobbing uncontrollably.
Everyone around me shifted in their seats uncomfortably, unsure if she’s crying because she’s overcome with the spirit or from something darker, and it’s not like Chinese people are the emotional type or anything. Exhausted — spiritually and otherwise — she was led back through the double doors to dry out and change into street clothes.
I turned to my grandmother, wondering I should be scared about what’s happening to her. Instead, her eyes are closed and she nods repeatedly, palms resting on her lap turned upward, believing her own cantations could bring salvation faster.
“Ganxie Yesu, ganxie yesu. Ha li lu ya,” she says repeatedly. Thanks be to Jesus, thanks be to Jesus, Hallelujah.