A Brighton Beach Memoir
It was a beautiful summer Saturday. I approached Brighton Beach along Coney Island Avenue, stepped up from the pavement and began walking along the boardwalk. I was greeted by two or three smiling people who were standing near a large sandwich board that read Jews for Jesus.” As I turned toward the steps that led down to the beach, an old gentleman beckoned to me. He said he had something to tell me. Since he was sitting with two or three other elderly Jewish-looking people, and since I was wearing a Jews for Jesus T-shirt, I had a feeling his comment was not going to be nice, and I was right.
With real anger in his eyes, he said vehemently, “The Messiah you believe in is a blankety-blank!”
I looked at him and said, “Is that all?”
He said, “No, I think your whole movement is blank, blank, blank!”
“Are you finished yet?” I asked.
“Yes, for the moment,” he responded.
I eyed him again and said, “Sir, first of all I want to tell you that God loves you; and second I want you to know that you are no theologian.”
As I turned to walk away, he shouted after me, “I don’t have to be a theologian to know that what you believe in is blank, blank!”
After that little encounter I walked about ten steps onto the beach and saw why that man was so upset. A group of 50 or 60 Russian Jewish believers, along with some nonbelievers, was standing around several tables, singing and praying. A bunch of them were wearing buttons that said “Jews for Jesus” in Russian. My heart raced with excitement. I hadn’t thought that so many would want to come to our baptism/picnic.
In the middle of the group was the pastor of a Russian evangelical church, who was going to perform the baptisms. All over the area were some of the Russian young people and others whom I had seen come to faith since we began our Russian outreach last January. A number of them already had been believers for a while and were really growing. I had taught some of them at a weekly Bible study, and now one of them was getting baptized.
The crowd greeted me with hugs and kisses, and I saw that the pastor was about to give the final instructions in baptism. Then I heard my name, and one of the Russians who knew English turned to me and said, “He is going to ask you to pray before the baptism.” After the instructions were given, I prayed in English and asked God’s blessing on what was about to happen.
One of the young men who was about to be baptized was Gennady. He had come to faith while living in Kiev, had now lived in the United States for a year, and had been wanting to get baptized for months. I had suggested that we wait until we had some others who would want to get baptized at the same time, and had asked him if he thought it would be a good idea to get baptized at Brighton Beach, which is sometimes called “Little Odessa.” Gennady was excited about the idea, especially as we had discussed the importance of baptism as a public witness. (Later I found out that Gennady’s nonbelieving Jewish mother had come to see the baptism and was in tears throughout the occasion.)
After I prayed, the group began moving toward the water. The beach was quite crowded, and we had to weave our way around blankets, umbrellas and picnic containers. There were young men hawking sodas, and lots of onlookers trying to figure out who we were and what we were doing.
I had not been prepared to help in the baptism, but the water was kind of choppy and the pastor said, “I think I might need some help.” I didn’t hesitate. I emptied my pockets, took off my watch and went out into the waves along with him. One by one, those who were to be baptized came to us. Then with each break in the rhythm of the waves that came crashing in on our backs, we lowered another Russian believer into the ice-cold Atlantic. We raised them up shivering, shouting, “Slavaboga!” (Praise the Lord!)
That scene on the beach was so beautiful that at times I had trouble holding back tears of joy. I was far enough away in the water that I could barely hear the crowd, but they were singing messianic songs in Russian. The water, the singing, the smiles of deep spirituality on the faces of those watching, and the hundreds of onlookers peering at us, made it an incredible spiritual and emotional experience for me.
Two people from one family were baptized that day. The Melnicks, a brother and sister in their late 50s, were contacts from our 1992 Summer Campaign. Both had accepted the Lord through our Russian ministry in Brooklyn. They had undergone such hardships since their arrival from Russia a year earlier, and it was wonderful to see their expressions of joy in the Lord as they came out of the waters of baptism.
It is a custom among the Russians to give red carnations to those who are baptized. After the baptism each person received one of those red carnations and, of course, a towel, and each one was more radiant than the next. Then, as I came out of the water, I, too, was handed a red carnation, a symbol to me of my redemption purchased through the blood of Jesus, our Savior and Messiah.
Afterwards, we gathered around the picnic tables, ate watermelon, enjoyed one another’s company and witnessed to some of the curious onlookers. What a glorious day it was! That is one Brighton Beach memoir that will always be indelibly etched in my memory. Slavaboga!