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Many hands help with not-so-typical baptism

By Michael Foley

For the Deseret News

Published: Sunday, March 18 2012 5:00 a.m. MDT

TACOMA, Wash. — It took nine priesthood holders, each dressed in white, as well as several others on the side, to help a man who uses a wheelchair enter a special pool on Sunday to baptize his disabled roommate.

Clifton Russell Jr., 57, is an elder in the Lincoln Ward, Washington Tacoma Stake of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, who used to work in the Bremerton, Wash., naval shipyard. He progressively lost both legs below the knees to diabetes during the past 15 years, started dialysis in 2006. Six months ago, he also lost his eyesight.

Though he spends most of his waking hours in a wheelchair, his disabilities have not prevented him from helping spread his broad smile and loving spirit to everyone he meets. For example, when greeting people he tenderly touches their hands to his forehead for a moment.

In mid-January, during Tacoma’s worst snowstorm in years, two LDS Church missionaries, Elders Jordan White of Tremonton, Utah, and Austin Smith of Centerville, Utah, decided to visit Russell in his nursing home.

“Cliff was always Christian, but he found the (LDS) church about 10 or 15 years ago when his pastor in Bremerton told the congregation that he wished all of them could be dedicated like the Mormon elders. So, he found the elders. They taught him, and he was baptized,” Smith said.

“As we were about to leave because, Brother Russell was heading for dialysis,” Smith recalled. “His new roommate for the past six weeks came in and said he would be interested in listening to our message. We taught him the first few lessons that day. He was very excited. And when we told him about baptism, he wanted to be baptized. He was very receptive.”

White explained that Robert D. “Bobby” Merritt, 55, could walk just a little, but often sat in his wheelchair right next to Russell in the back of the Lincoln Ward chapel. “He’s had a rough life, but now the church has brought him some happiness.”

“Bobby told us our teaching really made a lot of sense,” White continued. “He was also very nervous about what would happen to him after he died, and the plan of salvation made a lot of sense to him.”

As the appointed baptismal date drew nearer, the elders and Lincoln Ward mission leader Gordon MacDonald felt it would be wonderful if Russell could baptize his friend. They enlisted the help of Pat Garlock, a physical therapist and former bishop of Soundview Ward in the Tacoma Stake, who owns a sports medicine facility with a large hydro-therapy pool.

“I felt tremendous gratitude that we had something that could help and accommodate both the person doing the baptism and the person being baptized,” Garlock said.

After the opening portion of the baptismal service, the nine men in white carefully put a life preserver around Russell, edged him into the pool and floated him over to a submerged chair. Several others cautiously led Merritt down the steps into the pool.

Then, with his right hand and his left hand holding his friend’s hand, Russell pronounced the baptismal prayer and the men in the pool helped immerse Merritt.

“I had been practicing the ordinance, and I was so excited to exercise my priesthood,” Russell said. "I really feel blessed and honored to do this, with all my challenges. Bobby likes everything about the gospel and he’s really excited about being a member.”

“This was an amazing baptism,” Elder White said. “We hope it helps motivate others who have handicaps to realize they can also exercise their priesthood (by baptizing).”

Those who came to support Russell and Merritt agreed. Theresa MacDonald, wife of the Lincoln Ward mission leader, said, “When we imagined this, we thought it would be a wonderful opportunity for Cliff to use his priesthood, which because of his disabilities, he’s not in a position to do very often. He converted his friend, and we felt he should be part of baptizing him. Everything fell into place, and it was perfect.

“This shows that with God nothing is impossible, and when people come together to make something wonderful happen, the Lord takes the rest and it ends up being more than they could have imagined,” she said.

Rob Cotton, Lincoln Ward elders' quorum president and Russell’s home teacher for years, added another perspective to the experience.

“This is the second roommate that Cliff helped get baptized," Cotton said. Two years ago when we were home teaching him, he asked me to bring in his roommate to listen to the lessons. The next thing I knew, I got a phone call asking me if I would baptize his roommate. I did, and two months later the gentleman passed away. Clifton was very pleased that he was able to help with his conversion — and Bobby is lucky to have him as a roommate.”

Merritt died on March 18 — five weeks to day that he was baptized.

Elder and Sister Foley are currently serving as member and leadership support senior missionaries in the Washington Tacoma Mission.

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