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Bell ringing, food pantry say church cares about Dayton

Dayton First Congregational Church-UCC continues to use its historic Eells bell as a call to prayer and mindfulness in these days.  A bell-ringer took up the ministry of ringing it at 11:30 a.m. Sundays from their first Sunday without in-person worship on March 15 to now. 

Community grateful for ways Dayton Congregaional UCC has found to help community during COVID-19.

“What was expected to be maybe a month or two will happen every week for as long as it takes,” said Marj Johnston, pastor.  “While our church members know it’s a point in time on Sundays with an audible call to prayer, the wider community has taken notice and bolstered the idea that we really are ‘together while apart’ in these days.”

Repairs in 2015 restored the Eels bell to working condition (see story in September/October 2015), and the bell has been rung every Sunday at the beginning of worship.

Marj said it has tolled for funerals, memorials and to summon the community to prayer and observance at times of grief like mass shooting at the Pulse Nightclub in Orlando, Fla., and schools, shopping centers and entertainment venues, as well as any other community event warranting a call to prayer. 

Dayton UCC offers food pantry.

Photos courtesy of Dayton UCC

“We post our intentions to ring on our Facebook page, which is shared on two community pages” she said.   “Each week we note a particular point of prayer, like when we crossed 100,000 COVID-19 deaths. Folks chime in with names or their own prayer thoughts.” 

The church also uses the bell to participate in nationwide invitations to ring and toll bells, such as recently on the National Day of Mourning on June 1. 

“We’ve had many come to record the ringing and tolling.  We hear ‘thanks for doing this’ from several. Some beyond earshot—often because of wind—have been walking, riding bikes, driving by, or parking and listening,” Marj said.

The community knows the church for more than its bell.

“We had been talking about hosting a Little Free Pantry for a while,” Marj said.  “With the sudden move to isolate and new challenges for folks with limited incomes or perhaps even no incomes for a time, an old cupboard from the parsonage that hadn’t found another use was reclaimed and repurposed.”

Within 24 hours from the first mention of “could we,” it had shelves, a new coat of paint inside and out, and a small gabled roof. It was placed in a sheltered, accessible place for anyone to use. 

It’s been monitored informally by a couple of folks from the congregation, and again, individuals in the community have connected with a tangible way of showing love for neighbors, she said. 

It was rarely less than half full any time in the nearly 10 weeks of “business.” It holds non-perishable food along with personal toiletries, household supplies and pet foods. 

Sometimes a few small vases with fresh-picked flowers are available to visitors, and recently bags of three or four sticks of sidewalk chalk have been available with the invitation to create art on the sidewalk. 

“Recently I heard, ‘Wow, there’s cereal!’ a delighted shout at the Little Free Pantry. ‘And hot chocolate!’ ‘And soap!’ Thanks to friends and neighbors who stock our Free Pantry,” said Marj, noting that people now know it’s there outside the church 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Food stamps can’t be used for cleaners, toiletries, personal hygiene products or pet foods, so some donors keep watch and make those items their focus. 

“A natural sort of almost daily check seems to be happening by those who are most engaged as donors,” she said.  “It has become a community project to donate, tidy and remind folks it’s here.” 

One neighbor said, “It’s easy to send a check and hope it does some good.  This gives me a hands-on way of doing something that I believe is helpful.” 

Another neighbor left gift certificates to three stores in town to fit into our “shop local” reminders.  She said it was a sort of “test to see if people took just one or if the same person(s) would take all three.” 

Marj doesn’t know the end result of the effort. Many appreciate that it’s a way to feel helpful and have anonymity in giving and in receiving. 

There’s no monitoring by names and numbers, and when I’ve overheard comments—my office is just around the corner of the building—I can relay what items seem to bring the biggest shouts of joy and appreciation,” she said.

Marj, who has been serving there since November 2011, said much of her ministry is in broadening understanding of “what we mean when we say, ‘All are welcome here.’”

She continues to learn that practical, hands-on ways of living out faith, wrestling with Jesus’ teachings and putting them to work goes much farther than simply tossing out Bible verses and having debates about what Jesus might really have meant. 

“We intentionally continue to examine our faith and daily living experiences,” she said. 

They consider it “Loving God, Loving Neighbor, Loving Ourselves”—the greatest commandment and the second—are reflected in what they’re learning and living, allowing the Spirit to guide them forward.

Marj said in these days the church has been concerned for keeping everyone safe, those who gather as First Congregational and their neighbors. 

With guidelines in place from the governor and the State Department of Health, advice with the Center for Disease Control and the PNC-UCC, she said the church is guarded and slow about moving forward. 

“I’ve recorded my message each week, sending it via email with elements for a brief worship service. We have done three weekly Zoom online gatherings for coffee hour, prayer, check-in and office hours,” Marj said. “We’ve shared online communion and will offer communion to-go soon.”

Deacons and two others share in pastoral care via phone and handwritten notes. 

“We’re a low maintenance faith community with many in the risk category by age who are also seriously connected and engaged in volunteer opportunities throughout the community,” she said.  “These are not idle folks!”

Her focus is to support them with the language that explains for those outside who think we’re dragging our feet and being too cautious, to remind the people of the theological underpinnings of what it means to “love your neighbor as yourself” so that they’re confident “we’re doing the best we can do to love God, each other and our neighbors,” she said. 

The church council has a task force that reads newly released information, reviewing what’s happening in the state, region and town, to discern what level of commitment it will take to ensure that the church’s “all are welcome” and safe is true.  They are deciding about in-person gatherings. 

On Sunday, June 14, Marj offered drive-by blessings for people who were masked and stayed in their vehicles.  Depending on how things go, they may hold outdoor gatherings in July. 

“While we’re not worshiping in person at present, members are busy about many things in town assisting where needed for those who are truly isolated and isolating as we wait for safer days ahead,” said Marj, who sees “the Spirit is at work in us and through us!”

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Copyright Summer 2020 - Pacific NW United Church News


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