Cleansed in water

With cars whizzing past on Meeting Street, Matthew Pridgen speaks to those who stopped in at the Holy City Tent Revival downtown.

It was 2005 when Matthew Pridgen decided he was the second coming of Christ. He needed to die so that the kingdom of God could come to Earth for eternity.

It seemed rational at the time.

He'd taken 27 hits of LSD over 18 days until coming home the summer before his senior year at Duke University.

"Being God made me part of something. Suddenly, I was at the center of the story, and there was hope in it," he recalls.

At dawn on May 29, he parked his car at the gate of Folly Beach's public park, ran from a police officer, removed his clothes and slipped into the Atlantic Ocean.

His plan: Swim as far as possible so that if he changed his suicidal mind, the shore would be too far for return. He swam and swam until he couldn't see the beach anymore. He hid from a boat and tried to drown himself. Yet, he just popped back up above the salty waves.

He tried again and again. He swam farther and farther.

After many hours, his mind suddenly cleared.

He wasn't the Messiah.

He was just a naked, drug-addicted college student about to drown in the ocean and devastate his family.

Where would he go after that? Admission to heaven seemed unlikely.

Alongside the rush-hour bustle of Meeting Street, a large white tent filled with rows of empty foldout chairs sits waiting on a recent day.

The Holy City Tent Revival, a two-week run of free-flowing, no-frills worship is about to begin intentionally far from Charleston's carriage tours and stately old mansions. Here, just beyond the doorstep of the city's biggest homeless shelter, pedestrians saunter by scowling. Others peer inside with overt curiosity. A few slip in to take seats.

With a call to worship, Iris Woodridge grasps a giant palm frond and dances around the tent, waving it high beneath a gigantic white cross. A man and a woman sing on a small stage.

"Your love never fails ..."

Hands raise, flags wave, people clap. Part praise and worship, part hoedown, energy and prayers rise under the tent.

"You make all things work together for my good ..."

A tall man in a white button-down shirt stands up front waving a red flag, arms stretched high, preparing to deliver God's word to the people.

"Bless the Lord! Bless his name!" he hollers.

The man is Matthew Pridgen.

Bobbing in the ocean that day, too far from land to swim back, Pridgen felt a distinct sense of hell like a vast and empty black cloud, a suffocating darkness along the path he'd chosen.

He had grown up going to Charleston's private schools but never feeling a sense of belonging among his peers nor with the church whose altruism seemed pointless.

"I saw a lot of ritual, a lot of religion. But I didn't see any life transformation," he recalls.

Once away at Duke University, beyond the rules and expectations of home, he found freedom to embrace his hedonistic notions. He smoked pot daily and found a special fondness for hallucinogens.

Which led him to the ocean.

But after being in the water for hours that day, with no more LSD, no heaven waiting if he died, he panicked. A relatively unskilled swimmer, he watched the sun set. He screamed out for help.

But Pridgen was alone. As darkness fell, he began to sink.

Yet, it was a Sunday, and the churches of Charleston had spread word of a young man who swam off Folly Beach that morning and was missing. From his mother's home church of First (Scots) Presbyterian to his uncle's worship home at St. Michael's Church, prayer teams uttered Matthew Pridgen's name.

Still wearing a construction worker's reflective vest, Allan Coen arrives speaking of sobriety counted in days. He waves a blue flag as drizzle falls beyond the tent.

A cool breeze blows over the small crowd. It smells of diesel.

Pridgen had never been to a tent revival when he launched this one. Not that it would have mattered. He wanted no rules, no frills, no formulas, only the organic communion of worshippers on hand.

The rain falls heavier.

"There's been clouds and thick darkness all week," Pridgen says. "Now it's letting loose."

"Holy water!" yells Coen, the newly sober man.

A portable baptismal pool sits up front, waiting for those who want to commit their lives to Christ this night. It's about as big as three bathtubs. When Pridgen and several volunteers got it here, they faced the challenge of filling it with water.

Then, a car stopped by.

It was the assistant fire marshal, whose home is within sight of the tent. He called a fire truck whose crew filled the pool.

