The Rev. Gregory Hughes has seen some miraculous things since he began his pilgrimages to the shores of St. Simons Island. The Atlanta-based pastor of True Life Ministries first started his journey to the coast more than 20 years ago, when he took a relatively aimless drive and ended up facing the waters of the St. Simons Sound.
It was there that he decided to offer an open water baptism for those looking to commit their lives to Christ. Since then, thousands have participated in what has become an annual event.
“Every year is a different experience, and it’s always something we didn’t see coming but it ends up being such a blessing,” he said.
One instance occurred last year, when a wheelchair bound woman wanted to be baptized. Though there were steep stairs in between the sidewalk and the ocean, the community stepped in to make it happen.
“The chair weighs 1,000 pounds. We had 15 to 20 men who were trying to carry the chair down to the water but finally the Glynn County Fire Department had an apparatus that got her down those stairs and she was baptized,” Hughes said.
“We gave her a nice photo as a memento. There have been so many experiences but that was just surreal.”
Hughes has stories of passersby being inspired by the spirit who take off their jogging or vacation gear and join in on the spot.
“We’ve had people who were training with (FLETC), and they’ve taken of their PT gear and came to be baptized in their uniform. We’ve had people who were visiting from another country and came down to go to the turtle center, they came over in their vacation clothes and were baptized,” he said.
“We’ve had people who don’t speak English come. People come from everywhere. It’s a beautiful thing.”
The baptism scene itself is inspiring. Hughes and his team dress in white and wade into the waters. It’s a vision that calls to mind days of old, when open water baptisms were quite common. It also directly links the participants to Christ’s own experience in the Jordan River when he was baptized by John.
But the act of the baptism itself is about more than washing away sin and committing one’s life to Christ. It’s also meant to be a powerful testimony to the world, declaring one’s allegiance for all to see.
“It’s an open testimony. Not only do we accept Jesus as our Lord and Savior ... it’s also a testimony to others,” he said.
“It’s symbolic of going down to the grave when you go down into the water. Then when you come out of the water you’re a new creature in Christ. You have a new life in Christ but it’s also showing others that you have accepted Christ.”
The event itself is also a way of connecting people from different backgrounds and histories. Hughes has seen time and again. Special bonds form through this human interaction, something that is becoming increasingly rare.
“In modernized society with social media, the fellowship is missing. The baptism brings out people from different churches and different walks of life. All different races and cultures come together,” he said.
“I really believe part of why the world is the way it is now is because we don’t have that human contact or fellowship anymore. Nothing is more precious than human contact and we’ve lost that, which is why things have gotten so messed up.”
This year, as in previous years, human connections will be at the forefront.
It will begin at noon oceanside right before St. Simons Island lighthouse on June 15. It will be followed by a picnic.
“Anyone can come ... all pastors and people. It doesn’t matter who you are and even if you have been baptized before, if you want to recommit your life to Christ by being baptized again we encourage you to do that. A lot of times we are baptized as children, and we really don’t understand what’s happening so doing it as an adult on your own, can mean a lot,” he said.
The process itself is a simple one. Hughes and his team share the Gospel and meaning of the sacrament of baptism with participants. All one really needs is a willingness to accept Christ.
“You don’t have to wear anything special. We wear white so people can find us ... but you can wear whatever you like. We will have robes and towels though if people need them,” he said.
In addition to the baptism, Hughes and his team will also be in town throughout the week. True Life Ministries is hosting workshops at Epworth By the Sea on St. Simons Island with a large gospel concert at 7 p.m. June 14 at Epworth. The baptism will conclude the services the following day.
Hughes is optimistic that this year’s event will continue the tradition of building connections through Christ.
“It is really beautiful to see, he said. People come together and are greeting each other with hugs, kisses and handshakes. It brings people together and that’s what it’s all about.”