Pizza for Baptism

Church Lures Kids in
"Bait-and-Switch" Salvation
by Cliff Walker
derived from various sources

August 28, 1996

Woburn, Massachusetts. -- Officials are expanding their probe into the activities of a fundamentalist church which allegedly lured youngsters into bizarre, immersion-style baptisms with disingenuous offers of pizza and a good time. The case has now gone to a local District Attorney's office for possible criminal prosecution.

The "bait-and-switch" scheme purportedly involves the Anchor Baptist Church, and its pastor, Rev. Chris Pledger. Members of the church would distribute flyers in local housing projects offering children basketball games, pizza and even a treasure hunt; the youngsters were then herded onto buses and transported to the church. Once there, they were told to strip and don special robes, and were dunked in a "small pool or tub of water," according to the Boston Globe as part of the cult's baptism rite, giving them full-body baptisms into a faith that is foreign to many of them, parents charge.

So far, authorities have found that upwards of 200 children were involved in the disingenuous operation in July. An attorney with the Cambridge Housing Authority reported that "Tenants were approached to see if they would like to send their children on the bus, promising games." Children from at least two housing developments were targeted by the church; the director of one development told the Globe: "It's quite a bizarre thing." Instead of getting pizza, the children reportedly were taken to the church in Woburn, made to sit through a long service, then told to undress and put on robes. Those who complied were quickly dunked into a tank of water, parents say.

Many of the children from Woburn, Medford, Stoneham, Cambridge and Somerville are Roman Catholic. At least one family involved is Buddhist. "They didn't tell us about Mass or anything," said Rosa Vazquez, 14, a Catholic who attended a service with a friend but wouldn't go through the baptism. "They just told us about the good stuff." There are other reports that church members, often dressed in costumes like "pirate outfits," roamed the housing complexes and used candy "to entice children to come to services and activities at the church." One tenant said that church members informed her that while her children could attend the activities for free, she was required to pay $25. "She also said church members promised her son a bicycle if he invited more friends than any other child to become a member of the church."

Most of the children are from public housing projects. "Families around here are lucky to get pizza once a month, so if they offer it to kids, they go," said Lisa Amorin, who said her 3-year-old son, Steven, has been repeatedly approached by church members. Twelve-year-old Hieu Nguyen, whose family practices Buddhism, said he did not understand what was happening when he and his 9-year-old brother, Qui, were baptized. He said he went along because other children did. Referring to the visiting church proselytizers, a parent said: "All the kids were following those guys like they were the Pied Piper ... What kind of church walks around with candy for little kids?"

Meanwhile, the state Department of Social Services has entered the case, and determined that at least one 8-year-old youngster was "emotionally harmed" by the incident; a therapist noted that the boy was "in an emotionally neglectful situation." Most concerning are the questions surrounding the baptism ceremonies. One parent told the Globe: "The kids were told to undress and put on robes. Some kept their trousers on, other kids were totally naked under the robe."

No one responded by phone or in person at the white wooden church. Calls to its pastor, the Rev. Chris Pledger, were not returned. Pledger, who has described his congregation as independent, defended his recruiting practices in an interview last month with the Woburn Advocate newspaper. "Jesus told us to go into the world and preach the gospel. Baptism is doing more than just hearing what the man said and if it's in the Bible, who am I to say what is right?" he told the newspaper.

It is unclear how many children were baptized, and whether some parents had signed permission slips, police said. The Middlesex district attorney is investigating whether any laws were broken, spokeswoman Jill Reilly said Tuesday. Other Baptists are troubled by the complaints. "That is not common to our church at all,' said the Rev. Carol Boutwell of First Baptist Church in Woburn.

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