Otsego church tolls bells during pandemic crisis, calls for prayer

By: 
Ryan Lewis, Editor

The bells at Otsego United Methodist Church have rung each Sunday at 11 a.m. for weeks now as a signal to area communities to draw together during the COVID-19 crisis.

Pastor Joe Shaler said he suggested it to Otsego city officials to help get the word out to other churches and to make sure it wouldn’t violated any of the then-new stay-home order expected now to last until May 15.

“Historically, national and world crises have been identified and marked by the ringing of church bells,” Shaler said. “It just seemed appropriate for this situation where we couldn’t gather.”

Otsego Mayor Cyndi Trobeck released an official statement on Facebook, saying “Under these trying times, I am asking for a show of unity and prayer with Otsego residents and churches beginning Sunday, March 29, at 11 a.m. and continuing at the same time every Sunday until this crisis passes: I invite all local church leaders to ring your church bells and, for all willing, to join us in prayer for our city residents and businesses.

“We can all pray individually from our homes and stay in compliance with the governor’s orders. Prayer is an amazingly powerful tool that we all possess during times of uncertainty, such as what we are currently experiencing.”

She said later she had heard positive comments from many in the community, as has Shaler.

“I have noticed a few people in cars have stopped in parking lot to hear them when they’re ringing,” he said.

He said he wasn’t certain which other churches were also doing it, but he believes St. Margaret Catholic Church participated and that the call to action had been circulated among the pastors group that reaches churches in Plainwell too.

Churches have had to adapt to life under the stay-home order, with many needing to hurriedly figure out how to broadcast services online.

Shaler said that process had been a steep learning curve but had gone surprisingly well. He noted in his weekly newsletter a blockbuster crowd for Easter services.

“We’re trying to use the best tools we can gather to get the word out,” Shaler said.

He admitted online attendance might have gotten a boost due to the myriad of other possible events being canceled or postponed.

“It used to be that on Sunday mornings there were about 10 or 12 choices you had of what to do,” he said. “But I think it’s been good for most to reconnect with the church.”

His message to the community enduring the many challenges that go hand-in-hand with the crisis?

“We pray people stay healthy and safe,” Shaler said. “It’s interesting that one thing, as a pastor, that’s made this emergency different than any in history: pastors and chaplains are not considered essential personnel. So we can’t go to hospitals to offer comfort. We’re as stuck as anybody.”

He said he’s glad to get out to volunteer at Christian Neighbors, helping the local charity dispense food to those in need.

“It’s just different that my pastoral duties are so limited. All we can do is pray for one another and attempt to stay connected by phone and internet,” he said.

As for the tolling of the bell, “We will encourage our church to be in prayer during those times, along with other people of faith in our Community, praying for our local residents and businesses.”

Contact Ryan Lewis at rmlewis@allegannews.com or (269) 673-5534.

Editor's note: This story appeared in the April 23, 2020, Union Enterprise and has been updated to reflect new state rules.

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