MEDINA — Sunday didn’t mark Summer Gray’s first baptism, but the day did represent a high point in what’s been a trying time for the 17-year-old Medina High School student.
Roughly 2,000 people converged on downtown to watch Gray and others receive baptisms as part of Heartland Community Church’s third annual Baptism on the Square. Some feared the event would be stymied by recent inclement weather but the late morning and early afternoon presented nothing but blue skies and elated faces emerging from the water.
“I decided to do this again because it had been a long time since my last one and I had gotten away from God a bit,” Gray said after she’d received hugs from a waiting crowd of friends and family. “I went down a dark path and I wasn’t living the life that matched what baptism means to me. As I got older, I realized I wanted to remake that commitment to God for my own good.”
Gray said the loss of several family members and friends had led to feelings of depression and anxiety, which were exacerbated by instances of bullying and cyberbullying from classmates.
A mission trip with Heartland to Nashville, Tennessee, provided her a chance to speak with other teens navigating similar life issues and also cleared way for a new perspective of religion.
“Before this trip, I had only known God based on my parents’ relationship with him,” Gray said. “But I wanted more. In that moment when every teen was worshipping, I asked one of my youth group leaders to pray with me and help me ask God for that relationship.”
People of all ages lined up in the square to be baptized by church leaders and were greeted with loud cheers and live music as they emerged from the water. A picnic followed the church service with food served by local vendors as well as animal attractions and other activities for kids.
Michelle Lewis, Heartland’s administrative human resources coordinator, said the idea for a large, public baptism event grew along with the church’s average Sunday turnout, which has gone from about 400 per week in 2007 to between 1,600 and 1,800 today.
“The baptisms are, of course, the main focus of today but we also want this to be about inviting the community out,” she said. “We have businesses around the square participating in giveaways and there’s just been so much enthusiasm.”
To further address a growing congregation, the church plans to open a second campus in the Medina area this fall at Williams on the Lake, 787 Lafayette Road.
“The owners there are graciously opening their doors to let us use it on Sundays,” Lewis said. “We’ll have more information coming out closer to the fall, but if you have trouble making it out to the east side of town we hope this new venue on the west side will make it a little easier.”
Gray encouraged others to consider baptism, whether it would mean starting a new relationship with the church or rekindling an old one.
“Even though I believed in God, I didn’t trust him because of all the hurt in my life,” she said. “I came to the realization that he can carry my fears and worries. Don’t wait to do it. You don’t have to be perfect to come to God. You can be broken and drowning like I was. I still have those moments. When you’re found whole, you’re found whole in Christ and not by anyone else. Only he can judge you.”