On the last August Sunday in 1979, I sought out Graceland. The concert altar call had been too traditional; and I resisted it strongly, expecting I could have written the script from the time as a Methodist teenager when I'd helped with a Billy Graham crusade in Atlanta. Yet, I could not resist my curiosity about how they functioned as a church. I wanted to meet them on their turf and experience their service. Hitch-hiking east on the highway the poster listed as the address, I figured I'd find it.
Lee, a university student a few years younger than me, pulled off the road in an eight-year old, blue, road-hogging Buick. "I'm headed for church but I'm early. I'll take you where you're going, if it's not too far," he assured with a broad, disarming smile.
"Not exactly sure. I was looking for a church called Graceland Christian Center."
He reached his right hand for mine, "You're headed there now! That's my church and it's only a mile over that hill."
That first morning I was amazed. Graceland proved to be a passionate, dedicated, and lively group of about 25 young married couples, some with small children, a smattering of middle-aged couples, and a bunch of college students. They called themselves non-denominational and "every word" Christians; the pastor was from a Bible school in Alaska (Alaska has Bible schools?); and when they worshiped, the radiance on their up-turned faces competed with the sun streaming in the big, plate glass windows of the converted pool hall.
The meeting literally rocked with excitement. People spoke in tongues and time was given for individuals to stand and share. This is church!? I realized after thirty minutes or so, that I had been fully engaged emotionally without ever determining any reason to be so.
For two weeks I attended everything these people did: three meetings a week, S.T.Th.; nursing home visitation, choir practice, building maintenance, hiking with college students and dinners-hanging out in homes. On my third Sunday when Terry the pastor--only four years older than me--gave the altar call, I faced my first quandary. Was I saved in that Methodist church at fifteen? Did I need to respond to the altar call? The music played softly; he beckoned winsomely for decisions for Christ and my thoughts deepened into a theological musing over what is "salvation." He moved on to an invitation to be water baptized. My hand shot up! Saved before or not I wasn't sure, but the sprinkling the Methodists gave me no longer seemed adequate. It didn't meet the every-word criteria I quickly embraced. I saw a question in Terry's eyes and knew he probably felt I had missed a needed step, yet he smiled and offered up praise while my new family clapped.
Baptisms were held immediately after the service at the local in-door swimming pool. Half the church put off lunch to be part of this spiritual-family moment, as well. Terry and another young man in swimming suits (his baptism had been planned, Terry was just always prepared), and myself in shorts provided by the church stood at the pool's edge. Terry read from Romans concerning why we gathered. He spoke briefly to my compatriot in the dunk, then faced me. With one eye winked shut (too bright in here under a roof??), his other eye never wavered while he asked me directly about my salvation. Though I wasn't really clear about this question, a lengthy description of what I had been through and how I came to raise my hand for baptism seemed an unnecessary hold up. I answered a solid affirmation, he nodded without smiling and we went in the pool. I brushed off his winking eye, as I'm sure he brushed aside concerns he had never heard me pray the sinner's prayer.