My First Baptist Winter

For a recently transplanted son of missionaries, snowy Kansas seems impossibly far from the sunny biblical lands

In the winter of 1970, my family came “home” to the United States, and my father opened a doctor’s office in the little town of Troy, Kansas. We had been in Ethiopia for five years. I couldn’t remember having lived anywhere else, and I missed the open hillsides, so different from the fenced corn stubble and wall-like hedgerows of Mom’s childhood region. I missed, too, being outdoors; life in Troy was cold and closeted. Starting with the first snow, everyone retreated inside with their hissing radiators, appearing only long enough to dash from a house to a car or a car to a store. On Sundays, my brothers and I dashed, too—leaping into our frigid Plymouth and shivering down to the First Baptist Church, where we ducked inside just in time for Sunday School.

The basement classrooms—underneath the clapboard sanctuary—were poorly heated, so I delayed taking off my coat, not wanting to get chilled by the backrest of the metal folding chair. I felt terribly shy on the first Sunday, not sure how to engage with the other nine- and ten-year-olds, who had known each other since infancy. While our teacher told them my parents had been missionaries in Africa (not Ethiopia, but that wide undifferentiated mass called Africa), they looked at me as if I had sprouted a beak or hooves. An older boy asked, with glittering eyes, if Africans went around naked all the time, which caused the teacher to shake her bouffant of blonde hair and scold, “You know that is not an appropriate question, not here or anywhere.”

Being from another continent and not knowing anyone made all those early visits to the Baptist church intimidating, so I kept to myself even though I sometimes wanted to join the other boys in arm wrestling or to try to intercept the box of colored pencils they were tossing. One Sunday, about a month after I joined the class, the teacher got so exasperated that she shouted for everyone to sit down and shut up—and to quit squeezing glue onto their fingers. Red-faced and angry, she tried to get us to focus on that week’s scheduled biblical hero, Moses.

To hear that Old Testament name was actually a kind of relief. I knew all about Moses because my mother had taught Bible classes for Ethiopian children, tearing out flannelgraph figures that could be put up on a sheet of fuzzy cloth and moved around to simulate what happened: the mythic leader meeting God in a burning bush then going into Egypt to confront the Pharaoh with plagues of locusts and frogs, or him raising his staff to part the Red Sea, and urging the worried Israelites through that wet canyon into the hot rocky wilderness, where they would wander for forty years.

Still, I wasn’t going to volunteer any of this information. I was not naïve enough to think that showing off as a nine-year-old in Sunday School would win me any friends. Instead, I kept my sight fixed above the teacher, on a high, small window, which had turned opaque due to a film of frost.

As it turned out, I had no choice about getting involved. Since I was new and quiet and surely in need of special attention, the teacher locked on me.

“Tim, can you imagine what it might have been like to be part of that crowd in the desert?”

“I don’t know.”

“Do you think they might have been worried about what to eat or where they might sleep?”

I nodded, wanting her to swing the spotlight away. In fact, I could easily picture the Israelites setting up camp, because at our first station, not far from the town of Soddo, three or four thousand of the local peasants came down out of the surrounding hills to attend a Bible conference each February. In Ethiopia, February brought the height of the dry season—when all the harvesting and threshing was done and the countryside had turned to shades of brown or yellow. At that time of year, the farmers had little to do, so they were happy for a gathering. They drifted down the hills alone or in pairs, joining each other on the foot trails, barefoot, their wives following along in billowing skirts and clutching black umbrellas, trying to keep the intense equatorial sun from turning them too dark.

To me, a kid living at Soddo mission station, the long procession of farm folk had seemed quite ordinary. Seated on crude wooden saddles with wraparound shawls thick on their shoulders, some of the wealthier men rode mules, but most hiked all the way with spears that doubled as walking sticks. They carried packets of food strung over their shoulders: parched wheat or roasted corn, or perhaps pounded tubers, white and curdled like cottage cheese, which could be kept clean in a packet of folded banana leaves.

