Wednesday, Aug. 22, 2007

Souls passing on area highways get the message

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Chris Rossi⁄The Gazette
The sign at Hughes United Methodist Church in Wheaton reads ‘‘Come In For A Faith Lift.” Many area churches and a few businesses use their signs to spread inspirational messages to passers-by.
Area houses of worship often display signs that can inspire, encourage and maybe even change lives, but many church officials just want people to laugh.

‘‘My Way Is The Highway! – God,” read a sign at Montgomery Hills Baptist Church this week.

Last week, the sign at Glenmont United Methodist states: ‘‘Seven days without worship makes one weak.”

Joanne Richards, a secretary at Glenmont United Methodist Church on Georgia Avenue in Glenmont, said that the messages are drawn from books, the Internet and suggestions from members.

If nothing else, Richards said that the sign gets people to remember the church.

‘‘We’re just trying to get a message out to the community [that] we’re here, please come see us,” Richards said.

Sometimes the message doesn’t produce the desired effect. Terri King, the administrative secretary at Montgomery Hills Baptist, said a recent message was supposed to click into a Christian sense of humor, but some residents found it inappropriate and harsh.

‘‘You Think It’s Hot Now, Wait Until Judgment Day,” the sign read on a sweltering summer day.

King said she received a few comments about the message and one area resident in particular was not laughing.

‘‘It’s just comical from a Christian perspective, but some people don’t see it that way,” she said.

Still, King said the messages are meant to provide a way for the church to reach out in a positive manner. In fact, King said the sign has been very successful in bringing people in. On its Sunday bulletin, the church asks newcomers to put down how they heard about the church, and the sign is very often the answer, King said.

The Rev. George Ennis, a pastor at Hughes United Methodist Church in Wheaton, said last week’s sign, ‘‘Come In For a Faith Lift,” was meant to ‘‘catch the eye of people going by.”

He said the goal is usually to lighten people’s mood.

One facility that also works hard to relay a message and attract visitors is not a church at all, but a Chevron gas station and repair shop on Georgia Avenue, just one block from the Capital Beltway.

Laura Heenan is co-owner of Beltway Chevron and is in charge of the payroll and hiring, but her favorite and most important responsibility is changing the sign in front of her business.

Her messages have included things like ‘‘Ignore Your Family And They’ll Go Away,” or ‘‘It’s Easier To Hate Someone Than Love Them.” Sometimes the messages are things to think about; other times they are Christian-focused. But every time, Heenan said she welcomes open discussion about her choices.

‘‘We’re not just preaching, we’re speaking with people and they come in and tell us [what they think] and it opens up a dialogue,” Heenan said.

Even when Heenan chooses more cryptic messages, she will leave an explanation at the cashier’s desk in case people are interested in the meaning.

With moral and religious messages displayed on the sign, Heenan said there are times when offended customers will call or complain.

‘‘Some people have said, ‘Well, I’m never coming back here again,” she said. ‘‘I tend to stay away from really hot issues because my purpose is not to divide people. It’s to make people think.”

On the other hand, Heenan said the sign and the Christian music that can be heard playing from the gas pumps draw people.

She said she is being called by God to put out her message in this way, and hopes, if anything, others can learn to respect it. She said she been frequently asked if her business is a gas station or a church.

‘‘Well, we’re both,” she said.