It snagged me because I knew little about that. I did know, like just about everyone else in the Lehigh Valley unless they’re a transplant from Mars, that Zion’s Reformed United Church of Christ in downtown Allentown was the place where the Liberty Bell was hidden during the British occupation of Philadelphia. For years, on the Sunday closest to the Fourth of July, I’ve gone to Zion’s service where people in the audience get to stand up and read one of the usurpations cited in the Declaration of Independence – the reasons we wanted to break away from Britain. When it’s my turn to rail against the king, I like to spit my lines out, loud and angry.
But somehow in my three decades in Allentown I’ve missed Zion’s annual Colonial Sunday service. This time I wouldn’t.
Bob was dressed in Colonial garb. Singers led us in popular songs of the era like “Schnitzelbank,” and we all played kazoos, which, we were told, were indeed around at the time. During the service we said prayers and sang hymns from the 1770s, some stanzas in Pennsylvania Dutch. Bob used the biblical text that the Rev. Abraham Blumer used more than two centuries ago.
And during his sermon, Bob drove home Zion’s role when he said that right where we were sitting, sick and wounded Continental Army soldiers had been tended to. Many of them died. Hundreds were cared for at the church from September 1777 to April 1778. Some who were better off were taken into the homes of the congregation, which numbered only 38 members. Others, Bob said, were housed at the old Farr building two blocks west, at Eighth and Hamilton streets. The building even has a plaque attesting to that.
Some of Zion’s members helped the soldiers out of support or sympathy for the American cause, Bob said. Others were following the Christian teaching that they should “love a stranger,” which was what these unfortunate soldiers were to the folks of what was then Northamptontown. The congregation was showing the “hospitality” that comes with “hospital.”
Bob’s talk took me back to that time of sacrifice and uncertainty. I could imagine the soldiers in the church, with volunteers giving them whatever aid they could and doing their best to comfort the dying. I thought, too, about this being downtown Allentown and the economic revival that’s bringing a billion dollars’ worth of development, with the new arena and the office and retail buildings and restaurants sprouting up all around little Zion’s.
Members of this church stepped up when the emerging nation needed them 237 years ago. As this hallowed place shows, no matter how much Allentown advances and its face changes, the city will always be deeply rooted in the American story.