'It's hard to leave': Aurora church celebrates 10-year ministry of departing pastor with weekend send-offs

The Rev. John Bell felt bittersweet. Departing as pastor at Aurora's Wesley United Methodist Church, the Aurora resident was honored for 10 years of ministry at gatherings on June 4-5.

Bell, a Downers Grove native, earlier announced plans to accompany his wife Alison to Louisville, Ky., where she will work in refugee resettlement.

A social activist, the Duke Divinity School graduate is known for his passion for mercy, social justice and community. A "Black Lives Matter" sign is planted on the church lawn and a Pride flag hangs on the church exterior. In 2022, Bell was a candidate for Aurora 4th Ward alderman.

On Saturday, congregants, family members and friends packed the Gathering Place room at the church for an evening dinner and recognitions.

Kathy Breazeale, Wesley governing board president, opened the event with a welcome to guests and an invocation.

After dinner, the program began with music by a trio of Michelle Curiel, Wesley praise and worship director; Thew Elliott, traditional worship director; and Cindy Chase, Aurora vocalist/guitarist.

Roger Curless, governing board member, began recognitions by chronicling Rev. Bell's service to United Methodist Church Northern Illinois Conference. He pastored UMC churches in Cherry Valley, Barlett and Yorkville before joining Wesley.

Currently on the administrative review committee for NIC annual conference, Bell served on a leadership development task force and chaired a district committee on ordained ministry, a conference relations committee and the board of ordained ministry.

Curless shared excerpts from a letter to Bell by the Rev. Jeffry Bross, superintendent, NIC Prairie Central District. "You have cemented your legacy in the conference.

"You have made an impact on new candidates for ministry, on me, on colleagues, on lay persons and more importantly on the lost, lonely and forgotten in the communities you have served," Bross wrote in part.

Curless was followed by DiAnn Wiley, Wesley poet, who shared "The Call," a poem she wrote for the occasion.

At a farewell dinner June 3, Kelly McCleary, left, presents the Rev. John Bell a stained-glass-window design quilt she made. Courtesy of Al Benson

Emcee Breazeale launched gift presentations with a high-tech wrist watch purchased with monetary donations, "love gifts," from congregants. "We want you to think of Wesley every day," she said.

Other gifts included a memory book presented by Emmy Lou John, president, United Women in Faith; and a gift to Alison Bell from Breazeale.

Attendees were given the opportunity to step up to a microphone and speak about Bell. Eight did so.

Bell turned his final parting words into a learning experience. Putting his event briefly on pause, he asked table groups to discuss topics they would like to learn and then list topics they would like to teach.

He continued by saying, "I've worked with a lot of gifted staff over these 10 years, but this is the best configuration of staff I've ever worked with."

The send-offs continued Sunday. During 10:30 a.m. worship, Bell preached on "Saying Goodbye" and offered a passing-the-baton segment.

Breazeale invited attendees to come forward and pray for Bell. She said, "As a part of this body of Christ at Wesley United Methodist Church in Aurora over the past 10 years, you have given of yourselves in ways that we have appreciated and will miss.

"We now ask God's blessing upon you as we lift our hearts in prayer."

After worship, Bell and Alison greeted visitors at a reception in the Gathering Place.

The Rev. John Bell, departing pastor at Wesley United Methodist Church in Aurora, gives a thumbs-up after his final sermon June 4. Courtesy of Al Benson

Bell said, "As I prepare to leave, I hope you will continue to find ways to offer radical love to each other and to your neighbors."

The Rev. Tammy Scott, lead pastor at Sugar Grove UMC, has been named to replace Bell effective July 1.

Interim guest preachers at 10:30 a.m. June Sunday services will be Nicholas Richard-Thompson on June 18 and Rachel Birkhahn-Rommelfanger on June 25.

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