And the steeple bell rang

A rural church’s Holy Week witness in a pandemic

by Donna Frischknecht Jackson, Presbyterians Today | Special to Presbyterian News Service

Putnam United Presbyterian Church in Putnam, New York. (Contributed photo)

PUTNAM, New York — Frank, I really don’t think it’s a good idea to gather at the church. Yes, I know this is the holiest of weeks. You are correct. Easter is coming. Yes, I know you miss your church. Yes, I know you will take precautions. Oh, you have a mask. That’s good. And hand sanitizer? That’s great, but we need to keep our distance. Yes, I know you understand that. Yes, I heard you. I know it’s Holy Week. But to come to the church to ring the bell …

I was about to launch into my public service announcement about the need to stay home, especially as the COVID-19 virus began making itself known to our rural community, but I was interrupted.

“Pastor, I don’t think you understand,” Frank sighed. He sounded as exacerbated as I was with our phone conversation. “I need to hear our church bell ring.”

He was right. I didn’t understand about the bell. What I did understand was the seriousness of the virus coming to our rural community. While the cases being reported were still low in comparison to much more populated areas, they were inching upward. I knew behind the reports of cases would be the reports of deaths.

COVID-19 in rural communities

COVID-19 is just as challenging and deadly in rural America as it is in our cities — something city dwellers escaping to their country homes fail to recognize. Those who live in rural areas contend with the lack of medical care. Many rural hospitals have closed down over the years, leaving the closest medical facility an hour or so away. On top of that, America’s rural population falls in the COVID-19 vulnerable category — 65 and older and many with health concerns.

Frank is one of the vulnerable who is the sole caretaker for someone at home who is even more vulnerable. Yet he needed to ring the bell. What I lacked in understanding, I made up for in hearing, as I heeded the urgency in his voice. No matter how much I was against it, I felt compelled to concede to his wishes.

I made the hour’s drive to unlock the doors of the little church I serve nestled in New York’s Adirondacks on the border of Vermont. When I pulled into the parking lot, I saw not just Frank’s car. There were others as well. Word got out that Frank was going to ring the bells and people came to hear. I feared what would happen next. They would get out of their cars intending to keep a safe distance from one another, and we all know how well that goes. Six feet quickly becomes a foot when the joy of seeing another takes hold.

As Frank made his way into the church, I jumped out of my car to control the “crowd.” It’s funny how four people constitutes a crowd these days. I remained as loving and as pastoral as I could as I reminded them to stay by their own cars.

Social gatherings part of rural fabric

For those who think rural America has it easier when it comes to social distancing, think again. Sure, we have wide open fields and mountain trails to roam. Our houses aren’t on top of one another and we can run to the farm up the road that has a fridge filled with goat cheese, fresh eggs and milk for sale.

The problem with social distancing in rural America is not that we lack the physical space to spread out. The problem is that social distancing is not in our vocabulary. Rural America is a place where coming together isn’t an optional activity. It is a necessity. Coming together, being there in person for one another, holding a benefit dinner at the church, a bake sale at the school, a card game at the Grange or a good old-fashioned talent show at the old jailhouse that’s now a community center is what rural living is all about. We don’t pull down the shade and turn off the lights when someone drops by unexpectedly. We just assume they will give a quick tap on the door as they open it and walk in before being officially invited.

We don’t make excuses to get out of a dinner engagement. We find excuses for reasons to gather at the table to eat together.

Change is hard

And church? Church is where most of my tiny, older congregation go to find respite and connect. They are not into Zoom meetings. Some are trying. They are not too keen on Facebook live streaming for worship. I have wanted to try it, but with so few on Facebook, I hesitate. It’s not a great ego booster having two people viewing you when your clergy friends have 150 or more tuning in. I know. God doesn’t like ego and having two people watching me lead worship shouldn’t matter, even if one of them is my mom. Thanks, Mom.

I admit to a bit of envy when I hear my colleagues having success with digital church, but I still deal with lagging internet here in the sticks. I admit I feel a bit of peer pressure to get the cameras rolling to worship — lagging internet or not — not wanting to be left out of this new wave of evangelism that has been long overdue.

And dare I whisper out loud what I think many rural pastors want to say — I feel overlooked by the larger church which yet again doesn’t understand that ministry in rural America is different. I want to hear someone say that it’s okay to snail mail the worship bulletin. I want to read stories about how powerful the antiquated phone tree is to connect with the congregation.

I just don’t want everyone to assume that rural America is keeping up with how the pandemic is changing church as we know it, because for my congregation, church at this moment still means finding peace and solace in a sanctuary that has been home for generations. It is familiar. It is comforting. And they deeply miss being able to congregate there. They are grieving in so many ways.

Social distancing in rural America isn’t easy. It’s like herding cats, I mused, as I waited for the bell to chime. I guess I was so absorbed by the thought of herding cats that I didn’t notice what was happening in the parking lot. The chatter among the folks gathered was joyous and when I looked up from my own grim thoughts, I noticed smiles on the faces of those still adhering to my stern “stay by your own car” warning.

And when the bell finally rang … and rang … and rang, the chatter stopped. All eyes looked up to the steeple. With each peal, smiles grew. I swear I saw eyes gaze beyond the weathered steeple, searching the heavens — for what I’m not sure of. An answer from God? A sign all will be well? A cry for help tucked inside a heart that has never been let out till now?

Bells are the voice of the church

For centuries, church bells have played a prominent role in communities — serving as timekeepers, marking the hour for work, prayer or for coming together. Hearing church bells can make us stop what we are doing, cease the talking, and lead us into a much-needed space to reflect, to become prayerful.

As Frank rang the bell, a cloud of prayerfulness descended upon the parking lot and for a moment it felt as if we were in this divine group hug — all four of us still standing six feet away from one another.

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow once wrote that “bells are the voice of the church.”

Could it be that our bell that rang was a voice telling not only us, but our surrounding community, that our church was alive and well? Could it be that the bell was a voice we needed to hear during Holy Week, pealing with hope and promise? Could it be that while our little church wasn’t Zooming or Facebooking or streaming online, we still had the ability to witness to God’s glory through our bell?

The ringing stopped. All that was left was a reverberating in my body. Folks got into their cars. Motors started up and one by one they went back home to shelter in place. I lingered, staring into the sky beyond the steeple. I never thought ringing the church bell could be so healing nor did I ever think that it would be a wonderful way to connect the congregation and the community.

Frank was right. I didn’t understand. I do now.

An idea to use

For Holy Week or even for the 50-day season of Easter, why not ring the church bell daily? Pick a time and let your community know that when they hear the bell it is time to pause and pray for healing.

The Rev. Donna Frischknecht Jackson

Donna Frischknecht Jackson is editor of Presbyterians Today magazine. A former New York City editor, she now lives in Vermont where she is a part-time pastor of a church in Putnam, New York. When not trying to “herd cats” she shoots devotional videos at her home she calls “Old Stone Well Farm.” She blogs about her rural adventures at accidentalcountrypastor.com.


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