Today in the Mission Yearbook

And the steeple bell rang

 

A rural church’s witness in a pandemic

July 23, 2020

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

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.

 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. But I heeded the urgency in his voice, and 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.” I remained as loving and as pastoral as I could as I reminded them to stay by their own cars.

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.

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, is what rural living is all about.

Social distancing in rural America isn’t easy. It’s like herding cats, I mused, as I waited for the bell to chime. The chatter among the folks gathered was joyous and when I looked up from my own 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.

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 6 feet away from one another.

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, pealing with hope and promise? Could it be that while our little church wasn’t Zooming 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.

Donna Frischknecht Jackson, Editor of Presbyterians Today magazine

Today’s Focus:  Rural Church During Pandemic

Let us join in prayer for: 

PC(USA) Agencies’ Staff

Jose Irizarry, Board of Pensions
Valerie Izumi, Office of General Assembly

Let us pray:

God, as we grow in our faith and share your love with others, may we see the need in those around us. Help us to guide and nourish those who seek to live your gospel. Amen.