And the steeple bell rang …

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, though, 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 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 your mom. Thanks, Mom.

I have to admit 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 have to 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 who 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 can be 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.

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow once wrote that “bells were the voice of the church.” Pastor Donna discovered just how true that was when her rural church rang the bells at the start of Holy Week.

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 needed to hear the church bell ring. Those in the congregation needed to hear the “voice” of the church chime with its message of life and vitality. Frank was right. I didn’t understand. I do now.

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.” This article was featured on the Presbyterians Today’s blog.

Day 11—The Prayer Tree

A Little White Church Advent

Come on an Advent journey and walk the rural roads and snow covered paths with Donna Frischknecht as she shares stories of God’s promises being fulfilled in the most amazing ways. These stories of “Emmanuel”—God with us—were gathered during her time serving as minister in a historic white clapboard church in upstate New York, right on the border of Vermont, from 2007-2013.

December 11

A silence fell upon the room. A request was made that no one really wanted to step up to and see through. A woman at my table waved to the waitress to order another glass of wine. A good diversion on her part, I thought, pondering whether I, as pastor, could order a glass of merlot with her. Hmm…better stick to my diet Coke. Others around me glanced down at the meeting agenda before them feigning interest in what was to be discussed next.

It was the first Wednesday of the month Chamber of Commerce meeting held in the village tavern, where one could get a really juicy mushroom and Swiss cheese burger with a side of some of the best onion rings I have ever tasted. Perhaps the promise of hamburgers and onion rings was the reason I became active in the Chamber of Commerce, as it was a great way of killing two birds with one stone. I was fulfilling the “being part of the community” part of being a pastor while satisfying my love for greasy pub food.

The room was still silent and for a second I found it amusing how the local business owners gathered for the meeting tried not to make eye contact with the Chamber president. The question he asked lingered like a low hanging cloud.

Who will take responsibility for decorating the gazebo on Main Street? Any takers? Any one?

More glasses of wine were ordered and eyes continued to divert eye contact with the one asking the question.

Before I knew it, my hand went up and I could hear my voice saying something my head really didn’t have time to think through carefully, “The little white church would love to decorate the gazebo.”

Smiles from the Chamber president came and sighs of relief were let out from others.

Did I really just volunteer the church to decorate the village gazebo?

We were already very busy with Advent Bible studies, after school programs for kids, a Christmas cookie sale, packing shoeboxes of toys for a mission project, a caroling dinner scheduled and, for the first time in the little white church’s history, two Christmas Eve services were being planned along with a new Christmas Day service. Of course, there were the Christmas Eve luminaries to also coordinate and put together. Now who was in charge of getting the kitty litter to fill the paper bags?

What in heaven’s name did I do?

God’s answer was to come.

For while having one more thing on the church calendar was not ideal, it turned out decorating the village gazebo was a blessing for both the church and the community it served, as it got us out of the confines of the sanctuary and into the heart of where people were—on Main Street, going about their day, making a trip to the bank, the hardware store, the wonderful little café with the best homemade chocolates and the consignment shop, etc.

In the midst of daily life in the village, the folks from the little white church were doing more than just stringing lights on a gazebo. They were shining their lights out to the community, showing they cared just as much as to what was happening on Main Street as what was happening within the four-walls of the church.

As we strung greenery and lights around the gazebo, villagers would stop to say hello and chat and, as I precariously balanced on a ladder to hang a red bow high up on one of the lampposts, I noticed something.

I noticed the beautiful steeple of the white church peeking over at me and realized how much of a beacon of hope the church has been for centuries to those who called this village home. It was then I knew we had to do more than just hang greenery and lights around the gazebo. And so with a fir tree stuck in a pot at the entrance of the gazebo in which the town dropped off earlier that morning, I came up with an idea. Or more like it, God’s Spirit spoke to my heart as to what to do.

The little white church would decorate the village tree with prayers, many prayers and blessings for neighbors and friends who loved their village dearly.  808_10151275465554650_1226466341_n

So one night we gathered the youth and the children of the church and with permanent markers in a variety of colors and weather resistant foam sheets, Christmas ornaments were created in the shapes of stars and crosses and hearts. Written upon them were our prayers for all in the village. When we were done, we put on our coats and made our way just up the street to the gazebo where we finished decorating.

Yes, the little white would love to decorate the gazebo, I volunteered, not knowing what I was getting our church into. But God knew exactly what we were to do.

We decorated the public tree with the promises of God for all to read and for all to remember that God had not forgotten the once thriving village that now struggled as so many little communities now struggle all throughout our country. God had not forgotten those who called the village home, sweet, home.

A few days before Christmas I was having the desire to have my mushroom and Swiss cheese burger complete with the best onion rings I have ever tasted. I just couldn’t wait till the January Chamber of Commerce meeting.

As I walked from the church to the tavern to pick up my order, I passed the gazebo and the prayer tree. There standing in front of the tree was an elderly lady with a little child. She was leaning down gently speaking to the child who I could hear, as I came closer, was asking about what the ornaments said. Each ornament the child pointed to, the woman read the prayer out loud.

It is an image I will forever hold in my heart for it was a moment when I experienced Christ’s church becoming once again a vibrant and vital witness out into the public, where our witness to God should be.

The woman noticed me staring at the beautiful scene she unknowingly gifted me with and she smiled and said, “This tree is such a blessing. God is indeed with us. God is good.”

I smiled in agreement and went on my way. I had a mushroom and Swiss cheese burger with the best onion rings I have ever tasted waiting for me at the tavern.

God is good. All the time.