Bells are the “voice of the church,” poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow called them, and poet John Donne in his famous line from For Whom the Bell Tolls, writes “It tolls for thee.”
And that’s the dual message more than nine South Kingstown and Narragansett churches want Friday night by having nine minutes of bell ringing at 8 p.m. It’s about death, racism and equality, said Pastor Fred Evenson of the Peace Dale Congregational Church.
“This Friday is Juneteenth. I am proposing that we all observe both the commemoration of the day, and the commemoration of George Floyd’s death and the injustices that it symbolizes, by ringing our church bells,” he wrote in an email to other local pastors this week.
On June 19, 1865, enslaved African-Americans in Galveston, Texas, were told they were free. Now, 155 years later, people in cities and towns across the U.S. continue to mark the occasion with celebrations. It has been celebrated by African-Americans since the late 1800s.
But in recent years, and particularly following nationwide protests over police brutality and the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and other African-Americans this year, there is a renewed interest in the day that celebrates freedom, The New York Times noted.
This year’s celebration may resonate in new ways, given the sweeping changes and widespread protests across the U.S., the paper reported and Evenson agreed, saying the bell ringing has not been done in South Kingstown in the past.
He said participating in the bell ringing will be Peace Dale Congregational Church, Kingston Congregational Church, Church of the Ascension, Chapel of St. John the Divine, First Church of God, St. Peter’s By the Sea, Wakefield Baptist Church, Christ United Methodist Church and St. Francis of Assisi Church.
“Bells make noise and we need to make noise around these issues,” Evenson said.
Recent debates about racism prompted him to want to use bell ringing to get people’s attention to the religious parts of preventing discrimination and violence against African-Americans, he said.
It is especially important to mark this on a day, he said, recognizing that the United States 155 years ago established a national policy against one egregious form - slavery - of discrimination against African-Americans. That first step led to many others, especially in the 1960s, to counteract racism, discrimination and bigotry.
“I don’t think that the black community is feeling very free at the moment and I wanted to find a way to stand in solidarity with them,” he said, referring to the many protests, vigils and other public demonstrations following these deaths of African-Americans.
“The white community,” the pastor said, “also has been way too silent on racism and it needs to make some noise about it, too. How about we all stand in unity as we deal with it,” he said.
Evenson moved to Rhode Island late last year to be Peace Dale Congregational’s minister. He described his approach to ministry as welcoming and promoting an inclusive social fabric in a community.
Acceptance of all individuals also created his strong beliefs in social justice as a minister, he added.
“So how are we, as a church, caring for the poor?” he asked in a rhetorical way in which a pastor torques up a sermon calling a congregation into action. “Those who society is kicking to the curb, how are we, as a church, caring for those people?”