MORTON — Mike Thompson celebrated his 63rd birthday Thursday. He gave himself a birthday present Sunday. He was baptized.
Thompson was one of about 40 people, children and adults, who underwent a full immersion baptism under a hot midday sun during Bridgeway Community Church's ninth annual Party in the Park at Idlewood Park.
Holding their nose with their hand and closing their eyes while they were seated in a pool of water, each person who was baptized was guided backwards under the water by a pastor and emerged to the cheers of a crowd of several hundred.
Afterwards, parents hugged their dripping wet children. Friends hugged dripping wet friends.
A few tears of joy were shed.
Christian rock music filled the air from a band playing on the stage at the park's pavilion.
"I love this church. I've felt like I've belonged since the first time I walked in the door. I've had the best days of my life since I was saved," said Thompson, a Pekin resident and Caterpillar Inc. retiree who joined Bridgeway just three months ago.
The son of a "fire-and-brimstone" pastor, Thompson said he never felt comfortable in a church — nor was he a church member — until he joined Bridgeway.
He was the oldest person baptized Sunday.
"Better late than never," he said. "God has a plan for me."
Thompson is exactly the kind of person Bridgeway tries to reach.
The church bills itself as a place where people "who are disconnected from God and the church are encouraged and equipped to discover and fulfill God's purposes for their lives."
More than 750 attend services each weekend at Bridgeway's campuses in Pekin and Marquette Heights. There are plans to open a third campus in Morton in fall 2018.
That's a far cry from the church's beginnings in 2005 as an offshoot of parent church Pekin First Church of the Nazarene. About 40 original Bridgeway members attended services in the Bertha Frank Performing Arts Center at Morton High School.
Moves to the movie theater at Field Shopping Center in Morton and Tremont High School for services preceded Bridgeway opening its Pekin campus in 2013 in a former camera store at 3216 Veterans Drive and its Marquette Heights campus in 2016 in a former church at 106 Grant Road.
Party in the Park is Bridgeway's fall outreach that connects the church to its Morton roots, said the Rev. Nate Morrison, who was baptized at Party in the Park several years ago.
Also Sunday, about 20 children were dedicated on the pavilion stage.
Three groups at a time gathered, each with a pastor. Each group held hands or had their arms around each other. If a baby was involved, a pastor usually held the baby.
Each child received a Bible.
"We dedicate each child to the Lord," said the Rev. Jeff Stark. "Each person has a story. These parents want their children to have the right story from the get-go."
The number of baptisms and child dedications are believed to be the most in the Party in the Park's history.
Party in the Park began Sunday, as it always does, with a church service. Many participants stayed in the shade, seated in tents.
After the service, child dedications and baptisms, attendees lined up for free food and there were activities for children like bounce houses, face painting, balloon animals and a petting zoo.
Gift baskets stuffed with more than $600 of goods from Morton merchants were given away in drawings.
While it was a day of prayer, celebration and family fun, it also was a fundraising day for Bridgeway's snackpack program that provides food for more than 200 students at Wilson Intermediate School in Pekin.
Financial offerings for the program were accepted.
Teachers and administrators at the school identify students who do not get enough to eat when school isn't in session, and those students receive food in their backpacks to take home.
"It's God's mandate that we help children," Stark said.
Steve Stein can be reached at 686-3114 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @SpartanSteve.