Reading the Signs
By Elrena Evans
There's an abbey not far from my house, with sprawling grounds that are perfect for contemplative walks and prayerful meditation. I was first introduced to this abbey on a retreat; I figured out after the fact that, if I'm careful, I can get there from my house on foot. Since then it's become a fairly regular stop on my walks. I don't enjoy the trek down winding suburban streets that don't have sidewalks, but once I get to the abbey, it's always proved a place of refreshment and restoration.
Imagine my delight when the recent construction of a public walking trail linked my neighborhood with the abbey grounds. I can now get there on foot without crossing a single busy street, or hopping up on an embankment to avoid a speeding car. The day the trail officially opened, I set off for the abbey with zest.
Only to find that the abbey property is now completely encased by a fence, boasting multiple copies of a large sign that reads:
THE ABBEY IS PRIVATE PROPERTY. We are a Roman Catholic community and invite you to worship God with us at our liturgies. In compliance with our insurance, we must inform you that unauthorized gatherings, recreational activities and pets are strictly prohibited. We respectfully request that you comply with this policy.
I wasn't sure what to make of that. Does this mean I can no longer stroll the grounds of the abbey? Are prayer walks "recreational" and therefore now forbidden? What, exactly, is this sign trying to tell me?
On the one hand, I've been "invited." But to what? In order to worship on the abbey property, I must do so in an approved way, at an approved time? Worship is apparently welcome only if it's sanctioned; if I worship at the abbey, I must do so in a way that pleases them. Through the carefully-lettered verbiage of "insurance" and "policy," it feels an awful lot like this sign is telling me to Go Away.
Through the carefully-lettered verbiage of "insurance" and "policy," it feels an awful lot like this sign is telling me to Go Away.
Over the next few days, I thought a lot about the sign and what it forbids. "Unapproved gatherings," like, say, Pentecost? Recreational activities where people connect with each other and, through that connection, grasp a glimpse of God in their midst? And pets, of course, are right out. So much for the Blessing of the Animals.
Walking past the fenced-in abbey earlier this afternoon, I noticed, perhaps for the first time, a large sign outside the Presbyterian church across the street. "NO THRU TRAFFIC," it said. I continued on my walk, past my son's elementary school, and saw a similar sign on the Mar Thoma Syrian church cattycorner to the school grounds: "PRIVATE PROPERTY."
Exclusion, apparently, knows no denominational boundaries.
All these signs got me wondering about the signs on my own church's property, signs I've seen so many times they blend into the landscape. My church is situated near a fairly major train station, so it's probably prey to far more riffraff and undesirables than the other three churches I've mentioned. My church parking lot also connects a major thoroughfare with a heavily-traveled side street, so it's prime cut-through territory for commuters. How many signs at my own church are socially acceptable versions of "Keep Out?"
The answer is, none. The most prominent sign at my own church is a huge red outdoor banner, proclaiming one simple word: Welcome.
The most prominent sign at my own church is a huge red outdoor banner, proclaiming one simple word: Welcome.
Now, I'm not saying my church is perfect. We have our requisite problems and dramas and petty distractions that pull our focus from God and the work we have been called to do. And as a member of my church for nearly thirty years, I've seen more than my fair share of ugliness.
But on this one point, my church has got it right: our signs to the world around us should not say Keep Out, Go Away, Shoo. Our signs should only show the welcome that Christ himself shows to us. Whatever your worship looks like, you are welcome here.
Elrena Evans curates the blog for Evangelicals for Social Action. She holds an MFA in creative writing from Penn State and has also worked for Christianity Today and American Bible Society. She is the author of a short story collection, This Crowded Night, and co-author of the essay collection Mama, PhD: Women Write About Motherhood and Academic Life. She enjoys spending time with her family, dancing, and making spreadsheets.