The bell that tolls

When Pastor Troy Bell, of Jackson Chapel United Methodist Church first joined the congregation as their minister, he dedicated time to unearthing and refurbishing the giant bell that had long been left to deteriate half buried in the church lawn. The bell now hangs prominently next to the church’s sign. DAILY RECORD PHOTOS by DENISE CATHEY

Jackson Chapel United Methodist Church

Editor’s note: This is the third part in a series profiling San Marcos’ diverse religious leaders and what they bring to the community.

Troy Bell, senior pastor of Jackson Chapel United Methodist Church, at 524 Centre St., is a remarkable man. At 72 years of age, he exudes the enthusiasm of a 20-year-old and there can be no doubt, that enthusiasm is inspired by a deep and abiding belief in God, the Bible and the word contained therein.

Reverend Bell, attended Huston Tillotson College in Austin, graduating in 1968. From there he was accepted by the Perkins School of Theology at SMU in Dallas. He completed his seminary training there in 1972.

Sunday, Oct. 29, I attended church at Jackson Chapel and witnessed Reverend Bell as he preached from Matthew 7:24-29, the parable in which Jesus tells his audience that those who hear his message and follow his words are like the wise man who “built his house on a rock.” It withstood the pounding rain, the powerful winds, because it was built on the rock. The foolish person heard the message, but did not follow and it was as if he built his house on the sand and when the floods came and the wind blew, his house fell.

After introducing his topic with the reading of the scripture, Pastor Bell preached for 45 minutes with no notes, no Bible, no references whatsoever. His sermon was a powerful message delivered with the fervor of a high school cheerleader. Like another African-American preacher, some 50 years ago, Pastor Bell employed an effective technique of rhetoric to get his message across. Repetition was a favorite tool of Martin Luther King, Jr. – see his “I Have a Dream” speech – and pastor Bell is a master of the practice.

All left the church with the word “rock” resonating in our brain.

Jackson Chapel United Methodist Church sits on Centre Street in the historically Black Dunbar neighborhood. The church has fallen into disrepair and the congregation faces the choice of  covering thousands of dollars of repairs or starting over.

At the beginning of this interview, Bell responded to my standard request, “Tell me about yourself,” with the following “I have been married to Glenda for 43 years, we have two children and I’m 72 years old. My wife is a registered nurse whose career largely involved coronary care. Later she went to the gastroenterology procedures and now works with endoscopy procedures.

“I retired from the ministry in 2011. And I was happy in retirement. We were living in Corpus Christi where we spent a great part of our life, but our daughter lives in Austin and we wanted to be close to her, so we came to the area, looked around and found a place in Buda that we liked very much, so we moved to this area.”

So, getting to the reason for the interview, I posed the question of how did he get into the ministry and why. His response is inspiring and revealing. Without hesitation, he, with energetic gestures and an emphatic tone in his voice, said, “I was called!

“I have known since I was 17 years old that I would go into the ministry. As a junior in high school, I went to a leadership and learning camp in Arkansas and that was in 1962, so you can imagine what it was like to be there at that time. But I knew then the presence of God.”

He goes on to tell me that he had no choice. He had known for a long time that he belonged to God –“we all belong to Him” and he is going to do with us what’s best.

In fact, Bell had ambitions to be an astronomer. He wanted to study the stars, so he majored in math and chemistry in college before going to seminary. That seemed contradictory.

He explains that those things interested him and he wanted to study the stars. He, however, knew he would be studying the stars, it would just be from a different perspective.

Bell has served the church for 40 years and, as mentioned, was enjoying his retirement when the district superintendent approached him to take over the leadership of Jackson Chapel in San Marcos.

At this point, I think it is fair to say that the congregation that makes up that entity had become an apathetic group, lacking the leadership, necessary to create an energetic, forward-looking, optimistic entity and was on the path to the graveyard of history.

To illustrate what Bell brings to his post – at age 72, I might add – is the story of the bell, no pun intended. Upon arriving at the site of the facility that houses the congregation, one of the first items that caught the pastor’s attention was a bell of magnificent proportions, say about two feet in diameter, partially buried in the church yard. Obvious neglect had left the bell in desperate need of rehabilitation.

One of his first acts was to unearth the bell, have it refurbished and hang it prominently in the front of the church. And he was honored to be the first to ring it after it was restored. Age is not a detriment to accomplishment at Jackson Chapel.

An indisputable fact, however, is that a church cannot thrive without people. Reverend Bell informs me that some allege that there are 90 members of the Jackson Chapel. His estimate is far below that number. “There are no more than 45, I am sure. We get about 25 for Sunday services each Sunday.

“We are faced with a dilemma at the present. If you look around, you can see that this building is not in good shape. So, the question we face is whether to do the extensive repairs required or tear it down and rebuild. As in every congregation, there are those in favor of repairing and those in favor of rebuilding.

“We need to raise significant funds to rebuild and the Methodist Church is limited. We estimate it would take $300 thousand dollars to rebuild and we can’t expect that money to just materialize.”

Pastor Troy Bell stands next to his pulpit. PHOTO BY BIBB UNDERWOOD

Pastor Bell is guided in every aspect of his life, by the scriptures, their guidance, their instructions and their commands. Paraphrasing rather generously, he quotes Jesus as warning the people not to undertake things they are not prepared to do. In fact, you will find Bell quoting verses, entire parables, lessons from Paul’s epistles and Old Testament prophets as guides to the way he lives his life.

Our conversation drifted to the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s, Dr. King’s influence and the influence of the Black churches in the movement. Once again, Bell’s hand gestures, voice tone and his rising from his chair told me that, with him, this was a serious matter and not yet finished.

It had to start in the church, he avowed. “God had to be with the movement. God’s hand is all over the progress, and the success of the movement. He took a bright young man who had preached in his father’s church in Atlanta, Georgia, and used him to lead us in those times.”

To further illustrate his faith and his complete immersion in it, he goes on to say, “Nothing happens on this earth without the hand of God.”

“Rosa Parks,” I said.

“Doing what was right, and expressing her faith,” was Pastor Bell’s reply.

I mentioned that our mainstream churches on the other side of MLK drive are more or less lily-white and that was explained as a cultural matter – that religion is deeply rooted in culture and that is part of the line that divides.

That brings me back to the service I attended Sunday. As Bell, intoned his sermon with energy and seriousness, there was audience participation with “amens,” “yes, brother,” “praise God” and other encouragements, laments and reassurances. That does not happen in First United Methodist Church, on Hutchison Street, nor in First Presbyterian, just down the street, “across the road from Palmers.”

By my count, there were four Anglo attendees at the service. One of those transferred her membership to Jackson Chapel during the call.

Earlier in the interview, Bell had indicated he would like to see more Anglos, whites, etc. in Jackson Chapel. However, he did not elaborate on whether he would actively recruit white members.

The choir deserves recognition. Four people make up the choir. They are reinforced with some electronic wizardry that provides some assistance in the jazz genre and some simple amplification. But, in spite of their small numbers, they are maintaining the tradition of the Black churches with their jazz and blues renditions of the old gospel hymns. The small group gave us a memorable performance with the old hymn, “Just a Closer Walk with Thee.” With the aid of the electronics and the considerable talent of the four members of the choir, we heard a jazz version of that old hymn. Miss Ella Fitzgerald would have been right at home in that group.

If your enthusiasm is beginning to wane, if your life seems mundane, if your spirituality has lost its energy, give yourself a treat and visit Reverend Bell and his congregation at the Jackson Chapel. He will ring the bell for you – metaphorically and literally.

San Marcos Daily Record

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