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.

William H. Lamar IV is an itinerant elder in the AME Church. He served congregations in three Florida communities, and currently works as managing director of Leadership Education at Duke Divinity, where he oversees the Sustaining Pastoral Excellence project. 
This article originally appeared on
Faith & Leadership. Used with permission.

Publication date: October 6, 2010