By Rick Wolcott*
Baptismal fonts often have ornately designed exteriors, but their interiors are usually not visible to worshippers in the pews.
“I want to be able to see the water,” said the Rev. Steve Stultz Costello, co-pastor with his wife Cara of Faith United Methodist Church (Tuscarawas District) in North Canton. “In seminary we talked so much about the power of images and symbols and that what we say and do in worship should all speak of God’s abundant grace and love, and of what we believe and have come to experience in Jesus Christ.”
Faith UMC has a growing arts ministry that invites people to discover their creativity and provides opportunities for them to use their talent. In May, Stultz Costello asked five members involved in the arts ministry to design a new baptismal font for the church’s modern worship service. It would replace a glass bowl from the kitchen used for previous baptisms in the Family Life Center gymnasium.
Jim Benzing, Wes Bullock, Al Martinsen, Suzie Thomas, and Aaron Vaughn knew they needed to create a font that was both beautiful and portable. It needed to be big enough to look natural in the large temporary worship space, but small enough to fit through hall doorways and to be stored in a closet during the week.
“Art by committee is dangerous because everyone has their creative ideas and a flow for how they work,” said Benzing, who previously created a cross with molded hands and feet that is on display at the church and was on stage in Hoover Auditorium during Annual Conference 2011.
“The collaborative process could have gone south quickly but everyone was very patient and we ended up working well together,” said Vaughn, who has painted some of the wall murals at Faith UMC.
“If it had been up to me it would have been a pair of hands holding up a globe bowl, but we had a lot of different discussions and a lot of different directions,” he said. “We talked about spiral springs, square structures, round structures, and flowing water with plumbing and lighting.”
The team chose the final design after looking at drawings of five different options.
“Everyone’s eye went to this one. It’s like the other ones didn’t even exist. We were at such opposite directions for a long period of time, and then this was exactly what everyone wanted, not saying that God didn’t have a part in this, too,” said Martinsen, who has created paintings for the church in the past.
The baptismal font is 19 layers of ¾-inch Baltic Birch plywood glued together and sanded smooth, with a cross-shaped arm that holds a custom-designed glass bowl blown at Akron Glass Works.
“The one time we all met before my renewal leave, Jim mentioned they could use plywood and everyone was very hesitant. But Jim could envision how plywood could look beautiful,” Stultz Costello said.
“There’s motion in it, there’s a flow, and you get that feeling using just wood,” Vaughn said. “I think that’s pretty cool!”
“For something wood it definitely looks alive,” said David Coombs, who attended a late-November discussion with the artists as part of the church’s Wednesday Night Faith Connections that combines food, fun, faith, and fellowship.
The base is made of cherry wood with lacewood used to accentuate the cross. The four sections around the cross were designed to hold prayers written by parents of those being baptized. Burned into the wood lids of each of the prayer chambers is this verse: “By the abundant grace and overflowing love of God we are cleansed of sin and made whole in Christ.”
“I think it has been fun seeing people’s reactions to the baptismal font because everyone sees something different. We’ve heard it’s a swan. We’ve heard dove. Some people think it’s a wave,” said Kathy Schmucker, Faith UMC spiritual formation director. “For me, the first time I saw it I was in the back of the Family Life Center and it was in the center of the worship space and I saw this big letter C and an arm saying ‘come to me.’”
The reach of the baptismal font project extends beyond the walls of the church. Donna Benzing, Jim’s wife, works with Guatemalan immigrants in the community. They are using scrap wood from the font in bracelets that they make and sell.
Before concluding the evening with the artists in a prayer circle around the baptismal font, Stultz Costello had one final message.
“I believe when you gave yourselves over to this process that God saw this unformed substance, all the parts and you allowed yourselves to discover what that may be and what it might become and I just celebrate you for that,” he said. “But I have to confess, I never imagined it would turn out this good. It’s amazing!”
*Rick Wolcott is director of Communications for the East Ohio Conference of The United Methodist Church.