The New Baptismal Font at Immanuel Lutheran Church, Valparaiso, Indiana
October 31, 2007
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The new baptismal font at Immanuel Lutheran Church was the culmination of a seven year process. Garrison Keillor once said something like “Lutherans have never been known for being swift of foot,” and although it was a long process, the result promises to stimulate the imaginations of generations to come as they are drawn into baptismal living.
In the late 1990s, Immanuel’s pastors began to encounter more and more adults who had never been baptized, but were spiritual inquirers. Three sources stirred our imagination for what might be possible at Immanuel: first, the documentary video “This is the Night” (from Liturgy Training Publications); second, the video Re-Examining Baptismal Fonts: Baptismal Space for the Contemporary Church (from Liturgical Press), with S. Anita Stauffer as the narrator; and third, the book A Place for Baptism by Regina Kuehn. We began to imagine Immanuel as a place where adults and older children could experience baptism by immersion, but we were not sure where to begin.
Lutheran pastor who had completed the Liturgical Design Consultant program at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago. Guided by Jim’s In 2000 we began a working relationship with Rev. James Wetzstein, a expertise, we made the decision to add a temporary octagonal pool, 5’ x 5’, about 12 inches deep, so that the congregation could experience baptism by immersion and reflect on the experience. Starting in 2000, every year several adults and older children have been baptized by immersion.
Design was the next phase. A Baptismal Font Committee was established. This group included a wide variety of people, both those who were in favor of a new font and those who were opposed to the idea. This group developed a set of “guiding principles,” which envisioned a font that: reflects Lutheran theology and practice of baptism; provides safety for children; and appears to have been part of the worship space from the beginning. Based on the guiding principles, the committee began to look at font designs. When we first saw a photo of a John Buscemi font, there was consensus on the committee that this was “it.”
Immanuel's existing worship space, designed by architect Uel Ramey and built in 1979, is basically a wide open square with movable pews. Crosses in the space are Greek rather than Roman. Having seen photos of some early Christian cruciform fonts, the committee proposed a Greek cross in the floor, the center section of which is a pool with three steps going down and three steps going back up into the worship space toward the altar. Standard cast iron grates intended for use under trees in urban landscapes cover the Immanuel’s existing worship space, designed by architect Uel Ramey and pool portion when not in use. The grates also allow for a casket to be placed between the font and the paschal candle for a funeral. The paschal candle stand, along with bronze medallions to be placed in the grates in the tree trunk holes, were designed and built by renowned Chicago sculptor Richard Hunt.
The design was presented to the congregation and a period of dialogue began, especially with those who opposed the project. Fund raising consisted of approaching potential donors directly, and all of the funding was raised above and beyond the normal operational expenses of the congregation. Finally, in December of 2006 the congregation voted its approval by a 2/3 majority. Construction began in June of 2007 and the font was completed for a dedication service on August 26, 2007. Four children from the same family were baptized as part of the dedication service.
The font evokes a variety of Biblical images for baptism. The Buscemi bowl portion alludes to baptism as new birth (1 Peter, John 3) with its womb shape. The pool portion -- twelve feet long, four feet wide, and two feet deep – with its descending steps, is reminiscent of a tomb and, therefore of baptism as death (Romans 6). The ascending steps into the worshipping community call forth a sense of resurrection and new life (Romans 6). Since the baptizand literally walks through the water, from one side of the font to the other, from the gathering space into the worshiping space, toward the altar and ambo, the water-crossing stories come to mind – flood, exodus, Jordan. The tile in the floor connects the four ends of the Greek cross and forms an octagon, the ancient Christian symbol for the “eighth day,” the day of resurrection and everlasting life. Anchoring all of these images in the Holy Trinity are the medallions, one depicting the hand of God (manus dei), one depicting the cross of Christ, and the other depicting the Spirit as a dove.
Cost of the project, which included replacing flooring in the narthex and hallway where a trench for the plumbing need to be dug, was about $150,000.
The response to the new font has been overwhelmingly positive. After worship the font acts like a “child magnet.” Children gather around it, playfully splash in the water, get their clothes wet by hugging the bowl, peek through the gaps in the grate to see what’s underneath, and sometimes joyfully run in circles around the font. Several people who had made it quite clear that they opposed the project have had a change of heart and now say that the font is absolutely appropriate and beautiful.
Photo credit: Timothy Prahlow
Rev. Stephen H. Bongard is Senior Pastor of Immanuel Lutheran Church, Valparaiso, Indiana.