BY JENNIFER BERRY HAWES
The Post and Courier Staff
"Truly, I say to you, unless one is born anew, he cannot see the kingdom of God." - John 3:3
Thick air forewarns rain as a streak of bicyclists zips through the streets of I'On, that hallmark of Mount Pleasant with its million-dollar takes on Charleston's old carriage houses.
Rock music thumps, a blimp hovers high and a wailing firetruck arrives to help an injured bicyclist. It's Saturday morning in suburbia.
Just inside the neighborhood's main entrance, tucked within a strip of shops on a brick-paved sidewalk, sits a church with a bookstore front. Here at Holy Ascension Orthodox, the flock led by Father John Parker traces its faith back to Christianity's earliest fathers.
Inside the glassfront windows, in front of a few dozen worshippers, Rodney Russ has begun his own personal Easter. The Orthodox Rite of Baptism brings a man to God, to Jesus for new life in the forgiveness of his sins.
Russ turns from the altar, faces west, rejects Satan three times and spits at him. Then he turns to face east, toward the altar, and accepts Christ three times. He does this in jean shorts and Birkenstocks.
Russ, a good union-backing, textile-working guy, is committing to his faith at age 47.
He stands alone. He's not married and has no kids. And he just lost the mother he loved and cared for until her final day on Earth. Russ had put off his baptism, hoping she miraculously would heal and join him.
She didn't heal, not in the flesh anyway. But Russ is sure as he stands before his family in faith that she is, in fact, with him at this moment.
The Lord is with him, and he's sure of that, too. Russ thinks back to all the churches he's been to over the years: Baptist, Methodist, Holiness. But it wasn't until 2004, during a trip to the Ukraine after being laid off his textile job of 17 years, that he stepped foot into an orthodox church.
For the first time, Russ felt the presence of God.
He felt it, too, when he came to Holy Ascension a year and a half ago. So did his mother, a faithful Southern Baptist. As cancer marched her toward death, she asked that Father John Parker preside over her funeral. He did.
The glass bookstore doors open, and the group files out and follows a tall cross. Incense wafts as they walk near the bike race. Father Parker steps ahead in a purple and gold robe that flares out behind him. He leads a small flock, as were the flocks in the earliest days of Christianity, when there were no megachurches, no praise music, no Vacation Bible Schools.
They sing softly as they head toward a pond in I'On. "Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord..."
Their chant continues with centuries-old determination past the pounding rock music. They finally reach a wooded area where songbirds rejoice in the promise of rain and the sidewalk gives way to a damp pine needle carpet.
After the woods, they reach a large pond surrounded by homes that look like Charleston's Battery. They stop at a short, wooden boat ramp.
"Blessed is the kingdom, of the father, and of the son, and of the Holy Spirit, now and ever ?" Parker begins.
It's an ancient rite. But whereas Christ was baptized in the Jordan River, Russ stands inches away from Westlake and a sign that warns "Swim At Your Own Risk." A C-17 cargo jet roars overhead. Across the pond, a row of SUVs and minivans await their next trip.
A man dressed in slacks, a dress shirt and tie, stands beside Russ holding a white towel. The heat builds as Father Parker dips the cross into the blessed water.
"Show this water to be water of redemption," he prays.
A goose honks loudly. A man jogs by, his feet crunching on the gravel. Zhwisk, zhwisk. Zhwisk. A woman in a straw hat stops to watch from a discreet distance.
Russ' face grows flushed with the heat and the attention.
Father Parker turns and rubs oil onto Russ' forehead, onto his hands and feet tucked into sandals as, perhaps, were Jesus Christ's himself.
Russ stands quiet, eyes cast down, hands folded humbly in front of him. He and Chuck Bates, the church's parish council president and the man in the suit, walk to the water's edge. They wade down a boat ramp into dark but clear water.
He breathes deep, ready. The chill laps against Russ' legs, his knees, his waist.
But the ramp, he realizes, is slick with muck. He must yank up his sandals with each sloshy step. He turns worried.
I'm going to slip.
Russ and Bates turn to face Father Parker standing above them.
"The servant of God, Rodney Russ, is baptized in the name of the Father ?" Parker says.
Russ dunks his head once, twice, three times. But he is 6 feet tall, and he's in water only up to his waist. He must lean way over to submerge his head. His feet slide in the sediment. He wobbles.
I'm going to slip in front of God and everyone.
Russ pops up, shaky and disoriented. Bates grabs hold of him and helps him trudge back up the slimy ramp. Back on ground, Russ regains his balance, smiles big, stands straight and looks around for a moment.
This time, Russ will lead the procession back. Soaking wet, he holds his head high and strides back along the path, feeling his mother's love and the presence of God guiding the way.
"Therefore if any one is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has passed away, behold, the new has come." - II Corinthians 5:17