Evans, whose official job title is facilities manager, has lived in Amarillo for 55 years. For the past two decades she’s overseen the building and grounds of the Southwest Church of Christ, including its four-by-ten-foot sign. She changes the message every Monday.
You can’t just put up there “You’re all going to hell.” It’s judgmental, and people don’t want to read that on a church sign. Especially when it’s 105 degrees—Amarillo gets hot in July. It’s at least 98 every day, and it doesn’t rain much in the summer. This time of year I’ll put up something like “You think it’s hot here . . .” Or maybe “How would you like to spend eternity? Smoking or nonsmoking?” I do firmly believe in hell.
I started coming to Southwest Church of Christ 26 years ago, and the sign has always been here. I inherited the duty when I started this job, on April Fools’ Day 1990. I’ve changed both sides of our sign on Forty-fifth Avenue every Monday since. It’s like the church’s Facebook “status update.” We get some honks when we put the ladder in the back of a pickup at nine a.m. and start putting plastic letters in the air. It’s a busy street. We’ve got Bell Street right here, and the big high school is nearby. The city estimated a couple years ago that 44,000 people drive past us every day. There’s a lot of potential to reach people.
Sure, in a way, it’s marketing. The commandment is to “go into all the world.” We’ve had people come in after seeing one of our signs. Here’s my thinking before I put the letters up: If I’m just driving down the street and read a church’s sign, how am I going to feel about that congregation? I do feel a big responsibility. I might wonder, “WWJD?” Or, actually, “What would Jesus write?” I don’t think I’ve written anything that has offended him. At the same time, I know people aren’t going to get to heaven just because of what they read on our church sign. There is a little more to it than that.
I like the funny sayings. They get people’s interest. Like “Have trouble sleeping? We’ve got sermons.” This shows folks that we’re real, everyday people. That we’re not better than anyone else. Of course, we don’t want to put something humorous up there every week. There has to be a good balance. One time we had a minister who wanted to take over the sign. And he did for a while. Some people didn’t like what he was putting up, and we got some complaints. It was too preachy.
Some days it’s hard to think of something to say, so I look at what’s coming up on the calendar. Like, for tax season I did “Can we claim the IRS as a tax exemption?” We got a complaint on that one too. But the lady’s husband worked for Internal Revenue. I told her I was sorry. I thought it was funny. And on Mother’s Day I did “Aren’t you glad your mom was pro-life?” But I tend to go away from politics as far as elections go. We had eleven people run for Amarillo mayor this year, the largest number of candidates in our city’s history. I didn’t refer to it. That would alienate people.
The guy who had this job before me, I don’t know where he got the sayings. Sometimes I get inspired by what’s going on in the church. When a minister’s son got his driver’s license, I put “No one has more driving ambition than the boy who wants a car.” Or when we lost sweet little redheaded five-year-old Danny. That was hard. That week I had “The world would have no rainbows if the eyes had no tears.” For people who drove by, it didn’t mean too much to them. But for me—for us—it meant a lot.
People think I write all this stuff, but I’m not that smart. I just find phrases and keep them all in a big plastic notebook. I guess by now I’ve posted more than a thousand over all these years. I’ve never repeated a message. I’ve gotten them out of books, out of calendars. Bumper stickers are great. And ever since the Internet—gosh, that’s been fabulous. All those emails that go around, with those quotes that go on and on and on. When I start looking for quotes, I get inundated. People from all over just send me stuff. When I travel, I look around. I picked up some good ones in Las Vegas. I don’t know that I should admit that I’m such a heathen!
Oh, I’ve gotten a couple from sermons. I guess I should say that.
Not everyone thinks like I do, of course. In my job here, I’m not going to please every one of the eight hundred church members. I remember when we chose the bluish-green carpet for the church office. The minister got up there on Sunday and said, “For those of you who like blue, the new carpet is blue. For those of you who like green, it’s green.” As for the sign, I know there are people who don’t like church. That there’s folks who laugh at our signs and think they’re stupid. There are those books about church signs too. They’ve got some crazy ones. None of mine are in there. I’m not that famous. But if people are giggling at our message, it bothers me. I don’t lose any sleep over it. Jesus does, though. He would care about those people, the atheists, I guess. Of course he loves them. Jesus made everybody, so why wouldn’t he love his creation? If they aren’t with him, if they don’t have a relationship with Jesus, well, he wants them back. If you had a relationship with Jesus, you wouldn’t make fun of our sign.
Recently some of our members have wanted to change the sign to a digital one, and I have really fought that. That’d sure be hard to read going by at 45 miles an hour. I mean, you would only get bits and pieces of the message if it’s just scrolling across. I guess I’m from the old-school way of communicating—I write everything down on wide-ruled notebook paper.
I like our plastic letters, sitting in a track, lit from behind. That works. We’re a simple church. We’re just trying to get to heaven, and we want to take everybody with us.