Mere coincidence?

"There is a depth of God most of us have never experienced," Pridgen says. "Most of us have never tapped into it."

With the sea churning murky dark, Pridgen floated on his back and prayed to a God he had disavowed, hyperventilating and exhausted.

"Lord, if you save me, I won't drink or drug again," he prayed.

A flock of white birds flew over, and he saw lights beyond. He swam, rested, swam, each stroke an effort as he headed for the lights. At some point, he paused - and felt sand beneath his feet. Like Jonah spit from the fish, he collapsed onto the sand.

He was alive. And he'd made God a promise.

Pridgen felt filled with joy.

Trudging for the lights, he stumbled into brush, chest aching, panting for air.

Naked after 18 hours in the ocean, he hobbled toward a hotel ahead. Two couples soaked in a hot tub.

He'd reached the swanky Sanctuary Hotel on Kiawah Island. It was 11:30 p.m. He had left Folly at 5:30 a.m.

He'd gone from Folly to the Sanctuary.

About 40 people worship beneath the revival tent. They are black, white, Asian, hip, preppy, believers and skeptics.

"Not one person here is in an ideal place," Pridgen tells them. "We all have areas of our lives that are not in perfect alignment with the kingdom of God - and that's not all right with him."

He recalls a day when his own life was all about having fun.

"I was such a hopeless drug addict," Pridgen says.

"Yes!" Coen calls.

"Drugs and alcohol weren't good for me."

"No they're not!" Coen yells.

"He set me free. I can say he truly set me free."

"Amen," the people echo.

"God took that person and made me a servant, slowly but surely. No one is past redemption. No one!"

Several guys in a pick-up truck holler out the windows. The rain falls harder.

"In the midst of raging storms, we are going to stand on the steady rock of Jesus Christ," Pridgen adds.

Three men, including Coen, walk up front and kneel at the cross as Pridgen prays.

One is Ronald Waring, who was walking by when he saw the tent. "When I saw it was a revival, I knew I needed to be here," Waring says.

Pridgen spent four days in the hospital after reaching Kiawah. He had hypothermia, was dehydrated, had salt water in his lungs, a stomach ulcer and enough protein from muscle breakdown that his kidneys could have failed. He'd lost 20 pounds.

But he was alive.

"I knew that God had saved me," Pridgen says. "I just wanted to share."

Back at Duke, he returned to his old friends, trying to convince them to change their ways. Each morning, he'd wake up sober himself in a sea of fresh beer cans. He felt repulsed.

Under the tent, Jasmanie Porter sits in a row of chairs with her five children, who are 5 to 12 years old. Several look nervous. One leans on her shoulder. The littlest drifts off to sleep.

Porter had been thinking of baptizing her children for a few years when she happened to walk by while Pridgen was setting up the tent. She knew him from St. John's Chapel on nearby Hanover Street.

Pridgen calls the family up to the cross, and the people lay hands on them.

"Baptism is the heart of why we are here," Pridgen says. "These children are growing up in godless culture."

Each child gets fully dunked in the pool. They are wrapped in colorful towels as Pridgen prays they resist the temptations that nearly drowned him.

Over the nine years since he nearly died, Pridgen hasn't craved drugs. God, he says, filled that hole.

"God can take a guy like me, a drug-addicted lunatic, and turn him around in a day," Pridgen says. "My whole life, I will give this gift away."

Three times he nearly headed to seminary. Each time, God led him down other paths.

"With a collar you can reach certain people. Without a collar, you can reach other people," he says.

Today, Pridgen preaches to the homeless, the addicted, to anyone who passes the tent.

Now 30, he also has his own family. He and his wife, Nicole, have 8-week-old twins and a 2-year-old. Pridgen also runs a start-up grass-fed beef company.

Mostly, as the tent revival heads into its final days this week, he works to spread hope to those who feel far from God.

"There is a spiritual transaction that can change their lives," Pridgen says. "I know. I lived it."

Reach Jennifer Hawes at 937-5563 or follow her on Twitter at @JenBerryHawes.