Yard signs say all neighbors welcome
From a start in Virginia, placards affirming immigrants spread across North America
Watching an early U.S. presidential primary debate, Matthew Bucher disliked what he heard about refugees and asylum-seekers. As the pastor of Immanuel Mennonite Church in Harrisonburg, Va., he thought of a response: The church could display a sign welcoming neighbors.
Now those signs are appearing across the continent.
“I wanted to make a statement in the historically African-American part of the city, and in a part of the city where a lot of new immigrants from the Middle East and Central and South America are coming, that ‘We’re glad you’re here, and we’re going to show Christ’s love to you as neighbors,’ ” Bucher said.
In September 2015, the church set up a simple white sign with black lettering that read, “No matter where you are from, we’re glad you’re our neighbor” in Spanish, English and Arabic.
As the campaign season heated up the following spring, Bucher shared his project in a meeting with other local Mennonite pastors. From there came the idea to replicate the message on yard signs similar to those promoting political candidates.
“We wanted a sign that didn’t match up with any national flag, but we also wanted some bold colors,” he said.
The group designed a green, blue and orange sign and printed 300. They distributed them among area Mennonite churches and encouraged churchgoers to display them as a statement: “This is how we want to follow Jesus,” Bucher said.
Interest in the signs increased, giving the Immanuel members the idea to sell them at the Virginia Mennonite Relief Sale. They redesigned the sign to its current form and printed 300 more, selling most of those at their relief sale tamale stand, with the profits donated to Mennonite Central Committee.
By that time, word had spread, and demand for more welcome signs was running high. The church ordered 1,000 more signs and made the design available on its website for people to print.
“We consider the sign to be creative commons, and we encourage people to print it,” read a Sept. 27 post on the Welcome Your Neighbors Facebook page, which had more than 2,900 followers as of Dec. 27. “All proceeds from sales should go to a nonprofit in your local community as another step in building a welcoming community.”
Immanuel sold the signs it had printed and ordered 450 more, selling most of those by late December. The profits were donated to New Bridges Immigrant Resources Center and Roberta Webb Child Care Center in Harrisonburg.
A movement spreads
In Collingwood, Ont., Liwana Bringelson learned about the sign from her daughter, a co-pastor at Assembly Mennonite Church in Goshen, Ind., and wanted to bring it to Canada.
“Shortly after the American election, our representative to parliament commented that she wanted to bring Trump politics to Canada,” Bringelson said. “We wanted to make a statement.”
She got a version of the sign — featuring Canadian English spelling and French instead of Spanish — and she and her roommates began printing and selling them to anyone interested.
“We’re distributing them through friends, family; we’re involved in a refugee sponsorship group in our town,” she said. “We have friends involved in Mennonite churches in Toronto. We’re just trying to get the word out. . . . We decided it was important to do this.”
Originally from Nebraska, Bringelson has lived in Canada for 18 years and holds dual citizenship. She voted in both the Canadian and U.S. elections. Like Bucher, she expressed displeasure with the rhetoric surrounding immigrants during the election season.
“My heart hurts that that kind of division exists,” she said. “I don’t think that hate and that kind of behavior gets us any further. I think we need to lead with love.”
Meanwhile, Assembly Mennonite has gotten busy distributing signs in the Goshen area. Co-pastor Karl Shelly heard about the welcome signs in October and printed 200, which his congregation sold in two weeks. They have since printed and sold more, donating profits to organizations working with refugees in the area.
“Especially in these times when the political rhetoric has gotten mean-spirited, especially to those who are immigrants, this has become one way for people of faith to give voice to the tenets of our faith that say as followers of Christ we’ve been taught in Matthew 25 and in other places that when we welcome strangers and we welcome sojourners, we are welcoming Christ,” he said.
Shelly said the sign has attracted both Christians and non-Christians. People from other states passing through the Goshen area have researched the signs and called up the church’s office looking for more information.
“It’s a nonpartisan sign that has a community-minded message,” he said. “Before the election, we sold out very fast because we offered an alternative to that mean-spirited partisanship.”
The Kansas Institute for Peace and Conflict Resolution at Bethel College in North Newton, Kan., has made the sign available for a $10 donation.
‘Jesus’ radical call’
Bucher thinks the message of the sign “flows out of the DNA of the congregation,” reflecting Immanuel’s motto: “Real people following Jesus’ radical call to love and service.”
He said the sign is not an endpoint but challenges the congregation to keep following Jesus.
“I hope that our congregation continues to work at this so we are known as not just a church that came up with this idea but that following Jesus’ radical call is how we’re known,” he said.
Bucher said parents of children who have been harassed in the aftermath of the election have told him they appreciated the sign as a symbol of welcome.
“This is a time to be courageously following Christ, not a time to be silent,” he said. “It’s a time for listening and for action.”
Immanuel continues to be active in the community by sharing space with a Spanish-speaking Pentecostal church, engaging with a local mosque and helping run a children’s program with neighborhood churches.
“We hope people who go by the church receive this message in Spanish, English or Arabic, that we want to love them as neighbors,” Bucher said. “It’s also a constant reminder to us as a congregation, that if we say we’re Anabaptist-Mennonite and want to follow Jesus, that’s the second-greatest commandment. This is who we want to be.”
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