(As background context, when I started at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Smithton, I found an old fashioned school bell sitting on the pulpit, which inspired this sermon.)
I moved into my apartment here in Smithton a little over a month ago. In the weeks preceding installation of my internet access, I sat reading most evenings in my easy chair. On the first night of silent study, I was suddenly jolted out of my chair at 9:00 p.m. by the siren of the Volunteer Fire Department in the building next door. Apparently, they test the alarm with a single cycle each night at exactly that time. A few nights later, the alarm sounded three times in the wee hours of the morning. I have subsequently learned that our fire company responds to many emergency calls in the region, particularly accidents up on Interstate 70.
Roughly once an hour each day, I also hear the horns of the passing trains and the bells of the crossing gates on Peer Street and Second Street, just a few blocks north and west of the church. The laying of the old Baltimore and Ohio line preceded the founding of this congregation in 1860 by just a few years. Now run by the CSX Corporation, the track running through Smithton hauls materials from as far north as Detroit and as far west as Chicago and St. Louis, and from a wide range of destinations throughout the Southeastern United States.
And, periodically throughout the week days here in Smithton, the carillon of the Hope Lutheran Church just down the street chimes. The sound of traditional Protestant hymns float through the air, bringing a calming lilt to the small town quiet. Hearing the tones makes one bemoan the lack of a town commons at that intersection, perhaps with a gazebo for summer concerts and a grassy space for playing children.
Bells serve a myriad of roles in our lives. Doorbells and telephones announce the approach of visitors, heralding their desire for our company and conversation. Dinner bells, often used on farms where the sound must traverse great distances to reach the listener, proclaim the availability of food and the time to cease work and begin the meal. Clocks chime the hour and awaken us from our restful slumbers to start the work day. Timers alert us to completed tasks, and warn us not to exceed set limits.
At a race, a bell announces the final lap. While on Wall Street, a bell proclaims the start of the trading day. In a store, a bell may summon us from the front of the line to someone who will assist us. While in a hotel, we may use a bell to summon that help to us. At school, bells signify the time to move and change our locations and the focus of our studies. Around the neck of a cow or a cat, a bell notifies of comings and goings. And, wind chimes simply resound with the gentle tinkling of just being in the breezes.
Here at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Smithton, we have our own bells. The bell in our steeple was donated when our current structure was built in the late 1880’s. For more than 100 years, our name was the Thomas Universalist (then Unitarian Universalist) Church, in honor of that donor. The ringing of our bell continues to announce to the surrounding community the commencement of our Sunday morning service each week.
We have another bell – a far less imposing figure of a bell. Going through the historical files of our congregation, one finds many mentions of “Mr. Thomas from Philadelphia,” who donated our steeple bell in spite of never seeing our building in person. But, it wasn’t until I found this lone slip of paper that I learned the story of this other bell. It reads:
My mother, Barbara Hermann Bolling was born in 1881. When she was 18 years
of age she became ill with Typhoid Fever and to summon help she was given this
I am donating this bell to the church for its use only and to remain a part of the church.
Please record this donation in the minutes at your next meeting.
Signed, Clarence Bolling, August 14, 1983
Several aspects of this piece of paper intrigued me. A common disease around the world, typhoid plagues have ravaged human civilizations for centuries. The earliest recorded outbreak occurred in Athens in the fifth century B.C.E., when one-third of the population of this then-thriving metropolis succumbed. In the late 19th century, typhoid fever was well known in American cities, where the typical mortality rate in cities like Chicago averaged 65 per 100,000 people a year. The most notorious carrier of typhoid fever was New York cook Mary Mallon, also known as Typhoid Mary. In 1907, as the first American carrier to be identified and traced, she was associated with 53 cases of the disease and three deaths.
A vaccine was developed by the U.S. Army around that same time. With vaccinations and advances in public sanitation and hygiene, most developed countries saw declining rates of typhoid fever throughout the first half of the 20th century. Antibiotics were introduced in clinical practice in 1942, greatly reducing mortality from typhoid. Today, the incidence of typhoid fever in developed countries is around 5 cases per 1,000,000 people each year. Yet still, an outbreak in the Democratic Republic of the Congo in 2004-05 recorded more than 42,000 cases and 214 deaths.
Probably more curious to me, however, was the wording of the letter, especially when combined with the nature of this unusual gift. Now, I am somewhat knowledgeable of antiques, although I will admit that bells are not a specialty. But, I have little reason to imagine that this bell has any particular monetary value. So, placing conditions that the bell’s donation is contingent on its being used for the church only and that it remain a part of the church is unusual at the least. Even if an item has significant resale value, the recipient of a charitable gift is typically under no obligation regarding the item’s use or eventual disposition.
And yet, upon my arrival, I found this bell not only in the building, but prominently placed here on the pulpit, literally at the nexus of our worship center. I can well imagine that the impetus for putting this bell here is long past and inertia has allowed it to remain in its place. But, as one who tries to stay attuned to the little synchronicities that occur in life, I am inclined to see some meaning in the intersecting vectors of my life with this bell.
