How does one make tangible the lives lost to COVID-19? The deaths of more than 200,000 Americans can be hard to grasp. Now, and for the next two weeks, a United Church of Christ congregation on Long Island is using the toll of a bell to mark each one.
“There is no single word as powerful as a simple sound of a single bell struck once,” said the Rev. Dwight Lee Wolter, pastor of the Congregational Church of Patchogue, N.Y. “There is something about a bell that awakens the soul; that shepherds the senses to gather together. It is impossible to listen to a large bell rung once, stay with it until the sound completely fades, and not be mesmerized or transformed. People have managed to use words and numbers to maximize or minimize the meaning of 218,000 deaths in the U.S., and the souls of many of us have become numb. A bell toll cuts through all that.”
So the 850-pound bell at Wolter’s church will ring 218,000 times between Sunday, Oct. 18, and All Saints Day, Nov. 1. The bell will toll every six seconds, 24-hours a day, seven days a week, for more than two weeks.
“The word ‘numbers’ begins with the word ‘numb,’" Wolter said. “I have heard people, of all affiliations and varieties, talk about 218,000 Americans deaths from COVID as if they were M&M's in a trick-or-treat bowl. These are individual lives lost, but they are also part of a national calamity that deserves … demands … to be recognized, honored, and remembered. I wanted to bring this to consciousness.”
The ringing is automated and the volume of the bell is adjustable. Five years ago the congregation repaired and refurbished the 156-year-old bell and computerized it. It sits in a bell tower that is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Members can still pull a cord to ring it at weddings and to open Sunday service, with children signing up each week to do the honors. But Wolter said since it is already programmed to ring daily on the hour and the half hour, he decided to do more. And while the pastor made sure to share his plans with local leaders, friends and neighbors, he prepared himself for push-back.
“I notified the mayor, legislators, police, and chamber of commerce,” Wolter said, noting he even reached out to New York’s governor, since he sits on the state’s interfaith advisory council. “I did NOT, however, ask their permission. We will be respectful, but waking people up to the magnitude of death, loss and grief is part of the purpose.”
He even shared his plans on Facebook, in a post that prompted mixed reactions. A number of people complained that they wouldn’t be able to sleep with the constant ringing, so Wolter and his crew tested the volume control late Sunday morning, after the service, and they polled the people passing by. He said he spoke to a woman with an infant in a stroller, several couples and individuals of all ages. No one thought the bell was too loud. But, he noted, the memorial has already spurred a lot of talk and thought – and that’s the purpose.
“The bell strikes loud like a cry at our birth and fades to silence like a last breath at our death,” Wolter said. “That should be a call to arms! A call to compassion! A call to sacrifice and service for the greater good.”
The Congregational Church, like so many around the country, has experienced loss due to COVID-19. The sanctuary has been closed for in-person services for months. Early in the pandemic, Wolter said, people in the community died in assisted living centers and their deaths were attributed to natural causes. Others have struggled with the virus and are recovering.
The church bell’s will toll for the last time on All Saints Day, a time set aside to remember those who have passed on in the last year and to offer compassion for loved ones left behind. This year, Wolter said, the deaths and the grieving from COVID-19 will continue.
“For whom the bell tolls? It tolls for thee if you don't take heed,” Wolter said. “At the very, very least, this initiative has initiated a conversation about a tragedy that increasingly seems to be minimized or downright ignored.”
On Thursday, Oct. 21, Pastor Wolter issued an invitation to people across the country to ring a bell for the Americans lost to COVID-19 on All Saints Day. By that Sunday, Nov. 1, U.S. COVID deaths could top 250,000. So that day, he said, no matter where you are, ring a bell for six seconds, 25 times, to bring honor and memory to the departed. Each single ring will represent 10,000 Americans.