These peasants still lived like Old Testament people—making their own cloth and rope, plowing with oxen, riding on mules. So, yes, I could imagine what the Israelites might have looked like while wandering across the Sinai wilderness. If they decided to stop and stay a while, I assumed they constructed a shelter just like the one the Ethiopian men built on the soccer pitch outside the mission school—a leafy awning of torn branches raised on posts. I could see the ancient Israelites resting in the shade and then, as evening settled in, pulling out cloth satchels of grain and starting small fires to roast coffee, grinding it by hand and boiling it in clay pots. I could see them opening long shammas in the dusk and wrapping themselves in the white cloth before falling asleep side by side in a great crowd. I imagined they even had a unique old-world odor: a musky earth-scent mixed with the nutty aroma of parched grain and eucalyptus smoke.

“Have any of you seen the ocean?” the teacher asked. “Tim, I’ll bet you have.”

I shook my head. Sure, I’d flown over the ocean, but did that count?

She was, of course, trying to get the class to imagine the Red Sea, where Moses had lifted his staff and the water had swept back in two curtained walls, allowing the Israelites to escape the pursuing army of Pharaoh.

“It must have been hard to be the first ones to step down into that muddy hallway, don’t you think?” she asked. “What do you think the water looked like when it was pushed back? Could they see through it?”

“Maybe it was red,” said one of the girls on the other side of the room, “since it was called the Red Sea.”

“Yeah, maybe it was like blood, especially after Pharaoh’s army got smashed,” said one of the boys.

Everyone snickered, and I smiled, not wanting to look like a loser, but I could imagine this biblical water quite well because, in Ethiopia, the water in streams was usually a rusty orange, turned that color from iron-rich sediment. And I had seen people walk right out into such water.

Illustration by Anna Hall

At the climax of the Soddo church conference, the whole crowd rose from under their leafy awning and walked en masse to the silty river several miles below the station. They were led by a guest preacher and several local assistants, including the beaming evangelist Ato Wandaro, an early convert who had been arrested and beaten by the occupying Italians in World War II. Ato Wandaro was a gentle, pepper-haired man with a smile so sturdy it could outlast a drought or plague, and probably even Pharaoh himself. There was no grandstanding with him or with the others. They did not raise their staffs to part the river. They just strode in as if God was on their side. Then a long line of baptismal candidates came out to join them, feeling their way into the muddy depths.

“I baptize you in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit,” the ministers proclaimed. And the candidates lay back on the warm water with abandon, letting their dusty clothes go under, the same clothes they had worn down the hills to our station and which they would wear back up to the meeting area then on the long hike home.

When they came up out of the water, trickling rusty rivulets, they lifted their arms to the sky, murmuring, “The Lord be praised”—“Egziabhiyär yimesgen.” They hugged each other and shivered and broke into involuntary laughter, like people who had just escaped death. In some sense, they seemed to have passed through their own Red Sea.

Sequestered in the chilly cinder-block basement of the Troy Baptist church with children drying Elmer’s glue on their fingertips and the teacher clapping her hands for attention, I wrestled with conundrums, asking questions too large and perplexing for a nine-year-old mind. Though I eventually raced out of the frigid room with the others, whacking the metal support posts and thumping up the worn carpeted steps for the service, internally I was still wondering why Moses, of all God’s people, was not allowed into the Promised Land. Why was he, despite being the Israelites’ most faithful leader, forced to wait alone on a mountain peak, able to see the long-anticipated homeland but not to enter?

The organ was set to a high whistling mode that had an otherworldly quality to it, as if it had been piped in from outer space. Wearing burgundy robes, the choir members were seated and thumbing through their hymnals. We could see them from where I joined my brothers and my parents in the chilled vestibule. I drummed on my thighs absentmindedly. Then I quieted as Dad placed a hand on my shoulder, ushering me into the old sanctuary with its upside-down keel of a ceiling. We tiptoed up the side aisle lined with stained-glass windows lit in a dim seaweed-green that made me feel as if we might be meeting underwater. Beneath the windows, old silver radiators clonked, releasing plumes of steam.

Dad led us right up to a front pew, where I scrunched down inside my parka and leaned against my mother, bumping her shoulder to indicate I’d like a head scratch. She obliged, and though I let myself relax, wandering my gaze over the dark wooden ceiling, a part of my attention stayed vigilant, focused toward the pulpit.

