When you wear a sandwich sign some people will yell across a crowd to you. I learned this and a lot of other things at the Party on the Parkway on July 4th, this past Thursday. The first person to yell across the crowd got my attention by reciting what he had memorized of the Declaration of Independence, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” (My sign asked, “are any truths self evident?”) The reciter, whose name was Anthony, felt a little like he was being quizzed when I asked him, “So what does that mean to you?” I assured him, there wasn’t a right answer and he loosened up a bit. He gave me his email address later because he was interested in what we were doing as a Circle of Hope.
Four friends and I decided that since our fair city was throwing a party on the Ben Franklin Parkway and thousands of people were going to be there, we ought to be there too. But how do you engage with people in a crowd? How do you break the wall of isolation between strangers? We thought we’d try a sandwich sign. I made three signs with three questions lifted from the language of the Declaration of Independence. “What is liberty?” “Who is deaf to the voice of Justice?” and “Are any truths self evident?” The back of the sandwich sign said “#declareyourself” (our tweet hashtag that we thought we invented but was already in use by this organization).
The questions turned out to be way too deep or esoteric for many people to engage with. One young lady just wanted to sign the Declaration of Independence. A lot of people were ready to declare themselves in some way and we were ready to listen to them. That was what we wanted to share: We are Circle of Hope and we want to listen to you because as one of flyers said “You Matter“.
We also wanted to be known as a people who want to do something about the systems of injustice. Putting question marks after “liberty” and “justice” and “self-evident truth?” is a subversive act. Many people felt this and immediately wanted to know what we were protesting. I had to refrain from my ready diatribes and answer, “We’re here to meet people and hear what you have to say–what do you think we should protest? Oh, and hi, my name’s Ben, what’s yours?”
I got yelled at across the crowd two other times. Once by a group of girls I had met earlier, who yelled my name in celebration when they saw me again. That was fun. The last time was by a woman who applauded our question mark after “liberty.” She went on about how the 4th of July was a sham and we aren’t really free, and neither were the original declarers even after they won the Revolutionary War and certainly not oppressed people of that time. I enthusiastically agreed with her. She was having fun with this. Then I told her we were Circle of Hope, a church that was trying to help people get really free. She let out a sigh of disgust and said, “Nope, I don’t do religion. I’m free from religion too.” I agreed that religious people had done a lot of oppressing but I could not convince her that Circle of Hope might be different.
Disappointing as that exchange was, she did confirm why we were there. We needed to put a question mark after a lot of things, most importantly, after the preconceptions people have about the Church. We’re working with a legacy of oppression. She’s not the only one who thinks she needs to be free from religion. I’m working to be the sort of religious person who challenges people’s notions of what it means to follow Jesus, who can be in and who can’t, and what Jesus is really up to in the world. I’m praying that our question marks erode the resistance that is hardening the hearts of many.