A Baptism at the San Gabriel River


The congregations I observed always came to the river at mid-morning, before the summer heat began to simmer and the rugged terrain rising above the San Gabriel River was wholly bleached in direct sunlight, no shadows. They appeared to caravan from far and wide across the Greater Los Angeles area -- Iglesia Obra de Dios Inc. of Eagle Rock was one such day-tripping community, and a small Pentecostal congregation from Pico-Union another -- but to me, until they arrived at the river for the baptismal, their origins were utterly mysterious and this was a problem.

It was only a problem because I wanted to film their ritual without becoming the ghoul with a camera. Understandably, I felt uncomfortable ambushing a pastor and his constituents moments before they rolled up their pant sleeves to begin. I would have preferred to find a congregation a week or two before they arrived, perhaps have attended a service or two, and gotten to know the believers preparing to take the plunge. Ideally, everyone involved would be well aware of the camera and its possibilities well before we began to record. This would, in theory, lead to a more collaborative process of documentation and give the crew and subjects a better understanding of what exactly we'd be documenting.

But I utterly failed.

The pastors who I met at the river said they wouldn't be returning for months; call after call to iglesias listed in the White Pages went unanswered; and a librería in MacArthur Park sent me to the Los Angeles Bible Institute, which knew only of a few congregations that traveled to the ocean to conduct their baptismal rites. Many of the places of worship I visited in person simply held their baptisms on site, and most were suspicious of my intentions. But what I came to find in my search for a community of believers who visit the San Gabriel were hundreds if not thousands of iglesias cloistered by their numbers in strip malls and industrial parks across the city. These micro-churches were rarely larger than a few dozen strong, and most came together regularly during the week for intimate evenings of prayer and on Sunday mornings for worship. Though atomized, what these faithful all had in common was their Latino roots and a clear break with their Catholic past.

In a cover story for Time Magazine back in April, titled "The Latino Reformation," reporter Elizabeth Dias explained that born-again, Bible-believing, Latino Protestants represent one of the fastest growing segments of America's churchgoing millions. And it's only expected to grow: by 2030, it's estimated nearly half of the 52 million-plus Latinos in the U.S. will be evangélicos, a group that distinguishes itself in kind as well as in number.

"The evangélico boom is inextricably linked to the immigrant experience," writes Dias in Time. "Evangélicos are socially more conservative than Hispanics generally, but they are quicker to fight for social justice than their white brethren are."

Dias believes Latino immigrants see Protestantism as the "path to a more genuine, more prosperous 'American' life," a break from the Catholic dogma associated with the class rigidity and life they left behind in Latin America. What's more, this new flock of immigrants and immigrants' children -- drawn to American Protestantism by its promise of upward mobility -- is decidedly young, which is reason enough to pay attention.

Failing to immerse myself in an iglesia, I returned to the San Gabriel River with a small camera crew in tow, bracing for the unfortunate clash of sensibilities that would inevitably ensue between a crew and the observers of a two thousand year old ritual. Luckily, Pastor Wilfredo Figueroa had forgotten his iPhone that day, and was more than happy to allow us to observe with our cameras as long as I'd share the footage with him and his congregation. As he knelt on the riverbank, his eyes contemplating the current, he told me of the first trip Jesus made to the river and his encounter with John the Baptist.

"This is as close as you can get to what Jesus himself did, and it gives us a chance to get up here and enjoy the summer," said Figueroa. "And the water is fresh, and we're all together."

Pastor Figueroa is the director of the Centro de Rehabilitacion Ebenezer in Boyle Heights, a house for young men in transition from a life of crime and substance abuse.

"We were all sinners, but with God's help he's given us a second opportunity," said one young man who was baptized this day.

"It makes you see life differently, more positively toward a better future and a better tomorrow," said another, still dripping moments after affirming his faith. "It's not our old life where we were miserable and consuming anything we could get a hold of; the river symbolizes leaving our past and becoming new men."

About the Author

Chase Alexander Niesner is a freelance reporter and documentary filmmaker residing in Los Angeles.

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