TAKE ME TO THE WATER: The Raceless Gospel as Baptismal Pedagogy for a Desegregated Church, Starlette Thomas, Nurturing Faith (Macon, GA), 2023. 113 pages including appendix and index. Forward by Aidsand F. Wright-Riggins. ISBN:978-1-63528-235-1
Take me to the water,
Take me to the water,
Take me to the water
to be baptized
My focus of late has been the building of a larger Table where all may sit, no one excluded. Unfortunately, our churches often have no interest in truly building a larger Table. In fact, for many it has become more about keeping the Table small, excluding those who don’t into some prescribed mold. Frequently, being excluded is about gender-identity and race.
In Take Me to the Water, Starlette Thomas speaks to creating “a raceless gospel,” using the lessons we can (and should) learn from baptism. Although Take Me to the Water addresses race, the same baptismal pedagogy speaks creating a gender-identity-less church—in fact, removing all exclusion from the Table.
To fully comprehend Thomas’ use of baptismal pedagogy, if you, like me, have a church background that practices child baptism or rarely immerses, you’ll need to set that background aside and think as a Baptist thinks about baptism. It is well worth the exercise to do so.
The subtitle of the book contains the words, “Raceless Gospel.” For Thomas, who presents the podcast, “The Raceless Gospel,” the Raceless Gospel is the “faith-seeking and the understanding” of the Gospel “without race and its progeny.” Thomas uses the lessons of the baptism to remove the racialized thinking that has taken over the American Church. Although I would add the organized church in general no matter where it exists—I think Take Me to the Water offers a valuable motif for change to the church no matter where it exists.
It is important to note, that Thomas’ idea of the Raceless Church is not a color-blind church, nor a post-racial church. Rather it is an “invitation to see race for what is.” In Take Me to the Water, Thomas aptly demonstrates that a raceless gospel transcends the differences, making us one in Christ. As a Baptist minister Thomas roots the raceless gospel in the baptismal identity of the Christian, an identity speaks to how the death and resurrection of Christ creates a new, raceless Community.
Using the water motif of baptism, each chapter speaks in baptismal terms of of water. The first, “Troubled Water” presents a thorough overview of the history of racism in the American Church.
Segregation is a byproduct of the prevailing political and cultural idea that our human identity is based on the sociological construct of race, which in turn keeps racial identity front and center. And while it should not be, front and center in the American Church. Segregation is not the reaching of the Gospel.
“Wading in the Water” (chapter 2) moves into the history of baptism and the baptismal formula as a model for raceless church—and society. Chapter 3, “Testing the Water,” expands the baptismal formula to bring it into our view as a means to challenge the divisions and the narrow tables of our churches. “Drawing from the Water” (chapter 4) is perhaps the most personal chapter, as Thomas moves from observation to sharing what she has learned from baptism, suggesting that there is something each of us can learn from the rite of baptism. To which I add, even if our tradition is not one of immersion.
What spoke to me was Thomas’ assertation that baptism should be an ongoing spiritual practice. All too often the spiritual significance ends when we “come up from the water.” For those of us in sprinkling traditions, other than having the parents promise to raise the child up in the Church and God, we rarely incorporate any sort of ongoing spiritual practice beyond the sprinkling. Especially a practice that incorporates the idea of a raceless Gospel.
“Baptism as Reflection Pool” (chapter 5) is the baptismal formula’s benediction and blessing. Both reminding us that emerging from baptism we are to see the world with raceless eyes, the eyes that God sees us with. Baptism is a witness to the raceless Gospel, for with God there are no divisions. It is (or should be) a witness that we stand with Paul, “In Christ there is no longer Jew or Greek.” In Christ, there is no longer black or white, we are one. The immersion and riding out, speaks to the work we are called to do to create a raceless church. And the benediction and blessing remind us that in the act of Baptist – no matter the mode – we’ve covenanted with God to build a Church that seeks to be the “Raceless Gospel.”
There is also an appendix that contains a baptismal liturgy, and extensive notes that provide an inclusive bibliography for further thinking.
Starlette Thomas is a graduate of Buffalo State College (B.A. in English), Colgate Rochester Crozer Divinity School (M.Div.), and Wesley Theological Seminary (D.Min. in Spirituality for Transforming Community), Thomas has served as a denominational leader, pastor, and clergy coach. She also serves as the director of the “Raceless Gospel Initiative” for Good Faith Media, hosting the “Raceless Gospel” podcast, leading workshops and producing resources that guide followers of Jesus to live more deeply into their baptism identity.
©Frank A. Mills, 2024