WAQUOIT – On Sunday, a glorious sunny afternoon, Paul Rifkin took a helicopter ride to get closer to God.
Earlier that day, the Reverend Nell Fields of Waquoit Congregational Church gently poured water, three scoops from a scallop shell, onto his head.
He smiled, a broad, beaming smile as a church-full of friends and family watched the 72-year-old get baptized.
Rifkin, who was raised Jewish on Long Island, has over the past year found his spirituality through the historic little church in the village of Waquoit.
From the outside it looks like a fairy tale picture of a church: tall steeple, long green shutters, white-washed clapboard, a New England classic.
On the inside, Fields oversees a quiet revolution of conversion, using accessible sermons that use, for example, the characters of Woody and Buzz from the Pixar movie “Toy Story,” for a lesson in identity, souls and belonging.
The message resonated for Rifkin, who said his conversion came about a year ago. He had participated at the church’s Annual Village Day with a stint in the dunk tank. He was also honored that day as Citizen of the Year for Waquoit for his volunteerism.
He attended the church the following week to thank the congregation. Fields gave a sermon about peace that Rifkin, a longtime peace activist, said touched him.
He returned to attend the service the following week. During that service, a parishioner, Elsie Jacobson, tapped him on the shoulder and said she recognized him from the dunk tank at Village Day.
He joked with her that his frequent emersions in the dunk tank was his baptism.
But then, as he looked at her, he believed he saw a glowing orb above and behind her head.
He saw that as a sign and he told the Reverend Fields that he wanted to be really baptized, in the church.
She suggested that they “give it some breathing room,” to take some time to think about it.
Over the next ten months Rifkin attended Bible studies and participated in church affairs. He fundraised for a church generator, set up a weekly Saturday coffeehouse with musicians, and even spearheaded the Monarch Project of Cape Cod, a milkweed giveaway at the church to support endangered butterflies.
He wrote emails to friends that he was to be baptized, inviting them to share the moment.
That day came Sunday, June 1.
Elsie Jacobson, of the glowing orb, was there as one of his sponsors. So was Joyce Johnson, a peace movement activist who has spent many Saturday mornings in front of the Falmouth Post Office with Rifkin and others protesting war.
Rifkin’s third sponsor was Troy Clarkson, a former Falmouth selectman, who Rifkin had become close to about ten years ago when they were arguing on opposite sides of a political debate about the country’s entrance into the Iraq War.
They ended up realizing they had more in common than they had differences.
Rifkin said choosing Clarkson was his way of acknowledging “we’re all in this together.”
Just before the service Rifkin, a consummate networker, was introducing people and joking with friends.
Donna and Joel Zeger of Mashpee, who are frequent customers at Rifkin’s restaurant the nearby Moonakis Café, were among Rifkin’s many friends who attended.
Donna Zeger said when she found about the baptism, “I thought it was a wonderful thing that he found a new home and I was sure he’d have a lot to offer here.”
The Zegers are Jewish and Joel Zeger said he wondered whether faith is like citizenship—as you can have more than one passport, you can have more than one faith.
Donna Zeger acknowledged that Rifkin has a unique spirit and “loves to get a rise” out of people. But she said she has watched his relationship with the church and the reverend grow. “It’s a win win,” she said.
Clarkson, who is a Catholic, said of Rifkin’s conversion, “Faith comes in many forms. I think it’s wonderful at this point in his life, Paul has found a faith that both grounds him and motivates him. I’ve been blessed to watch it enter his life.”
Clarkson admitted that when he and Rifkin first met, they were on opposite ends of the political spectrum. But after Rifkin reached out to him and the two shared a cup of coffee and warm conversation, “we came out of there in a sort of epiphany. Although we had different philosophies, we both had faith and kindness.”
As the service started, Reverend Fields looked out over the crowd, the full pews extending even to the balcony, where staff from Rifkin’s restaurant attended in their matching tie-dyed T-shirt, the restaurant’s “uniform.”
“I’ve finally discovered the secret of church growth. So next Sunday, Paul will be baptized again,” Fields joked.
Fields then made her weekly announcements, including the fact that in two weeks, the church would hold “baseball Sunday” where attendees can wear baseball caps and shirts and hymns would include “Sweet Caroline,” a sort of Red Sox anthem. During the service, the congregation would be encouraged to do the stadium staple, the Wave, while sitting in the pews.
Fields began the service with by telling the story of John the Baptist, who baptized Jesus in the muddy waters of the Jordan River.
She stressed, “besides Paul and God,” the main ingredient in a baptism is water.
“Baptism is a visible sign of an invisible event,” she said.
In the early church, Fields said, the person undergoing the baptism would not wash for six weeks before the event and they would remove all their clothing and be immersed in water. She clarified that Rifkin would be keeping his clothes on.
Traditionally, the water used for baptisms is cold, but Fields said, when she baptizes babies, she uses warm water so they are not uncomfortable.
But that would not be the case with this baptism, she said.
“Paul’s [water] is ice cold,” she said.
Rifkin stood by the baptismal font and Fields stood on the altar, a step above him, scooping water with a scallop shell and pouring it on his head.
The sponsors laid their hands on him and members of the congregation reached out their hands in support.
“Paul, I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit be upon you, Paul Rifkin, child of God, disciple of Christ,” Fields said.
Rifkin then addressed the congregation.
“I’m crying and I thank you all,” he said, citing his thanks for the “inspirational minister” and the “congregation of inclusion.”
After the service, as the congregation was leaving the church, Mark Chester of Woods Hole, a friend of Rifkin’s, recalled how he reacted when he heard the news of the upcoming baptism.
He wrote to Rifkin, “I’m kvelling for you,” a Yiddish term roughly translated as bursting with pride.
But Chester wondered, “Can you be bar mitvahed and baptized, but why not?”
Fields said after the service that while she has baptized other adults, Rifkin is the oldest person she has baptized.
“Anybody who comes to faith as an adult, it’s always very moving. It’s not anything I did. It’s all God. If you had told me when I met him . . . I wouldn’t have believed it. God does wonderfully mysterious things,” she said. “One thing for sure, when I met Paul, I knew he was a spiritual person.”
But she said his deciding to be baptized surprised her. “I never thought he was much of a joiner.”
Becoming a part of a church, though, is part of the process, she said. “He understands God works through us in community. It’s in community that we grow as a people.”
As if to prove her right, after the service, the congregation gathered in the church hall for refreshments and a bake sale.
Rifkin’s wife, Ellen, was rushing around helping with the food. She said she was proud of him. “He’s really embraced it and I’m just so happy for him,” she said.
Meanwhile, Rifkin mixed and mingled with the crowd, introducing people and making connections.
He paused to reflect. “I feel that I need to allow this to become truly meaningful in my life by making changes that would make God smile, such as forgiving my trespassers and forgiving those that trespass against you.”
Rifkin said among those he invited to the baptism were some people he hopes will decide to join him and become part of Waquoit Congregational Church.
On hearing that, Demaris Kooker of Falmouth said switching churches is unlikely for her, considering that her grandfather, father and husband are all Methodist ministers.
But she said she willingly missed the service at her church that Sunday to attend Rifkin’s baptism.
“I didn’t sing in our choir today because of you,” she said with a smile.
“So, I’ll see you next week?” Rifkin said.
– Laura M. Reckford