(RNS) — Who would steal a 400-pound church bell?
That's the question baffling the parishioners of St. Paul's Episcopal Church near Norris, S.D., where the hundred-year-old bell has chimed for news, services and emergencies from atop its small wooden tower.
The bell was swiped between Dec. 30 and Jan. 6, the church's pastor guesses, and would be welcomed back with thanksgiving and forgiveness.
"(B)ecause that's what we do in the Church," the Rev. Lauren Stanley said in a Facebook post appealing for the bell's return.
"Losing this bell — having it stolen from us — means that we have lost a part of our community," Stanley said in an email. " ... (I)t is still part of who the people are. We have members who remember it being used all the time, and for them, this is an appalling attack on us as a community, and the loss of a community member, as it were."
St. Paul's is one of 11 churches in the Rosebud Episcopal Mission spread across the Rosebud Indian Reservation, home to members of the Lakota Sioux. All 11 churches have bells, some in towers atop the main church building and others — like St. Paul's — in small towerlike stands adjacent to the sanctuary.
The Episcopal Church founded its mission to the Lakota peoples in 1875 and St. Paul's Episcopal Church was founded there on tribal lands in 1890. Many of the mission's bells were donated by parishioners in the East.
The St. Paul thieves chopped the tower down before running off with the bell. Both the sheriff's department and tribal police have been alerted, as have local scrap metal companies where the thieves may try to sell the bell.
"If the bell cannot be recovered — if it has been taken away and sold callously as an 'antique of great value' — then we will have to confront this question and figure out how to move on," Stanley said. "We will keep worshiping, we will remain a community. Because this bell is not the sum of who we are."
But Stanley and others hope the bell will be recovered without police involvement. The bell was stolen once before and tribal members were able to track it down and persuade the culprits to return it.
But if it is not returned, Stanley said, she will write a special liturgy so the community can grieve the loss.
"Then we will move on," she said, and seek another bell, possibly through a donation. "We will continue to be the people God has called us to be in this portion of the Rosebud Reservation. Because the community, the family, is what grounds the people here."
As for the thieves, Stanley is standing by her promise of forgiveness.
"We are Christians, and we take seriously Jesus’ promise of mercy," she said. "If the bell is returned, we are not interested in prosecuting anyone for the theft."
And they will rebuild the bell's wooden tower — but they can't do that until the bell is returned.
"We will rebuild," she said. "And then we will bless it, ring it loud and clear, and go on being a community that loves and cares for each other."