Southside Baptist Church in Warner Robins held a baptism to remember on May 6.
Hospice patient Tom Howard, brought to the church by ambulance, was baptized with hundreds of people watching. The Rev. Billy Andrews, who performed the baptism, said Howard, 88, is the oldest person he could remember getting baptized in the church. Most people baptized are children or young adults, he said.
The church posted a video of the baptism on its Facebook page, and as of Friday it had over 22,000 views. The church does baptisms in the lobby, with friends and family gathered watching in person while the rest of the church watches on a large monitor from the auditorium.
Andrews didn't know it until later, but he said the baptism drew a standing ovation from the packed crowd of hundreds.
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"It was probably the first time somebody got baptized with a standing ovation," Andrews said. "I think part of it is there is a unique sense of bravery for somebody that age to humble themselves and come forward and say, 'I need to do this.' "
People who were at the service commented on Facebook that everyone around them was in tears.
He has an identical twin he has never met
At his home in Warner Robins on Wednesday, Howard talked about what led up to making the decision to get baptized.
He is from Kentucky and is one of 19 children, but he has never met any of his siblings. He is an orphan and only found out about his family when he went back to the orphanage in Lyndon, Kentucky, when he was 21. But the number of siblings is all they would tell him, as well as that he has an identical twin brother. He never got any names or contact information.
So, he potentially has an identical twin brother as well as other siblings still living. He was told he and his brother were the youngest. Howard said he has hopes if his photo is spread around, it might lead to his brother being found before he dies.
"It would mean a lot to know something about him," Howard said.
He noted that "Howard" is his biological name, so his siblings could have the same name if it wasn't changed through adoption. When he was 13 months old, the orphanage placed him with a couple for a week. That was a part of a Depression-era program at the time to cut costs by letting families look after orphans for a short period.
But the orphanage never came back and got him. The family that was supposed to keep him for just a week raised him, even though they never formally adopted him.
Howard was raised in the Methodist faith and was "sprinkled," he said, but never baptized. He saw extensive combat action while serving in Korea as a Marine, and when he got out, he said he became a "hobo evangelist."
He had two years of seminary training and started riding the rails, preaching the gospel to hobos in boxcars for several years. He lived in large, organized hobo communities.
He ended up in Georgia when he jumped off a train in Brunswick, broke his knee and got sent to the veterans hospital in Dublin. After getting out, he started working in the convenience store business, eventually became a manager, and that's what brought him to Warner Robins.
Somewhere along the way he fell away from his faith, he said, but he got it back after he started getting hospice care at his home.
"I went and starting talking to God again, and he was right where I left him," he said.
Nurse helped him return to the fold
Howard suffers from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, or COPD, although he is hoping to get better and even talked about becoming an evangelist again. He has been in hospice before with COPD, gotten out after improving, then relapsed.
He credited his hospice nurse, Traci Haye, and two other hospice caregivers with bringing him back to his faith. Haye is a member of Southside, and when he talked about wanting to get baptized, she made it happen.
But she had no idea what kind of reaction it was going to get. She was with Howard in the pool.
"I am overwhelmed," she said of the reaction to his baptism. "I've had many people come up and say there wasn't a dry eye in the congregation that Sunday morning."
The video has spread so far that Haye said she was at a health fair in Macon and someone she doesn't know walked up and recognized her from the video.
"Wonderful," Howard responded, choking up, when asked what it felt like to be baptized. "I feel closer to my God, to Jesus. I used to wonder why I was put here. ... And since I've been baptized I'm almost sure why. We won't go into that yet because I don't want to put something out there that ain't true yet. I know I'm going back into the ministry. I know this."