Signs of Love and Welcome in Central Pennsylvania

Dec 21, 2016

Ben Wideman, campus pastor for Third Way Collective at Penn State.
Credit photo: Kristine Allen

Olivia Harper, membership coordinator for the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Centre County.
Credit photo: Kristine Allen

This past fall,  yard signs for Clinton, Trump and other candidates peppered the lawns of Central Pennsylvania.  Now, new kinds of yard signs are popping up.  These  signs are meant so send a message of healing after a divisive election.

On University Drive, one of the main thoroughfares in State College, you’ll find multiple examples of two yard signs on display.  While the two designs look very different, they spring from the same sentiment.

“They do, uh, catch peoples eyes,” says Ben Wideman, Penn State campus pastor for an organization called 3rd Way Collective.  He describes the Collective as “a young campus ministry: a student organization that centers on faith-based peace and social justice.” Wideman is the man behind bringing one of the yard sign designs to the State College area.

“It is done up in three colors with three languages,” he says, “Arabic, English and Spanish – in part to reflect on some groups that have been marginalized in our recent political season.”

The sign reads “No matter where you’re from, we’re glad you’re our neighbor.” The phrase appears three times: in Spanish on the top green section of the sign; in English on the blue center section; and in Arabic on the orange section at the bottom.

The idea for this “welcome” sign came from a sign in front of Emmanuel Mennonite Church in Harrisonburg, Virginia.  Wideman, who went to college in Harrisonburg, learned about the sign from a friend there.

“I guess a pastor gave a sermon at one point, talking about the importance of welcoming neighbors,” Wideman explains, “especially people who weren’t from the area. And someone came up with the great idea, in sort of the heaviness of the political season, to post these signs around town. So they did an initial order of just a few signs.”

Those signs, Wideman says, were claimed very quickly.

“And every time they put some out, more people requested them. So the church did a big printing of a couple hundred signs.  And I was able to grab 20 of them and bring them up to the State College area.”

And Wideman says the signs went fast in Central Pennsylvania, too.

“Every time someone set them out their neighbors would say “Ooo, those are nice.  Where can I get them?”  So Wideman and his wife got permission from the church in Harrisonburg to print their own signs.

“We have now printed more than 300 signs,” Wideman says, and every time that we’ve put more out, more requests have come in.”

Why so much interest in this welcome sign?  For Wideman, the tone of the 2016 election makes the message timely.

“I was looking to a way to speak into the tension of our election season,” he says. “I was feeling like the messages were coming out with a sort of rhetoric that was angry and um self-preserving, and, at times, hateful towards people.  And I wanted a way to symbolically say, ‘I am a safe person in the community.  I want to speak up to marginalized peoples.  I want to be present in my community as someone who is working to get to know the people I don’t understand.’” 

And Wideman says he wanted the signs to start a conversation.

“I hoped that my neighbors would ask me about the signs and I’d get to know them a bit better.  And I also hoped that people who spoke one of those three languages would feel a little bit more like they’re welcomed in this town.”

How has the public reacted to these signs? Very positively, according to Wideman.

“It’s been powerful,” he says. “ We had a neighbor come over and, uh, with deep emotion, say “You know, you’re good people.” And this person doesn’t know us very well.  But the symbol of what that sign meant for her was that we are now people she can trust. “

“A friend of mine had put up a sign,” he recalls, “and the person who brought their Chinese delivery takeout one night was actually in tears at the door, and asked if they could give them a hug, because they were so moved by the meaning of the sign. And we continue to hear stories like that: where neighbors are talking to other neighbors who may never have done that before.”

Wideman knows at least one Muslim who was moved by the welcome message in the Arabic section of the sign.

“I work pretty closely with the Muslim student association on campus,” he says, “and one of their students told me he now can drive around town feeling like there are safe people around because these signs are up, and making him feel more comfortable.  “

Olivia Harper of State College is the purveyor of a different yard sign with a similar appeal.  She is the membership coordinator of the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Centre County.  Harper says the “Standing on the Side of Love” slogan began as a public advocacy campaign through the Unitarian Universalist Association nationwide. 

“The goal,” she says, “was to harness love’s power to stop oppression. And as a community I think it’s a way for us to show that we are a safe place, and a welcoming place, and that everyone belongs here.”

These yard signs are yellow, with the phrase, “Standing on the Side of Love” in white letters beneath a sketchy black outline of a heart. The design was first used in response to a tragedy. After two people were shot and killed at a UU church in Tennessee in 2008, the “love” slogan was used on T-shirts and bumper stickers to support those who were grieving.

Harper and another UUFCC member in State College decided the slogan fit the post-election atmosphere as well.

"I think this is a way to make a statement, at a time when there is so much hatred being perpetuated in our country,” Harper says. “This is a very positive way of denouncing that hatred, and saying ‘This is not who I am."

Harper had some copies of the yard sign printed, and these signs, too, have been popping up on lawns around State College.

“I hope that it’s encouraging to people,” she says.  “And I hope that they see a little bit of goodness out there, at a time where it doesn’t feel like there is a whole lot.  And I hope that people who are new in our area recognize that there are a lot of people here who welcome them, regardless of who they are. “

Harper has printed more than 100 of these yellow “love” yard signs.  And Wideman has printed hundreds of his tri-lingual “welcome” signs.

For both Wideman and Harper, this gesture of inclusiveness is important after a divisive election.

“I think it’s just a great first step in starting something that’s bigger,” Wideman says.  “I hope that it calls people to be proactively reaching out to the people who might not have safety nets in this community. “

Harper puts it this way: “There are so many negative feelings right now that I think it’s important for us to be able to stand up and say, “No, that’s not us. I am positive, and I will help spread love in any way that I can.”

Those feel marginalized or threatened because of who they are or where they come from can now see some very literal signs of support on hundreds of lawns in Central Pennsylvania.

Where to find these yard signs:

The "welcome" sign is available as a PDF at https://www.facebook.com/welcomeyourneighbors

For the "love" sign, contact Olivia Harper at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Centre County: http://uufcc.com/staging/