Editor’s note: First of an occasional feature.

Jay Russo had been up until midnight wondering if he was ready.

He was baptized for the first time 47 years ago, before leaving the hospital after his birth.

ThatMomentHis parents’ blood types were incompatible, causing a disorder that had killed an older sister before she’d lived a day.

So between his first breath and a blood transfusion, Russo’s sins were forgiven, just in case.

The worries were different this time.

“My biggest fear is tripping and falling and water going everywhere,” he said, standing with his 10-year-old daughter, Madison, and girlfriend, Jodi, in the foyer of Eastpoint Christian Church.

But that wasn’t it at all. Baptism was a chance for Russo to start over, which also meant letting go of problems from his past – the failed marriage, the materialism, the employers who let him down. That morning, he still wasn’t sure he could do it.

Waiting for the 9:30 service to get out in the warehouse-turned-worship center by the Portland jetport, Russo periodically puffed out breaths. His fingers stroked his goatee and ran through his combed-back hair. He kissed his daughter’s head and rubbed her baby cheeks, as she held the cross around his neck that his girlfriend had given him the night before.

“Wedding day jitters,” said a smiling Larry Strondak, one of the blue jeans-clad pastors.

• • • • • •

Russo started going to Eastpoint seven years ago when it was on Route 1 in Scarborough, where Bald Billy’s Carpet Outlet used to be. He remembers walking in and seeing the folding chairs in place of wooden pews. It was the type of church he only knew about from flipping through TV channels when he was living in Georgia.

When Russo first moved to Scarborough, he and his then-wife joined Saint Maximilian Kolbe – a Catholic church like the one he attended while growing up in Wilton, Connecticut, a town where New York City businessmen buy houses when they have kids. When Russo was in middle school and his sisters had weddings to pay for, his father was laid off from his data-processing job at Emery Air Freight and his mother went back to work.

Back then, Russo went to church because his parents wanted him to. It was an obligation, steeped in guilt and stained glass, that he carried with him after he left for college in Boston. Later, he launched a career in Atlanta that eventually would allow him to buy his oldest son a truck as soon as he turned 16 and to replace his children’s iPhones every time they broke.

A better job opportunity brought him to Maine, where he continued to grow his family and his career, taking companies “from here to here,” he said, motioning upward with his hand.

Within a year of moving, he had stopped going to St. Max. The ritual wasn’t doing anything for him, he said – the kneel, sit, stand, sing a song, shake hands. He had faced the faceless priest in the confessional and felt removed.

“I was missing something, but I didn’t know what,” Russo said.

He first heard about Eastpoint from the parents of a boy on his son’s football team. They told him it was different, but that was all.

“You have to experience it for yourself,” he said.

Almost everyone comes to Eastpoint by word of mouth. Facing the jetport runway and the parking lot for Time Warner Cable trucks, the non-denominational church doesn’t get a lot of walk-ins. Its aim, however, is to be approachable. Every month, the pastors hold a pizza party for people interested in learning about the church, which prides itself in its practical brand of faith.

Russo found the focus on forming a relationship with Jesus more useful to him than the traditions and rituals of Catholicism.

He started off going on Sundays, then volunteered to serve meals at The Root Cellar in Portland when he could. He joined the men’s ministry, where he learned to lean on his faith and pray for himself – lessons that were vital to Russo when he left his marriage two years ago and his job a year after that.

While he waited to hear back from the 135 companies he applied to, he became a youth leader at the church and started coaching his daughter’s basketball team, as well as a squad of seventh-grade boys he didn’t know.

A former senior-level executive, he had to sell his snowmobile and his boat to survive, but he also began to feel as though God had a plan for him. Four months ago, he moved from an apartment he was renting in Portland into a house with a yard in Gorham. He started a sales job with Sunbelt Rentals the Monday before he was baptized.

“I’ve been getting closer to the way I feel I should be living as a Christian,” he said.

He hoped, after Sunday, he would be there.

• • • • • •

The doors opened like a dam, letting the worshipers from the 9:30 service flood into the foyer.

With three services on Sundays, the congregation is already outgrowing the brown industrial building on City Line Drive, its fourth home in 10 years.

Russo made his way toward the doors through the oncoming crowd, stopping every few steps for hugs and handshakes, his teeth clenched in a constant smile.

It’s not hard to imagine his success as a salesman, imposing but warm, like a linebacker crossed with a teddy bear.

Like his father, Russo’s oldest son went on to play football in college. Russo didn’t make it to any games this season because of the cost of traveling to upstate New York, where his son is in his sophomore year at Hobart and William Smith.

Neither of his sons has shown much interest in the church. Madison is the only one of his three kids who goes with him. She thought about getting baptized the same day as her father, but her mother was out of town and she wanted her to be there. So instead, with fingernails painted pink and blue, she hung onto her father’s arm as he fidgeted through the service, bouncing his knees and bowing his head.

Services at Eastpoint start out more like a rock concert. In the wide, dark hall, spotlights from the high ceilings illuminate the amplified band on stage. Flat screens on either side of a hanging cross flash lyrics while the standing congregation sings and sways along.

The pastor, Scott Taube, a twinkle-eyed man in a striped half-zip sweater, gave the sermon that Sunday from a red metal stool, his pulpit a round, high-top table that could have come from a cocktail lounge.

Into his headset, he talked about how Jesus’ disciples were just 12 regular guys with short tempers and bad judgment. Just like you and me, he said.

Russo left the service to change out of his jeans. Dark clothes are suggested for the baptism, for modesty’s sake. That morning, when he looked at the athletic shorts he’d grabbed from his drawer, he found it funny that the number 12 was embroidered on the side – the last of several signs he’d gotten that week that the time was right.

He returned to his seat in the front row wearing the black shorts and nothing on his feet. The pastor concluded his message, then called Russo up to the stage.

He had put together a reading and read it to the congregation from his phone before walking up the wooden steps into the portable tub. Someone had forgotten to turn the heat on in time, and the water wasn’t as warm as it was supposed to be.

Russo sat down and clasped his hands under his chin, not knowing that, in an hour, he’d be eating a grilled cheese at Friendly’s on a high that would last for days.

Pastor Taube talked about the meaning of baptism, putting one life to death in a watery grave and rising reborn. He held Russo’s torso and asked for his profession of faith.

“Jesus is Lord,” Russo said.

As the pastor lowered him back into the water, Russo pinched his nose and held his breath.