Easter weekend in 2015, Rev. Bob Stevens, MDiv ’78, was distracted from his traditional ministerial duties at Zion’s “Liberty Bell” Reformed United Church of Christ in Allentown, Pennsylvania. One day after one of the city's homeless shelters was closed for a lack of funding, Stevens was preparing to provide shelter for 64 homeless people living in and around Pennsylvania’s third largest city.
As a historic church in the business district in downtown Allentown, Stevens and his parish at Zion's had experience working with the needy in a city that was undergoing a rebirth of sorts, helping locals adjust to the changes brought about by new construction and disappearing neighborhoods. A shortage of affordable housing meant that even those who could find a decent job had difficulty finding a decent place to live. But running an overnight shelter and soup kitchen were not within his realm of experience.
Stevens recruited volunteers from a dozen different churches and congregations to help transform Zion’s Fellowship Hall into temporary housing while a new source of charitable funding was established for the shelter that had been forced to close.
“I know what it is to all of a sudden find yourself everybody’s looking to you for a solution. And it’s the middle of a snowstorm and the city has closed the shelter and what do we do with people,” says longtime friend and fellow Princeton Seminary alum Rev. Dr. David DeRemer, MDiv ’79. “So he’s the guy who gets on the phone and says I’m opening the church and just bring them up here and we’ll take care of them.”
At Zion's Church, the homeless slept near to where the Liberty Bell had once been hidden from the British during the early years of the Revolutionary War and close to Pennsylvania’s replica of the original Liberty Bell. On the bell is inscribed the jubilee text (Leviticus 25:10), “Proclaim liberty throughout all the land unto all inhabitants thereof.” Stevens believes it is our patriotic duty to provide better care for those who live at the edges in a nation as prosperous as ours.
As part of his stewardship at Zion’s “Liberty Bell” Church, Stevens also runs the Liberty Bell Museum, which is dedicated to preserving the story of how a group of farmers hauled the 2000-pound bell from Independence Hall in Philadelphia to safe storage under the floorboards of Zion’s Church on September 26, 1777. The day after the bell arrived in Allentown (then called Northampton Towne), the British took control of the city of Philadelphia. The rescue of the Liberty Bell is a little known story that has had a profound impact on the real meaning of patriotism, civic duty, and community. The Liberty Bell Museum keeps the story alive and relevant in the lives of Allentown and Lehigh Valley children, families, and visitors to the area.
Stevens’ Museum program has grown and evolved. A Spanish-language translation of the children's story book is provided to teachers in ESL classes, and a STEM element has been added to the interactive museum program where children re-enact the story around a child-size scale model of a Conestoga wagon and then use Lego to construct the simple machines the colonists used to move and transport the one-ton bell.
Each year on Independence Day, the replica Liberty Bell is rung ceremoniously at the Liberty Bell Museum just as it was in 1776 when the sound of the bell summoned citizens to hear the first public reading of the Declaration of Independence.
On Thursday, July 4th, 2019, at Zion’s Church and the Liberty Bell Museum, the replica bell will be rung along with the smaller "Allentown Liberty Bell” which celebrates its 250th anniversary this year.
The Liberty Bell Museum is located next to historic Zion’s Reformed United Church of Christ, which is on the National Register of Historic Places. The site of the first church in Allentown, it was used as a refuge during Indian raids, a revolutionary war hospital, a gathering place for the reading of the Declaration of Independence, and other community events.
Zion’s is still a gathering place three days a week when Stevens’ Jubilee Breakfast Ministry serves breakfast to the homeless and working poor. A shared project with St. John’s UCC Allentown, with volunteer support from the community and local churches, the ministry provides a meal and a place to stay for those in need on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday mornings year round.