Our minister, Pastor Leroy, was no Moses. At least not like Michelangelo’s Moses, which I had seen in Rome on our way back to the United States. Michelangelo’s Moses cradled the chiseled commandments with a rippling arm—the arm of a warrior-king, a battlefield giant. Leroy, by contrast, did not have a solid chest or thick fingers. He did not even fill his suit coat. His thick glasses magnified his eyes out of proportion, and he spoke as calmly and plainly as if he was taking a turn at a meeting in someone’s living room.

As a leader, he had little physical prominence; however, Leroy did have a quiet spiritual strength, which came from his trust in the Bible. The Bible was his staff, and he leaned on it heavily. He preached very matter-of-factly, reasoning with us in a dispassionate way as if it was no skin off his back if we disagreed with him. What we thought was between us and God.

Although he was not a dynamic speaker, I listened closely because everyone else seemed to listen closely, coming back each Sunday to this frost-sealed sanctuary to give Pastor Leroy careful classroom attention. Worship in that small-town Baptist church was clearly a studious, indoors endeavor, which demanded stillness and concentration. As a result, I was quite surprised when—after the snow had melted and a few foolish daffodils were beginning to bloom—Leroy suggested we celebrate Easter at sunrise in a cemetery on the edge of town.

The next week, we gathered in the dawn twilight two miles south of Troy, where a row of big pines stretched their limbs overhead, creaking softly. The temperature had dipped the night before, so the ground and the gravestones were sheeted with thick hoarfrost. Everyone whispered, as if fearing arrest. When a truck passed by on the nearby highway, growling as it geared down, I stiffened.

Since I would normally be fast asleep at this hour, it seemed surreal to stand out there in a cold cemetery, semi-alert, trapped in my shivering skin. I kept the fur-lined hood of my parka pulled over my head, so I could hardly hear as Pastor Leroy began to speak about the women going to the tomb to find where Jesus had been laid. He spoke so softly that I had to turn my head to pick up the words.

The women went in grief, he said. They went like people have always gone to cemeteries, for they knew they would be reminded of the painful absence of the one they loved, finding only the sighing in the trees and the cold stones. But they were surprised by something unexpected outside the bounds of physical reality. An empty tomb, yes, but even more unbelievable, a man who claimed to be—actually seemed to be—Jesus himself, back from the dead. No ghost, but a solid form.

As Leroy described the women’s amazement, the hidden sun cut loose from the eastern horizon, slicing it with burning light and sending out rays that lit the tops of the pines and worked their way down the trunks. I stared at those fire-tipped trees, and when at last the light had crept all the way down the trunks, turning them into glowing pillars, it struck my own face, spreading a delicious warmth that thawed my cheeks and sent a warm flush through my body.

The congregation launched into the final hymn: “Up from the grave he arose, with a mighty triumph o’er his foes.” The song started low, unusually low, as if buried and coming right up out of the hard-frozen ground. Then it lifted and soared, let loose to float over the countryside. I joined in. “He arose,” I shouted. “He arose.”

I flipped the hood off my head and let the words rip, high and loud, as if the whole county needed to know. I was filled with sweet joy—a celebratory sense of being included in a remarkable party. No longer were we boxed away in a church basement. Instead, this was like the Ethiopians rising out of the river, everyone shouting Amen. This was the dirt-under-my-fingers, clouds-in-the-sky, air-on-my-face worship that made me feel as if God was bigger than any structure we could build. Worship Israelite-style—or Ethiopian-style.

I looked over at Terry Whitsell, the one boy who seemed most like he might understand the life I used to lead—since his family was always doing things like tracking raccoons with hounds or gathering morel mushrooms on the bluffs of the Missouri River. He was singing loud, too, and when he caught my glance, he lifted a thumb.

At the church fifteen minutes later, I thumped down into the basement right behind Terry, and I rushed to join the line for pancakes. But I was not trying to be the first to get food. I was just letting myself feel, at last, that I might actually become a member of this small-town Kansas congregation, no longer an alien from another world. As soon as Pastor Leroy called out, “He is risen,” I shouted back with the others, “He is risen, indeed.”

About the Author

Tim Bascom

Tim Bascom’s memoir Running to the Fire (University of Iowa Press, 2015) is about his missionary family leaving the town of Troy, Kansas, to return to Ethiopia during a Marxist revolution.

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