It was still a few hours before church, but my head was already ringing with a sermon that married rural African Methodist burning and seminary learning. Looking in the mirror, I rehearsed again and again the greeting I would make, the first words I would ever say to my first congregation. I ran over the checklist in my mind: Greet the people in the name of the Triune God. Celebrate the faithful ministry of my predecessor who had retired. Honor the ministries they had developed in the past. Cast a hopeful vision for the future.
Right. Check. Got it.
I was as frightened as my comments were formulaic. Would they see right through me? Could I pastor these people? Carefully tucked away in my briefcase, an official “Certificate of Appointment” said the bishop considered me to be their pastor. But would they? What would they think of this 25-year-old stranger?
I barely remember pulling up to St. Phillip AME Church that morning. Truth is, I wasn’t very aware of it even then. My mind was focused on getting through the next few hours without embarrassing myself. I didn’t notice the condition of the building, the upkeep of the grounds or the cemetery next door. I completely forgot the advice a friend gave me: Count the cars in the lot to get a crowd estimate, a preview of how many folks showed up to smoke over the new pastor.
But as I made my way to the entrance, my eyes fell on a rusty old bell, bolted to the brick church sign out front. Something about it would not let me go. It was stately and substantive, like an elder standing watch over the church and the community. In an age when few churches or people rang bells anymore, it was stability itself, stubborn even. There it stood. I liked it. What it had, I needed. As I entered the building, I made a mental note: Find out more about that bell.
The people were kind and hospitable, and I got through the service without any problems. But the whole time I felt like I had crashed a party. It was like a never-ending version of that moment you see in movies when glasses are clinking and forks and knives are clanking and everyone’s laughing and having a good time. Then I walk in, it all stops and everyone turns and looks at me. Forever.
I wondered if I should show them the certificate from the bishop. No, I wasn’t so dazed to think that would make them trust and welcome me. It sure wouldn’t make them see me as their pastor. I didn’t want to bang on the door with a warrant. I wanted them to open the doors and welcome me.
I had work to do. I needed to get their story. So for weeks and months, I visited with people. I asked questions. I asked about their lives as individuals and as a community. Who are you? What’s your name? How are you connected to this community? Who are your people? How long have you been coming to church here? Tell me your story.
But mostly I listened. People are used to pastors talking and talking and talking. I listened, speaking only when asked or when I really had something to say. And one of the people I listened to most was Sarah Glenn.
Although she was 100 years old, Sister Sarah didn’t wear glasses and used a cane only when she wanted to -- which wasn’t often. She drank “life-everlasting tea,” a homemade herbal health tea long part of rural African-American culture in many parts of the South. Apparently the stuff worked. Her skin was a beautiful bronze and she laughed easily despite all the trouble she had seen in her life.
One day, I asked her about the bell. And then I listened.
Since 1900, the church had stood near the crossroads of U.S. 27 and Florida 59, just outside of Monticello, Fla. Before 27 became a U.S. highway, people called it “the big road,” Sister Sarah said. For generations, she said, it was the major thoroughfare through what was then an isolated part of Florida, and she remembered seeing Native Americans, “colored people” and whites traveling the road all day long on horseback, in farm wagons and by foot. As a child, she had known people who had lived during “slavery time.” She had grown up in the church and had known and still remembered the men and women who founded it. Decades before phone lines would reach this part of the state, they had bought and installed the bell as a way to communicate with each other. When it rang out on Sunday mornings, children and whole families in “Sunday-go-to-meeting clothes,” streamed down every road to the church -- the big road and the little road and every footpath in between -- excited about studying the Scriptures. The bell was a herald of worship, learning and fellowship. For a recently emancipated people, it sounded of respite and dignity.
But when the bell rang during the week, it spoke of other things. Monday through Saturday, if the bell sounded, it meant someone had died, and immediately everyone stopped what they were doing. In the fields, the men would put down their hoes and plows, grab picks and shovels, walk to the cemetery and begin to dig a grave. The women would go to the deceased’s home, wash the body and place it on a “cooling board” so that family and friends could view the remains. Within 24 hours hymns had been sung, the eulogy preached and the body buried. The same bell that rang in Sabbath joy also tolled death and loss.
A few years later, we built a new sign in front of the church, and we made sure the bell was still a prominent part of it. Though it hadn’t rung in years, it still spoke to this whole community, which now included me. It told me that these people did not need me to tell them their story. Thanks to Sister Sarah and other saints, they already knew it. They remembered it. And they told it to their children. My call was to listen to them and then refract their stories through the glorious lens of the gospel.
So how do you lead and preach to people you do not know? You listen. You get their wisdom. And you pay attention to rusty old bells.
Each congregation is unique. Learning to “exegete” the people you are called to lead is an important skill, especially for new pastors.