ORLANDO, Fla. (BP)—David Uth’s first baptism ceremony inside a prison facility had an impact.
On him perhaps as much as anybody.
“Walking into a room filled with prisoners of all types and realizing that we are all one in Christ was amazing,” said Uth, senior pastor of First Baptist Church in Orlando, Fla. “I understood that there is no difference between me and them. We’re all sinners in need of God’s grace.”
Uth and First Baptist prayer ministry pastor John Harris had ventured to the Central Florida Reception Center to join church member John Watson for the baptism of 27 inmates.
The baptisms were the results of Watson’s efforts at the Orlando-area prison which houses inmates scheduled for transfer to other facilities.
“I’ve been going out to the prison for nine months and ministering to the inmates,” Watson said. “God has blessed me in this ministry, and I have seen more than 40 men come to know Christ.”
Watson served four years in prison for grand theft and was released on New Year’s Day 2000. He gave his life to Christ just before beginning his sentence in 1996.
The prison chaplains invited him to baptize the new converts, “but I had never done a baptism before,” Watson recounted. So, he talked with Harris, who in turn spoke with Uth. That’s when Watson received the surprising but welcome news that both pastors wanted to go with him to the prison to help with the baptisms. “The three of us did 23 baptisms,” Watson said. “Then four guys on work detail showed up [after Uth and Harris left] and I baptized them.”
It was a unique moment for Watson. “Don’t forget — I’m one of those guys. I have a real love for them and to see them baptized was just an incredible feeling.”
The baptisms were performed in portable tubs similar to what First Baptist Orlando used three weeks earlier during its “Not Ashamed” baptism services June 27-28 when 337 people were baptized at the 15,000-member church.
For Harris, the baptisms also took on a special meaning. “When Pastor Uth and I were introducing ourselves to the inmates, one of them said to me, ‘I have your Bible.’ I was completely blown away by that.” Harris had given a number of study Bibles to Watson to distribute to the inmates. Within that bunch was one of his personal Bibles, given him by his sister, with her written dedication. “The man who received it said, ‘I want to thank you for this Bible.’ That was a particular thrill for me.”
The prison had its own band of inmates who played worship songs and choruses. “After they led us in worship, Pastor Uth delivered a message about the importance of baptism,” Harris recounted. “What stuck out most to me was when he said that baptism is the only place in Scripture where all of the Godhead was present. We don’t see that anywhere else.”
For Uth, though it was not the first time he had spoken at a prison, it was the first time he had ever done baptisms in one. “The inmates had tattoos everywhere on their bodies and you just wondered about their lives,” Uth said. “But as they were baptized, they would say their names followed by, ‘Jesus is my Lord and I am not ashamed!’ and then went down in the water. They had tremendous passion and conviction.”
The frequently repeated scene stirred Uth to realize, “In this moment in their lives, as they are facing an unknown future, they have come to a place where they absolutely know that their hope is Jesus. I told them that despite the fact they are [incarcerated], that ‘if Jesus has set you free, you are free indeed.’ I said, ‘You may never know the outside of this facility, but when you know Christ, you are free.'”
Uth also was touched by the fact that the inmates watch First Baptist’s televised services and had watched the “Not Ashamed” services.
“These inmates watch our services,” Uth said. “In other words, God had already gone before us and prepared their hearts. By the time we got there, it was just a matter of rejoicing in the harvest.”
And what a harvest it was. Uth is hoping that what happened at the Central Florida Reception Center was just the beginning.
“I’ve done a lot of things as a pastor, but I’ve never done anything that had greater meaning for me then to watch these inmates celebrate their new life in Christ. The Not Ashamed weekend is having a ripple effect and I pray we’ll continue to see that effect for a long time to come.”
David Ettinger is a staff writer and editor at First Baptist Church in Orlando, Fla.