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Signs from above: Church marquees remain low-tech in search for souls

By Ron Orozco

McClatchy Newspapers

Published: Monday, Nov. 14 2011 5:00 a.m. MST

Church members Janice Baker, right, and Jane Ono stand next to the marquee at their church, First Christian Church, in Selma, California, Thursday, October 27, 2011. It's Ono and Baker who come up with the compelling messages for the marquee that catch the attention of passers-by.

Craig Kohlruss, MCT

FRESNO, Calif. — While technology is making it easier to reach more people, some church officials say they prefer to use quaint messages on marquees and sandwich boards to engage the community.

Take the marquee at Harmony Free Will Baptist Church in southeast Fresno, Calif., last week: "Noah was a faithful man. He set sail with 2 termites."

Clever, don't you think?

So who comes up with these words of wisdom? It's not a bunch of stand-up comic wannabes. They're church members who hope a little brevity lightens the load of anyone seeing their words.

"The world is filled with so much pain, destruction and depression, I think the Lord wants us to laugh and smile," says Tex Petersen, who creates the sayings at Harmony Free Will Baptist Church with help from his wife and son.

Churches have long displayed basic information — service times, church activities and contact information — in their marquees. The churches adding sayings and using sandwich boards are reaching a wider audience, says Doree Shafrir, an American author and editor at Rolling Stone.

"They're funny and a little bit alien if you're not a regular churchgoer," she wrote in a 2007 article, "Signs from God." "And it's hard to tell whether they're intended primarily to amuse regular congregants, or to attract soul-searching passers-by. Whatever the intent, such signs have certainly gained the notice of the secular world at large."

There are many examples around the community.

The sandwich board of Church of Christ in Oakhurst, Calif., last week read: "Lifeguard on duty ... Ours walks on water."

"We're not as high-tech as some places," says the church's pastor, the Rev. Steve Foster. "There are times a simple message is important for the community to see."

Church of Christ has displayed other clever messages, such as "God has a big eraser" and the church is "Under the same management for 2,000 years."

Church members in charge of the message-writing say they're trying to open doors to the community. They want people to see that churches can have a sense of humor while also being available to meet their needs.

The writers say they can take only so much credit. They tap into websites specifically for church signs and rally family members and friends to help look for ideas. A book — "Church Signs Across America" — also chronicles sayings. They do follow rules, especially being careful the saying doesn't offend anyone.

Petersen, a truck mechanic, says he searches the Internet for ideas, then bounces them off his wife, Renee, and son, Hunter, 13, for good taste.

"They'll always say, 'No, we can't do that one!'" says Petersen, with a laugh. "We make sure no one can bring harm to the church."

Petersen found the saying — "Noah was a brave man. He set sail with 2 termites" — online. But he disagreed.

"Noah also had to have two beavers and two woodpeckers — and that's faith," he says. So he changed "brave" to "faithful."

The Petersens smiled as they put the letters up in the church marquee last Saturday after Tex Petersen got off work. It's their set time to work together on the marquee.

"We've turned it into a family event," he says.

Friends Janice Baker and Jane Ono come up with the sayings for the marquee at Selma First Christian Church, Disciples of Christ.

The marquee this week reads: "Exercise daily, walk with Jesus."

"We try our best to keep it clever, but also to keep it religious," says Baker, a massage therapist.

They look for opportunities to address things important to the church and community.

When the deaths of two prominent Selma high student-athletes in a traffic accident — Anthony Caro and Jesse Lujan, both 17 — left the community shaken in July, the marquee read: "The community grieves a great loss."

Everyone knew.

For Mother's Day, the marquee read: "Flowers, $25. Going to church with Mom, priceless."

"It's a good way to communicate with people," Baker says. "With the tough times in the world, let's put something out there that is hopeful. It's all about positive things, something that motivates people to think about not just themselves but to reach out to others."

Ono, who sells Mary Kay beauty products, says she hopes the marquee catches the attention of people having a hard time in everyday life.

"Sometimes, when you're having a bad day and read something, it's a 'God moment' where you say, 'Wow, I really needed that,'" she says. "I hope they get some joy."

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