Commemorate and Mourn 400,000

January 18, 2021
Ringing our Antique Bell in the Steeple of the Old Sloop to commemorate and mourn the 400,000 people lost to COVID in the United States.

Dr. Liz Rice Smith

In anticipation of a national Memorial Service to honor and mourn 400,000 Americans whose lives had been lost during pandemic at that time to the Covid-19 virus, congregations of all kinds were invited to participate. This memorial was planned to be held on Inauguration Eve at the Washington Memorial, in D.C.

And so it was that a “call” went out across the nation to invite a ringing of bells, 400 times, once for each thousand people who had died, starting at 5:30PM, on the Eve of Inauguration for President Joseph Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris.

Here in Rockport, on January 19th, just as the National Memorial Service began in D.C. at 5:30PM, we began our Old Sloop Bell ringing. Pastor Derek van Gulden, Bob Cannon, Liz Rice Smith, and Jim Schell gathered together in the room above the church narthex to ring the bell 400 times, with a background of sight and sound of the National Memorial Service from Pastor Derek’s iPhone to accompany us, along with bellringing from the nearby congregation of the Unitarian Universalist Religious Society.

Reflecting on this experience, Jim Schell noted, “We came together because of the burden of shared local and national grief for all those lost to Covid-19. Our grief had become so intense that after almost a year of pandemic, we felt a need to share and do something physically and actively, to broadcast our concerns. By ringing the bell in our steeple, we felt some release, physically, mentally and spiritually. We took care to spell each other every 10 pulls of the bell rope, sharing the burden.

Afterwards the one Bible verse that came to mind was from Matthew 11:30 “For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” It is always easier when we share! From The Message translation of this Matthew passage 11:28-30, we listen to Jesus, who says “Walk with me and work with me. Watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythm of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.” Even amidst pandemic.

And what did this mean to Bob Cannon? “It was a job we felt needed to be done. The full impact of the experience – the enormity of the loss – didn’t fully hit me until I got home afterward. When I told my wife, Lou, that we had to ring the bell 400 times I broke into tears. For each ring of the bell, fully one thousand American lives were untimely lost, families torn, friendships closed, gifts to the world cut off. A wash of bitterness came with the realization that much of the tragedy could have been avoided.”

Yet, just as we four friends did what we needed to do in pulling the bell rope, most of the world’s people have attempted to pull together – against formidable habits of alienation, political division, and economic disparity – to address this global threat largely of our own making. May we long remember all these victims, and those yet to fall, so that we might be inspired to do together what will bring better days to all who inhabit God’s fragile Earth.”

Why do we ring church bells? How do we feel when we hear them ring? For fifteen hundred years, now, people in many Christian churches have been ringing their bells for spiritual and practical purposes, calling the faithful to worship, celebrating a marriage, highlighting a particular aspect of a church service, reminding the faithful of God’s presence in their lives, and announcing important events, in loss as well as in celebration – local and national. Joining with other Americans across the nation on the evening of January 19, 2021 in the ringing of our bell, on behalf of the whole congregation and our wider community, we memorialized the 400,000 whose lives have been lost, and conveyed our deep hope for our future, in God’s time.