Amid protests, church’s message of welcome echoes across US
RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — Amid the weekend tumult over President Donald Trump’s executive order restricting immigration from seven Muslim-majority countries, Walter Hansen’s two-man sign shop in Waynesboro was besieged.
As protesters massed and lawyers descended on airports across the country offering to help anyone ensnared in the confusion over what the ban meant, Hansen was bombarded with requests for a simple design that originated with a Mennonite church in Harrisonburg.
“It’s just me and my brother here,” Hansen said. “I’ve had to call in my parents, my wife — all of my local stuff has gone to the back burner; I’ve been doing nothing but packing these all day.”
While proponents and critics of the ban clashed over issues of national security, constitutionality and patriotism in an ideological battle for the soul of this country, Hansen got to work at Viking Forge Design on a simpler message: “Love thy neighbor.”
The tri-colored posters originated from a simple, handpainted wooden sign that was erected at Immanuel Mennonite Church during the surging partisan rhetoric of the presidential primaries.
Church pastor Matthew Bucher said he felt compelled to take action after listening to the first Republican primary debate in August 2015.
“I was so disheartened by the way they talked about newcomers to this country,” Bucher said. “Things were so divisive, and I just thought, ‘This can’t be who we are.’”
He consulted with his congregants, and the first sign went up on the grounds of the church, which is in an area of the city first founded by former slaves.
“We have a rich history here, and we want to build on that by opening our arms to all comers,” Bucher said.
The first sign was black and white and handpainted, bearing the same message of the colorful versions that followed: “No matter where you are from, we’re glad you’re our neighbor,” it states, in English, Spanish and Arabic.
The languages were those most likely to be spoken in the neighborhoods surrounding the church, Bucher said. The first signs went to the Immanuel congregation and other faith groups in the city.
On Monday, workers at the adjacent child care center that keeps the posters in stock arrived to more voicemails than they could handle.
“There’s no way of knowing exactly how many have gone out at this point,” Bucher said. “It’s well over 4,000 across the U.S. — and some in Canada.”
Rancor and acrimony have driven sales: As election season heated up, so too did demand, he said. There have been reports of signs being ripped out in the Harrisonburg area in recent months, but Bucher said most concerns have been worked out over cups of coffee.
“I would say that if someone is upset by this message, if there’s fear or anger, we should seek to listen to them,” Bucher said.
Both Hansen, in Waynesboro, and Conrad Gross, who distributed the signs in the Washington area, say demand surged over the weekend after Trump’s ban on Syrian refugees.
“This weekend definitely saw an uptick in interest,” said Gross, who is preparing a fresh batch.
The administration has said the ban on Syrians and a 90-day clampdown on arrivals from Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan and Yemen follows through on a campaign promise Trump made to protect Americans.
Chaos erupted at major hub airports across the country as several federal judges issued temporary injunctions targeting aspects of the order.
Virginia’s attorney general, Mark R. Herring, issued a formal request to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security for information about U.S. Customs and Border Protection actions over the weekend at Dulles International Airport.
Trump took to Twitter on Monday morning to say that 109 people had been detained due to the order.
“There is nothing nice about searching for terrorists before they can enter our country,” Trump stated online. “This was a big part of my campaign. Study the world!”
Hansen said that locally, many people seem to support Trump’s views but noted that Amazon orders for the signs to ship across the country have soared.
“This is Trump country; there’s not a lot of diversity here,” he said of Waynesboro. “But a lot of people feel like no one chose to be born in a war-torn country, and people should feel welcomed.”
Hansen and Gross are named by the church as distributors in a list posted to the “Welcome Your Neighbors” campaign Facebook page. But the church’s website also offers free downloads of different variations of the sign in case anyone wants to replicate it.
“This is our version of an election campaign sign,” Bucher said. “It’s a statement of how we want to live.”
The church asks that anyone making the posters donate proceeds “to a nonprofit in your local community as another step in building a welcoming community.” Bucher said their proceeds have gone toward the Roberta Webb Child Care Center.
Hansen plans to make his donation to a local group supporting refugees, but he has a problem: Amazon, noticing his sales rapidly surging to more than 100 a day, has temporarily frozen his account.
“They think I’m a scammer because of the volume,” he said. “I haven’t seen a dime, but I’m going to keep printing and shipping them as long as people want this message out there.”
Information from: Richmond Times-Dispatch, http://www.timesdispatch.com