Of all the things that have faded away and become no more than faint memories, the ones I miss the most are church bells.
It was about 25 years ago that church bells began to fall silent. I don’t know what happened. Perhaps the bells fell in disrepair and were too expensive to repair or replace. Perhaps the official bell ringer retired and no one stepped up to take over. Perhaps someone forgot to ring them one Sunday so it was easier to forget the next Sunday.
In the tiny, white clapboard church in which I grew up, there were many things we didn’t have. There was no indoor plumbing, so a little outhouse set out in the woods. There was no air conditioning. During the hot summer services, the windows were lifted and hand fans, advertising a local funeral home, were passed through the pews.
There was no fellowship hall to gather for a casserole or homemade cake. There was, instead, a long concrete table built upon cement blocks and shaded by massive oak and maple trees.
Our annual homecoming – a time when country churches celebrate their memberships – was the second Sunday in October. I shall always remember the beauty of those October Sundays when the hardwood trees of the Appalachian foothills had been kissed by autumn’s frost that turned their leaves to brilliant shades of reds, oranges, and yellows. From the church’s perch upon a steep hill, we could see only God’s beautiful palette everywhere we looked.
There, on that concrete table, the women of the church laid out a remarkable spread of home cooked food. Mama was known far and near for her homemade chicken and dumplings. She cooked several gallons that were made from fresh chickens and then filled with her hand-stirred biscuit dough. People lined up to get her dumplings first. Within minutes, the pots were scraped clean.
There wasn’t much heat in that little church. On each side of the altar set propane fueled heaters. These were a step up from the wood burning pot belly stove that had warmed the sanctuary previously.
Still, when the temperatures dipped low on a winter’s day and the wind wrapped the little structure in its mighty grasp, it was chilling until halfway through Sunday School. It often seemed colder inside than out. Coming down the aisle, our warm breath steamed the air, then we huddled around the heaters, rubbing our hands together and shivering.
In the early years, the parking lot was gravel with many a pothole and red clay glistening through the rocks. Back then, there were no Sunday School rooms so the church was divided into children and adults. The grownups had Sunday School teaching in the choir loft and the children gathered on the last two benches in the back. Our teacher would sit on a pew in front of us and awkwardly turn to teach our lesson.
In truth, we had much less than we had.
But we had a church bell.
Two gray ropes to ring it hung down at the left of the front door. I was around 7 when I received the privilege of becoming the bell ringer.
“Little ‘un,” Daddy would say. “It’s time to start. Go ring the bell.”
The bell was so heavy that it took all my small might to pull the first rope. As the heavy bell began its initial chime, the rope I was clinging to lifted me off the ground. I wrestled hard to bring it down again. After I had been air-lifted two or three times, the bell swung back and forth on its own.
It was the most glorious of sounds.
Churches spend time and money on mission fields or having members knock on doors and invite people to worship.
I propose this: A return to church bells to remind folks of the assembling together of God’s people.
What a beautiful sound.