CHESTERTOWN – The old gospel hymn asks, “Shall we gather at the river?”
Two summers ago, a group of Kent County churches responded to the hymn’s call, and the outcome was recorded for posterity. “Purification,” Deborah McLeod’s film of the event, debuts at noon, Sept. 20, at Prince Theatre. The film documents a traditional baptism conducted in the Chester River, with reflections on its historical and spiritual significance.
The screening will be introduced by a talk on “The Art of Stewardship” by artist Greg Mort, whose work is on display at the Carla Massoni Gallery, across the street from the theater. The event is sponsored by the gallery, and will feature live gospel music. Admission is free.
“Purification,” which explores the broader spiritual significance of baptism in the river, is based on a concept developed and written by McLeod, who is also listed as executive producer. Photographed in 2006 by Still Pond-based Loblolly Productions, the film was sponsored by grants from the Maryland State Arts Council and the Maryland Historical Trust. It is being presented by Leslie Raimond of the Kent County Arts Council.
For the film, McLeod persuaded the Rev. Sheridan Knight and the Rev. Janice Blackston, the pastors of Mount Olive Church in Butlertown, to conduct the church’s traditional summer baptisms in the river instead of the indoor pool that has replaced it in recent years. A press release from Loblolly on the making of the film said, “four other African American church communities enthusiastically joined in.”
According to a Kent County News report, about 30 people took part in the mass baptism. Photos and a brief account of the ceremony appeared in the Aug. 10, 2006 edition of the paper.
“Shooting began weeks before the early August event,” said the press release. “Various preparatory rites including the Church Mothers’ making of the gowns, and the candidates’ spiritual orientation were captured. The site chosen for the event was near Cliff City, a small public landing in Kent County on the Chester River with an early history of baptisms.”
Walter and Lotte Bowie of Loblolly Productions performed the filming, with equipment including a small aquarium to allow underwater shots.
As described in the press release, “It was a hot, humid, but blue-sky day, complete with a flurry of biting flies, but everyone seemed to transcend any discomfort through the wholly genuine experience of the glorious setting and joyous spirit of renewal, punctuated by the singing and prayers. Many participants agreed that they preferred to be baptized in the river as opposed to the church pool.”
After the initial filming, McLeod and the Bowies worked to put the ceremony in a larger context. They decided that “there would be three parts to the final piece, all embraced by music, each complete on their own, but together making a larger statement about sanctity, rivers, and the common wealth of mankind’s relationship to water.”
Additional filming took place over several months, capturing the river over its entire length. Wesley Jackson, one of the elders of Mount Olive Church, is shown travelling the river in a rowboat, passing along generational wisdom to Shakel Frazier, a younger member of the congregation.
Kevin Brien and Jeanette Sherbondy, philosophy and anthropology professors at Washington College, were also brought in to provide a broader spiritual and philosophical context for the significance of river waters.
Raimond wrote in an e-mail on Sept. 5, “It seemed like the perfect candidate for the documentation of Maryland traditions.” She added, “The advent of the Greg Mort exhibit at the Carla Massoni Gallery provided the perfect focus for the showing. Mort’s paintings and philosophy of stewardship with the emphasis on the importance of water on the planet dovetails with the message in the film.”
The Loblolly press release concluded, “The premier has been planned to bring together a community of people who share their spiritual convictions, a profound sense of commitment for our rivers and a belief in the oneness of our existence on this planet.”