By Walt Wiltschek
HARRISONBURG, Virginia (Mennonite Church USA) – Who would have thought that 11 words on a small, cardboard sign could have such a monumental impact? Yet like the biblical mustard seed, quite a bit of good had sprung from this one small idea that began a year and a half ago at a Mennonite Church in the Shenandoah Valley.
Matthew Bucher, pastor of that church—Immanuel Mennonite Church in downtown Harrisonburg, which averages 35 to 40 people at worship on a given Sunday—says it’s all simply about being faithful.
“One of the statements that’s central to the identity of our church is ‘Real people following Jesus’ radical call to love and service,’ ” Bucher says. “We want to be present with those closest to us, nearest to us.”
For Immanuel, that included the many immigrant families present in their urban neighborhood. As anti-immigrant rhetoric rose during the presidential primary season, the congregation felt it should respond with a different voice.
The result was the very first sign, a hand-written, wooden one in front of the church in September 2015, with a message of welcome in English, Spanish and Arabic—“the three languages most commonly spoken in our neighborhood,” says Bucher, an Eastern Mennonite Seminary and Eastern Mennonite University Center for Justice and Peacebuilding alumnus who spent four years living in Egypt and speaks Arabic.
The sign’s simple message: “No matter where you are from, we’re glad you’re our neighbor.”
The act of witness quickly drew attention—overwhelmingly positive—and began to multiply, with others requesting signs. With the renewed attention on issues of immigration in the past few weeks following the administration’s entry ban for citizens of seven majority-Muslim countries, it has grown exponentially.
“Interest has spiked quite dramatically in the last two weeks,” Bucher says.
At the last official count, four months ago, Bucher says more than 4,000 of the signs had been distributed nationwide. Now, he estimates the total stands at about 6,000.
Immanuel sold about 1,700 signs from its initial print run using a local sign company. The Roberta Webb Child Care Center, which shares space at the church, has sold about 800. Harrisonburg District churches and other partners have also assisted with distribution. Funding comes from the $10 fee per sign; all proceeds over expenses are donated to local service organizations or Mennonite Central Committee.
“I think of it as people who have been following Jesus wanting to have a symbol of how they continue to follow Jesus,” Bucher says. “This is who we are.”
He says that plans for further advocacy efforts are under way but still being finalized.
For now, though, the signs continue to bear their witness. Each tri-color sign bears its message of welcome in three languages, and nine different language versions are now available—with Hindi, Somali and Chinese among the other variations that have been added by request.
Anyone interested in ordering a sign can do so via Facebook, which identifies what group is printing them in various areas of the country (if you see a sign, look for information at the bottom right corner), or via the Immanuel church website, at ImmanuelMennonite.wordpress.com.
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