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(e-mail to Patrick Hazell on September 24, 2004, from Pastor Steve Meysing ---St. John's Lutheran Church, Dubuque, Iowa)

We had a great time with the bell concert (Sept. 19). It was truly amazing to see how many people, of every demographic, came together to share one event. What an awesome, community enriching event. I've never seen downtown Dubuque so alive on a Sunday night. The concert prompted the rewriting of the epilog in the forthcoming book about people/community/congregations "Here's the Church, Here's the Steeple,"
written by Dr. Norma Everist
. She teaches at Wartburg Seminary, Dubuque. We had a good talk about the theology of your concert, and how the 'call and response' ringing was perhaps more powerful and instructive than simply trying to get the bells to play only melodies. Thought you'd like
to know what a lasting impact your concert is having. The ringers from St. John's were thrilled by the event; it gave them a chance to do something they really love but can't do often enough. Guess we're hoping this won't be the last community-wide event you attempt in Dubuque. Thanks for giving us all such an amazing gift.

 

Open the Doors and See all the People

Stories of Congregational Identity and Vocation                    

by Norma Cook Everist      (c) 2004 Augsburg Fortress--- release Date: December 2004

EPILOG

After all of my travels, how would I conclude this book? There were so many stories yet to tell. I didn’t want to stop. Literally on the final day of reading the page proofs, the ending rang in my ears right here at home. The bells of seven churches of Dubuque, Iowa, including our own, St. John’s Lutheran, rang together for a full hour that Sunday evening.

Patrick Hazell, long time blues and jazz musician from Burlington, Iowa, had scouted out churches in close proximity with bells in their steeples for an hour-long concert. Dubuque’s churches being downtown with the Mississippi River bluffs rising above was even better acoustically. Hazell had composed such concerts before, some in his hometown and the one in Izhevsk, Russia.

At 7:00 p.m. people gathered in the late summer daylight from all over Dubuque. They brought lawn chairs to sit in business parking lots, sat in their cars, or simply walked around to select a listening place. At this event, open to everyone, there was no “best seat in the house” for the privileged few. There was a man pushing a stroller, a woman in a wheel chair. Others heard from the bluffs above. People could listen while riding their bikes, or walking the dog. Friends sat together with beer on the stoop or wine and cheese on the porch. The doors of St. John’s were wide open. Members brought desserts and invited the neighborhood to come outside together.

I had assumed the composer would write music and ask bell ringers at each church to play their designated notes. But, no, the beautifully diverse sounds of the seven churches would make a much richer sound if each played their own distinct tone, diverse voices in ecumenical dialog. It began with one long, low bell. Then others joined. St. John’s has three bells, still rung by hand. St. Luke’s United Methodist has eleven and First Congregational United Church of Christ a single bell. A sister would push the switch to ring the bells at St. Raphael Cathedral, the farthest away.

“Bells have overtones that don’t show until played for a length of time. When multiple bells play, a synergy happens,” said Hazell. “I give each bell a time to sound alone and in different combinations with the other bells.[1] That gives the listeners a texture full of rhythmic and tonal interplay.”

So it was with the churches in this book. Some churches do not have steeples, or bells. But churches can find ways to open their doors and speak their voice outside in the public world. We can listen to the distinct voices of one another, not only ecumenically, but in interfaith dialog.

Just as congregations are called to reach out to all classes, cultures and races of people, the concert crossed demographics. Dubuque’s commercial and residential growth is to the west. “This is a testament to the vitality of Dubuque’s downtown, that it is still alive and its churches still active,” said the pastor of St. John’s “I saw many people from the Westend” he added. “Because the bells were ringing all around, the concert was mobile. People naturally encountered each other, intermingled, and shared the event.”

Halfway through the concert, a man came out of the Italian restaurant two blocks from St. John’s and started his power washer. A woman from the congregation ran over and asked if he could wait until 8:00. He did. Promptly at 8:00 she took him a desert tray. A few minutes after eight he started the washing. We usually don’t ask each other to be so accommodating…nor thank one another when we are.

The music from the steeples continued. From the bluff one could see, beyond the steeples, cars on the freeway driving above the city traffic. With windows closed, places to go, did these people know church bells were ringing?

The conversation of the bells continued. For some, the steeple bells were merely backdrop to their busy lives. For many, the churches were a purposeful destination. They looked and really saw the crosses of the varied steeples. They also noticed that churches were not competing with one another.

Meanwhile, sounds of the city were not stilled. Dogs barked. A couple argued. Trucks passed. People came and went from a convenience store. A motorcycle assaulted the ears momentarily. The laughter of party-goers on the bluff rang out over the bells.

Slowly the sun’s light dimmed. The bells rang on as the Creator turned the world. The composer had been inspired by the harmonic rhythms of insects chirping. One is reminded of the distinctive sound the leaves of various trees make blowing in the wind. Every night at twilight birds sing in our trees. Evensong.

And now, as 8:00 neared, night came. But the white steeple and gold cross of St John’s did not grow dark. They seemed to glow more brightly, illuminated by the lights of the city. More and more bells chimed together. The sound rose and then slowing waned, ending again with one solitary bell. The party-goers paused and said, “Amen.”

People went home. But, many from these same communities of faith would meet outside again in two weeks for the annual CROP WALK to feed hungry people locally and around the world.[2]

So many churches. All kinds of steeples. Open the doors! See all the people.

------Norma Cook Everist

 

[1] As in many cities, the church bells of Dubuque had been rung simultaneously before, on occasions of national days of mourning, and notably, for a “Take Back the Night” rally to end domestic violence.                                                                                                                                                                    [2] CROP WALKS are ecumenical, interfaith community events held annually in over 2,000 communities around the country. In partnership with Church World Service, www.churchworldservice.org, CROP WALKS support self-help development, meet emergency needs, and help address the root causes of poverty and powerlessness.