WEST POINT, N.Y. – A pair of cadets at the United States Military Academy (USMA) in West Point, N.Y., celebrated a day they are not likely to forget any time soon. On Feb. 12, Brooke Parker and Zhaoxin (Jenny) Ma were baptized by Baptist Campus Ministry (BCM) director Joshua Austin in an icy Hudson River.
The two cadets had other options: wait for the warmer weather of spring or be baptized in a baptistry that is in the basement of a chapel on campus. But both cadets felt like the choice was clear.
“The basement almost felt like hiding my faith as few people would be able to attend and celebrate with me the good things God has done,” said Parker, “and nobody would be able to just happen upon this event as they would if I were to be baptized outside. This would eliminate a big opportunity to share this experience and Christ with others who may not have previously considered attending.”
So, the indoor baptistry was eliminated as an option.
“I didn’t want to wait any longer to show others what God has done for me and what God can do, which is why I chose to get baptized in the icy waters,” Ma said. “I couldn’t wait any longer to show others all His greatness but also to proclaim to God that I am His, and I welcome Him into my heart, and I want to follow Him.”
Austin, a North American Mission Board (NAMB) missionary, received the go-ahead from the USMA Chaplaincy chain of command, and 60 onlookers stood on the banks of the Hudson to witness the two ladies share their testimonies and receive baptism.
Austin shared a brief message about the free gift of grace from Ephesians 2 before wading out into what he described as “painfully frigid waters.”
“They have boldly taken advantage of every opportunity to tell others about what baptism means to them and what Christ has done in their lives,” Austin said.
Ma came to West Point focused on success and achievement, but the degree of difficulty increased at the academy. She put a lot of pressure on herself and began struggling with her sense of worth, eventually isolating herself as depression and anxiety set in.
But a friend kept seeking her out to check on her and asked her if she had ever considered turning to God.
“At first, I laughed, and I told him how stupid I thought that was and how evolution and science made much more sense,” Ma recalled. “But he told me his story, and although I did not believe in God at the time, the thought was planted in my head.”
Ma began attending chapel services and BCM meetings, but her mental and emotional health took a turn for the worse, resulting in a 12-day hospital. She found a Bible in the hospital library, and something changed. Before entering the hospital, she had never sought help, but after her release, she made appointments to seek academic, medical and spiritual help.
“Chaplain Major Jose Rondon [a Southern Baptist chaplain] was the first appointment I made,” Ma said. “Something inside told me it was time to, and that day, Chaplain Rondon helped me open my heart up to Jesus, and words cannot describe the amount of relief and joy I felt that day. I cried knowing I made it, that there is hope for a brighter future and a better life.”
For Parker, she had grown up in a religious home, even asking Jesus into her heart at a young age, but difficulties at her church and in her homemade it tough to believe in God.
“If God loved us so much that he sent His Son to die for us, I didn’t understand how he could let people hurt us that way,” Parker said. “At that time, I felt a presence of darkness, I felt lost and alone in the world.”
By high school, though, she began meeting students who were positive representations of Christ and Christianity. A friend during her senior year helped her to start actively believing in God again. During her military training after high school, she began meeting more and more believers who showed her what it looked like to follow Christ.
“I realized over time that God had changed my attitude to one of repentance and that He had developed a desire in me to be closer to Him,” said Parker. “As I prayed about it more, I felt God urging me to be baptized and telling me that I had no reason for shame or to be hesitant.”
Ma and Parker met in a discipleship group through the BCM, and their desire to follow Christ in believer’s baptism, even on below-freezing, February day has afforded them opportunities to tell others about their faith.
“Because I followed His lead, God has further used my baptism to make His name greater,” Parker said. “In the week following the event, I received many congratulations from complete strangers. My hope is that God sparked something in their hearts.”
Austin became BCM director at West Point in January of 2020, right before the pandemic. Even in the face of those challenges, he has still seen God working to bring hope and peace to cadets’ lives, like Ma’s.
“I am placing myself and building my relationship with God above all, and I have never been more happy and joyful,” Ma said. “I have fallen in love with life again, and it is because of God.”