For instance, its shape is reminiscent of traditional school bells, when teachers taught many grade levels in a single large room. So, this bell can represent for me my teaching role as minister, and our commitment to lifelong learning. This bell can represent our collective search for truth and meaning, whether that portrays our individual efforts, or our collective labor to provide religious education for children, youth, and adults.
Like other elements of this congregation, this bell represents our long history, serving its function for 120 years. It becomes part of the rich legacy that this building and its hundreds of inhabitants forged in this region, bringing the message of hope and love to the frontier bursting with industrial growth, and the eventual booms and busts of our economy.
But, what strikes me most about this simple bell is the story of its origin. The original purpose of this bell was to summon help. The ringer was calling out from her sickbed for someone to come and offer assistance, to provide sustenance, to support her resistance to a terrible disease. In this way, our lives do indeed resound with the sound of bells. All across the world, bells are tinkling, ringing, chiming, sounding, clanging for help.
(ring bell) When Port-au-Prince, Haiti was rocked by a catastrophic earthquake on January 12, 2010, it affected close to 3.5 million people, leaving hundreds of thousands dead and causing untold suffering for those who survived. Already the poorest nation in the Western hemisphere, Haiti is rife with radical inequality, its society systematically leaving out large numbers of people. For them, daily survival was a challenge even before the earthquake.
(ring bell) The genocidal war in western Sudan’s Darfur region has raged for five years, killing more than 300,000 and forcing 2.5 million to flee their villages. The war has particularly targeted women and girls, who face armed attacks each time they leave their camps to find firewood, food, or work. The Sudanese security forces and their allies have used rape and sexual violence as a deliberate strategy of war as a way to shame and destroy families and communities. The violence and subsequent displacement weaken women’s support networks and their access to livelihoods, even as many more of them are now heads of households, making it all the more difficult for them to survive.
(ring bell) In this country, our state and federal governments continue denying men and women who love each other of basic human rights. Gay and lesbian couples face discrimination, and still fight for their rights in areas including adoption, employment, taxes and benefits, and their ability to openly serve in their country’s armed forces. This same government that purports to support the family enforces unjust immigration laws. We spend billions of dollars rounding people up, breaking up families, shutting down businesses, and deporting people who are working, learning English, and putting down roots here. Our broken immigration system divides families and keeps loved ones apart for years and even decades, which discourages them from following the rules and working within the system.
(ring bell) The Unitarian Universalist Service Committee stands with those who are working to reverse the cycle of collapse and dependence that has historically plagued Haiti. As hundreds of thousands of survivors stream out of the city in search of water, food, medicine, and shelter, the very structure of the Haitian countryside is changing. Many villages have doubled and tripled in size, and people are scrambling to feed and house everyone. UUSC is partnering with Haitian organizations and social movements to ensure that their vision becomes reality. We can answer this bell by contributing our financial resources, and by becoming members of the UUSC.
(ring bell) While the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee supports a viable peace process to end the conflict in Darfur, action now is needed to weave a web of protection for women and girls in this war-torn land. The UUSC is working to improve women’s livelihoods and leadership skills, as well as providing human rights training, coordinating among humanitarian aid agencies in Darfur, and improving security for women living in camps. We can answer this bell by supporting advocacy campaigns, such as the UUSC’s Drumbeat for Darfur campaign, which calls for constant action urging the White House, Congress, and other institutions to make ending the genocide one of their highest priorities.
(ring bell) The Standing of the Side of Love campaign of the Unitarian Universalist Association is building interfaith support for equal treatment for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people in all matters of law. We are working with coalitions and lobbying governments at all levels for laws that protect everyone who face violence, intimidation, and discrimination because of their identities. We affirm the full humanity of all people: harnessing love’s power to stop oppression; honoring the spark of the divine in each and every person; pledging to uphold love as a guiding principle in our treatment of others.
We live in a time when most organized religions are experiencing a decline in active participation. Like Barbara Bolling, we lie ailing in our beds calling out for help. We call out for people to listen to us. We call out for people to be with us. We call out for people to share their lives with us in common purpose and commitment. We do that by sounding the bell of freedom of belief, a well recognized sound in this great nation, made famous at least figuratively by our steeple bell’s cousin across the state in Philadelphia. And, while we may respond to bells ringing for specific causes or concerns, the framework within which we hear that music and respond to those vibrations are the principles of Unitarian Universalism.
So, we will continue to ring our steeple bell at the beginning of services every Sunday. But, we ring our bell not just to proclaim the start of worship to the neighborhood. We ring our bell as a way of answering all of those calls for help that we hear each day. We ring our bell to summon help from others as we struggle to nurture spirits and heal the world. And, we ring our bell in remembrance of those who have gone before and kept this Unitarian Universalist pulpit serving Smithton, Southwestern Pennsylvania, and the world vibrant and free.