Needham Church Bell Sounds Alarm for Climate Change

November 13, 2023
• Church bells ring in times of celebration and ones of distress. For the 20th month, the bell tolled at Congregational Church of Needham, and not in celebration.

“For us, it’s a warning that we are in the 11th hour of climate change,” said Carol Brown, church member and co-chair of its Environmental Ministry Team. “It’s dire.”

A member of the Congregational Church Of Needham holds a sign during the church’s ringing of the bell Nov. 11, 2023. (Cameron Morsberger)

For 11 minutes in the 11th hour of Nov. 11, the church recognized the ensuing climate crisis. Members gathered outside the grounds holding signs and waving at vehicles driving by as the chimes rippled around Great Plain Avenue.

“Through rain, sleet and snow,” the church has rung its bell, acting almost as an alarm clock to wake people up to a grim reality, team co-chair Jenni Haynes said. The tradition started monthly in April 2022.

The connection between climate resiliency and faith is clear for Brown.

“The Christian thing to do is not only to take care of the congregation, to reach out to people in need… but it’s also about taking care of the earth and appreciating the earth,” Brown said.

In recent years, the Congregational Church has insulated the walls, weather-stripped the windows, replaced the oil burners with gas burners and changed the lights to LEDs, reducing the church’s carbon footprint by about 58% since 2004, Brown said. They’re currently in the process of installing solar panels, which they hope to set up by next summer.

Church member Anne Hayek, who oversees those building improvements, sees it as “an all-hands-on-deck situation” to protect not just humans, but the animals and plants with whom we cohabitate. With abnormally high temperatures across the country and more frequent flooding across the world — including in Needham just a couple months ago — Hayek said she feels the globe is failing to change their ways fast enough.

“It’s a climate and ecological emergency at the same time,” Hayek said.

Anne Hayek, a member of the Congregational Church Of Needham, waves at passing vehicles during the church’s monthly ringing of the bell Nov. 11, 2023. (Cameron Morsberger)

Hayek flashed an “11th hour” sign to passers-by Saturday, remarking each time someone honked their way. On a busy Saturday, the group got lots of eyes.

Member Isabell Wells took a different approach with a sign reading “science is real.” To her, it’s unfortunate such a statement even needs to be made. The former team co-chair continues to keep the faith, encouraging people to take small, actionable steps toward a brighter future.

“I continually tell myself not to become disheartened about things that still need to be done,” Wells said. “People just need to be positive.”

For their congregation, Haynes said supporting the world around them is just as valuable as supporting their members.

“Climate change is affecting so many low-income communities and the poor more than people who can adjust. People who are wealthier can adjust to issues of climate change,” Haynes said. “And so I think that the social justice aspect of it is a big part of our church’s mission.”

Rein Kirss and Fred Moder took turns ringing the bell, its rope accessible through a small back room on the church’s second level. One kept time as the other pulled.

To mobilize action, they need to mobilize concern, Moder said. Those who hear the bell ring each month are reminded of the mission, he said.

“It’s sort of a primal sound, and it’s pleasant and we have some fun doing it,” he said. “It’s a sustainable ritual.”

Moder’s faith keeps him from oscillating between utter doom and optimistically high hope, but he said he thinks the current momentum around town-wide programs is a sign of good things to come.

From 11 a.m. to 11:11 a.m., members of the Congregational Church Of Needham gathered outside during the ringing of the bells, a movement that raises awareness of the climate crisis. (Cameron Morsberger)

Hayek applauded the recent passage of the opt-in specialized energy code at the Special Town Meeting, which will require new buildings to be pre-wired for electric or run on all electric energy. She also referenced the declaration of a climate emergency that was before Town Meeting in 2021.

However, more could be done. Hayek said she’d like to see a “dark skies” initiative adopted, which would institute an outdoor lighting ordinance.

“Putting (in) energy-efficient light bulbs does help,” she said, “but if you leave them on all the time or you put in the wrong color temperature outside, it negatively impacts the environment and other creatures we share our neighborhoods with.”

For those interested in making a difference on the individual level, Hayek recommends making sustainable choices when something in their home needs replacing. Whether it be light bulbs or a heating system, Hayek said taking time to get ahead of it is important.

She acknowledged that even thinking to do so is not obvious or intrinsic for some.

“There’s a consciousness, I think, that still needs to be honed inside of every person,” Hayek said.

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