On a riser behind the choir seats at the Bethany Christian Church in Arapahoe, 36 bronze Schulmerich bells lie on a bell table in a row from smallest to largest.
Wednesday night is the weekly bell choir practice. The empty church is decorated with a large tree and a nativity scene brought down from its normal perch to the front of the nave for Christmas. Roger Bennett, the pastor, emerges from his office. Five members of the Jericho Ringers come in one by one, drop their coats on the pews and walk up the steps to their table.
“They create sounds high to low, down the line, like a keyboard,” says Elizabeth Bennett, Pastor Bennett’s wife, looking at the shiny bells. She is one of eight ringers for the bell choir. The bell choir is a source of pride and community for the church.
Three ringers are missing today. Two have a cold; one is traveling. It is difficult to play the bells when you don’t have a full choir, the others tell me. It is like playing a piano that is missing a few keys.
“We did lose a ringer earlier this year,” says Pastor Bennett. “Sarah was only 37.”
Sarah Brinson, from Grantsboro, died of Covid-19 in March. It was a shock to people in the county and especially to her church. She was a lawyer and taught American government at Pamlico Community College.
Christmas bags full of presents from an anonymous giver have been placed on the bell table for each ringer, a surprise that lightens their spirits.
Before they start practice, Pastor Bennett tells me that the bells were donated in the 1980s and are the reason he came to Arapahoe—to train the bell choir. He commutes from his home in New Bern to be part of the Arapahoe church. He was trained in bell ringing at a workshop by the Raleigh Ringers, who he says are the state’s most famous ringers to date.
“So, the bells brought me here,” he says. “I’ve been here 14 years. No, 30 years…”
“100 years,” jokes Jennie Adams, another ringer, as she takes her place at the table.
“It’s funny,” says Pastor Bennett, who is 80 but looks like he is 65. “You don’t think about age when you play music. Age doesn’t matter.”
He starts the practice and asks the ringers to turn their thick binders of music to the song “Angels We Have Heard on High.”
“This is for the day after Christmas, the 26th,” he tells them. “Let’s mallet first.”
They try keeping the bells on the table and striking them to the tune with lightweight mallets on long wooden sticks, making a sound like fast hiccups.
“Ugh, that wasn’t so good. Let’s ring it without mallets,” says Jennie. With relief, they all pick up their bells and hold them at the ready, close to their chests. They wear gloves to protect the bells from the moisture and oils of their skin.
As Pastor Bennett counts out loud, they swing the bells down, as if scooping up air, quickly picking up other bells when necessary, all while squinting at their music sheets. They play the song three times, the tempo closer to perfect each time.
The Jericho Ringers practice all year, but it seems most Christmas music was made with bells in mind, says Jennie.
“The songs just lend themselves to handbell ringing while big church bells are more ponderous,” she says. “Even the slow, sedate, reverent Christmas songs are lovely when played with bells, like Pachelbel’s ‘Christmas Canon,’ ‘Silent Night,’ ‘Mary Have You Heard?’ We even ring them in the summer when we just want a familiar tune that we're all comfortable with.”
The Bethany Christian Church is one of the oldest in the county. It started in the 1840s. But it was rebuilt in 2007 after a fire caused by an electrical problem burned the old building down.
“A member of the bell choir went in the building during the fire and saved the bells,” says Pastor Bennett. “We had to take them to Pennsylvania to fix the handles and the hammers, but they survived.”
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