Serving as pastor of a church in the Tampa Bay area, it seemed appropriate to have a life-sized cardboard cutout of Tom Brady at church the morning before Brady would lead the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to win the Super Bowl. Finding things to celebrate during this past year has been a challenge, and life-sized “Tom” was the perfect joy-giver at my church.
Many of my parishioners have returned to in-person worship, but dozens remain at home and worship with us via livestream. On the Sunday after life-sized “Tom” made his appearance in worship, a couple I had not seen in months stopped by 30 minutes after church let out to get their selfie made with the (cardboard) quarterback. While we were speaking, they told me they both had received their first COVID inoculations.
“Oh, thanks be to God,” I sighed. “Whenever someone I love tells me they’ve received the vaccination, it’s like a weight is lifted off my shoulders.” My office manager was there as well and interjected, “We should ring a bell!” I laughed.
I later thought, “We should ring a bell!”
That week I purchased a bell akin to the ones you see oncology patients ringing after the final chemotherapy treatment. I had the bell mounted on a wall near the front of the sanctuary. The following Sunday, I invited anyone who had completed their vaccine treatment to come forward and ring the bell as our parish nurse read the names from a card.
“We need a ritual,” I explained to my congregation, “to help us move from a dark chapter of our collective lives to a more open, expansive, brighter future.”
Ringing this “victory bell,” in my mind, serves at least three purposes:
- The pastor shouldn’t be the only one at the church who gets to enjoy the feeling of relief upon hearing about the successful completion of vaccination treatments of church members. The congregation can celebrate this milestone together. Parishioners can rejoice with one another as, one by one, they gain immunity, growing collectively stronger, until that day when we attain herd immunity and church families can gather and eat and sing once again.
- Like other markers in life — high school graduation ceremonies, receiving a driver’s license, weddings — ringing a “victory over COVID” bell can serve as a tangible marker, delineating the line between the COVID way of life and the post-COVID way of life. It can serve as an “ebenezer,” that a biblical word meaning “marker” or “sign” for when something important happens.
- This public sign is a way the pastor and church can affirm and support an important public health measure in a way that does not seem controversial or politically motivated.
The ringing of the bell is a marker and a celebration — and it is a call to remember God’s faithfulness throughout this dark and difficult chapter. Every time the bell rings, worshippers can breathe a sigh of relief while whispering a prayer of gratitude.
“Every time the bell rings, worshippers can breathe a sigh of relief while whispering a prayer of gratitude.”
I decided to hold a bell-ringing ceremony twice monthly until we cross the threshold to herd immunity.
The first Sunday my parishioners streamed forward to ring the bell (we rang the bell on behalf of those still worshipping online), I grew a little misty eyed. My emotions were stirred as the anxiety I’ve been holding over this long COVID season began to dissipate in a palpable way. I felt a slight wave of hopefulness rush through me — hope I had placed on the shelf in order to accept the COVID way of life. Others tell me they were moved as well.
On Monday, March 8, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued new guidance to those who have been fully vaccinated, opening them to new activities and greater freedom to connect with others in small groups. As the world begins to open up little by little, offering a ritual to mark the transition between the COVID and post-COVID way of life is not only a means to celebrate with one another but to help people mentally and emotionally find their way from darkness into light.
If that’s not good news, I’m not sure what is.
Rhonda Abbott Blevins serves as senior pastor of Chapel by the Sea in Clearwater Beach, Fla., and as an associate with Pinnacle Leadership Associates. She earned the doctor of ministry degree from Mercer University’s McAfee School of Theology and previously served as the coordinator of CBF Kentucky. She and her husband, Terry, live with their two sons in Palm Harbor, Fla.