The restored bell of First Baptist Church is days away from resounding through Williamsburg for the first time since the days of segregation.
The bell will ring in celebration of the church's 240th anniversary, as one of the nation's oldest African-American Baptist churches. Even more, the bell will ring as a call for racial healing.
First Baptist Church and Colonial Williamsburg have encouraged the community, and the nation, to participate in the Let Freedom Ring Challenge: ringing the bell throughout the day, every day of February.
The challenge has already garnered support from prominent leaders and celebrities. The first ringing of the bell will occur Feb. 1 at the "Let Freedom Ring: A Call to Heal a Nation" ceremonies.
Participants include the Rev. Jesse Jackson, Dr. Bernard Lafayette, Rhea McCauley (representing Rosa Parks family), Hampton University president William Harvey and U.S. Ambassador-at-Large Suzan Johnson Cook. A national broadcast and digital PSA campaign for the challenge will feature Yoko Ono, among other activists.
Other participants on Feb. 1 include Danny Glover, Dionne Warwick and Esperanza Spalding, as well as direct descendants of Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemmings.
The public is invited to view the initial ceremony, from 10 a.m.-11:30 a.m., on a free live feed at Kimball Theatre.
"We have faith that this has touched a chord across the nation," said the Rev. Reginald Davis, pastor of First Baptist. "I think it's going to go beyond our expectations."
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As of Monday, more than 400 slots had been filled with single participants and groups volunteering to ring the bell, said Joe Straw, Colonial Williamsburg Foundation spokesman.
Straw said several hundred slots remain, though at this point, no limit exists to the number of people who can sign up for the challenge.
Local registrations surged following the 27th Annual Martin Luther King, Jr. NAACP/ACT-SO Breakfast on Jan. 18 at the Williamsburg Lodge, Straw said. He expects the pace of registrations to increase throughout February, with Black History Month programming underway.
Last Wednesday, the National Black Church Initiative announced its endorsement of the Let Freedom Ring Challenge. A faith-based coalition of 34,000 churches, the group encompasses 15.7 million African Americans.
The National Network for Arab Americans Communities, a group of independent Arab American community-based organizations, also announced its participation in the challenge. Representing 24 organizations throughout 11 states, the group and its Campaign to Take on Hate will be among the first to ring the restored bell on Feb. 1.
Social media has also fueled the challenge, via the use of the #WhyIWillRing and #LetFreedomRingChallenge hashtags. The official Twitter account of Black Entertainment Television encouraged around 1.82 million followers to participate in the challenge.
"I think this is just a huge asset for the community. The fact that we have such a historically significant church in our community," said Karen Riordan, president and CEO of the Greater Williamsburg Chamber and Tourism Alliance. "This is something that everybody should feel good about."
Rev. Davis encourages people to continue signing up for the challenge. "I think that they'll get a chance to touch history, and get a chance to make history," he said.
Bridges can be reached by phone at 757-275-4934.
Let Freedom Ring Challenge
Slots available each hour from 10 a.m.-5 p.m., Monday through Friday, and 10 a.m.-6 p.m., Saturday, from February 1-29.
Reserve a spot at letfreedomringchallenge.org.