–The British Aren’t Coming But Global Warming is Here: Church Bells & Activism

May 28, 2012 at 10:43 am | Posted in Online Ministry | Leave a comment

On a recent grant-related trip, I stayed at an inn across from the First Parish of Brewster (FPB), MA. The church literally greeted me when I set foot in my room. Its beautifully renovated sanctuary and bell tower filled the window directly opposite the bed. The inn keeper ruined the moment. He told me the church might keep me up at night because its bell rings 24 hours a day. Bushed from my travels, I doubted anything could disturb me.

View of Brewster from a book on the town’s history. UU Church, known previously as the Brewster Meeting House, is in the background.

His comment, however, irked me, first because if he’s said it to me, he’s said it to others. “The rooms above yours have it far worse,” he later said. Why an inn keeper would admit this upon arrival is beyond me. But more importantly, here was this historic building of community and UU faith – the first Welcoming congregation in UUism – and a business owner, neighbor and local resident introduced it as a disturbance. Ouch. Double ouch.

I slept soundly the first and second nights. On the last night, the 11 p.m. bell woke me but I fell back asleep eventually after midnight. I looked online to see if negative comments or ratings had been left for the Inn because of the bells. None. The ratings and comments were exceptionally good. One comment mentioned the “quaint church across the street.” [Interesting note: One blogger wrote that May is a good time to visit the inn because the Baptist Church down the street has several concerts in that month.]

The FPB congregation and co-senior ministers Revs. Mary McKinnon Ganz and J.D. Benson are talking about a solution that turns the bell off during sleeping hours. It might require a modification to the new bell mechanism that will take a little time to do. Their actions affirmed my assumption that UUs would try do the right thing.

After all, the British ain’t coming and no one is depending on a church to tell time. Meanwhile, the economy and livelihood of Brewster and many lower cape municipalities relies on the tourism industry. It behooves everyone to find workable solutions.

But some full-year resident UUs disagree. They want to hear the bell at all hours because it’s tradition and symbolizes a way of life. This comment reminded me of folks in my own church who never want to hear the word “God” from the pulpit, even though many people around them take comfort and need the reference.

The issue for me is one of radical hospitality a la St. Benedict. It means creating space for those in our presence to be themselves without judgement. It’s a space that nourishes healing and understanding while respecting boundaries.

It seems to me that we are too often challenged to be radically hospital. And without an intentional effort to practice it, many may turn a deaf ear when bells toll literally and figuratively. [One of the best books on Radical Hospitality by Lonni Collins Pratt and Father Daniel Homan was published by Paraclete Press, which is based, coincidentally, in Brewster MA]

I wondered whether other congregations, UUs and otherwise, that have bells face accusations of being a pubic nuisance. Are mosques accused of being disturbances when they call people to prayer? The answer to both questions: Yes. Google “church bells and disturbances” or “mosques calls to prayer and disturbances” and you’ll find a myriad of stories where neighbors sue over bells and calls, regardless of cause or the time of day they occur. Legal actions have occurred when all else fails and the religious institutions refuse to do anything.

On the flip side, there are communities that welcome calls to act from church bells. On a Sunday in Dec. 2009 church bells worldwide rang 350 times at 3 p.m. local time to symbolise the 350 parts per million that mark the safe upper limit for CO2 in the atmosphere. The bells rang for climate justice in the face of Global Warning. Memorial Church at Harvard was one of many New England churches that participated. Other causes for whom bells have tolled: suicide awareness in San Francisco; cancer in Rapid City South Dakota; and in Phoenix for inner awareness and peace, to name a few.

Church bells in some remote places still ring to help families.

Look through the interior of this UU church on Nantucket to see a next-door house that’s nearly shoulder-width from it.

On Nantucket island off the coast of Cape Cod, the historic UU church continues a tradition of ringing its bell 52 times at 9 p.m. It marks “curfew” for children. One side of the church is barely one-human-body width away from a residential house. The other side has the width of a wheel chair access ramp between the church and a neighboring house.

For decades, a recently retired minister lived in a home behind the church. When asked if the bells kept him up at night, he told a church staffer he wouldn’t have been able to sleep if the bells didn’t ring. Evidently the owners of the homes in the surrounding area of the church agree. Most of them are now rental properties for summer vacationers. If it was a problem, landlords would have likely complained by now. But in the church’s current memory, only one complaint was registered. And that was a long time ago.

My 60+ year old church doesn’t have a bell. In fact, I’ve never heard my church make a peep in the neighborhood, other than cars coming and going on Sunday. In fact, I’m now realizing that the post-World-WarII UU churches I’ve visited for my UU-related grant work don’t have bells.

Does your church have a bell? If not, do you know why? If it does, does it ring it? Any complaints? Has it been used as a call to activism?

If you travel to Cape Cod, attend a service at First Parish Brewster. The congregation lives up to its Welcoming history in so many ways. If you’re there during the week, attend a Wed. night meditation in its sanctuary. Its light lavender/gray walls and 2+ story, tall-clear windows encourage mindfulness. I attended two sessions. Each time the bells deepened my meditation.

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