Over the past year, you may have noticed tricolored yard signs around the Harrisonburg area. They boast a message of welcome, “No matter where you are from, we’re glad you’re our neighbor,” in three different languages: Spanish, English, and Arabic. Over time, these signs have been distributed all around the United States and even into Canada. Their popularity has even warranted media coverage by media sources such as NPR and the Huffington Post. Today on the blog, we feature a conversation with Melissa Howard, the artist behind the original “Welcome your Neighbors” sign that resides outside Immanuel Mennonite Church.
In 2015, the pastor of Immanuel Mennonite, Matthew Bucher, approached Howard with the idea to paint a sign. Howard recalls that Bucher handed her a paper with the message written in three languages and asked her if she would be interested in creating the sign. Bucher has a background with Arabic speaking communities–he worked in Egypt for several years through the Mennonite Central Committee (MCC), and developed ESL classes for Arabic speakers. His idea for the sign projects developed during the election primaries, when the national rhetoric surrounding immigrants and refugees began to darken. Howard was excited to contribute to the project after Bucher reached out to her. As a local artist who has painted signs for organizations like Our Community Place and Vine and Fig, she has lots of experience making artistic signs for causes within the community. Howard remembers that this project was distinct because of its mission to communicate with people of different backgrounds–she loves the diversity in Harrisonburg, and said “I’ve always cared about people, every individual.” After Howard painted the sign by copying the text that Bucher provided her, MCC requested a copy, and eventually the sign transitioned into the tricolor version that you see today.
Howard’s background has shaped her perspective and her art. As a child, her father was in the Air Force, and her family moved around internationally. Howard lived in Tripoli, Libya and Japan before moving to San Antonio and, eventually, Harrisonburg. This international background has given her a unique perspective and a heart for people who are different than herself. In her opinion, people’s attitudes are more important than anything else. Howard recognizes that Harrisonburg is a special community because of its diversity and prevailing tolerance. Over time, the outpouring of support for the sign was amazing, and made her feel proud about her work and her community. In a season that seemed to draw out the worst in people, whether politicians or citizens, the widespread support for the signs has been both encouraging and humbling for Howard and many others in the community.
If you would like to further the message of acceptance and love to your neighbors by displaying a “Welcome your Neighbors” sign, they are available to order online here. You can also access a downloadable pdf and print it on your own. If you live in a community with different linguistic populations, there are many versions of the sign in a variety of languages available on the download page. Don’t forget to “like” the Welcome your Neighbor page on Facebook for updates and news. The sign is available under creative commons, which makes it easily accessible–just keep the text and formatting the same as the original version when printing and distributing. Thank you for doing your part to make this city (or state, or country, depending on where you’re reading from!) a welcoming place.
About the Author: Lindsay Wright is a 2016 graduate of James Madison University, where she double majored in Communication Studies and Spanish. She is currently completing a nine-month internship at NewBridges, where she is producing content for the blog and getting experience working with clients. In her free time, Lindsay enjoys reading, cooking, and spending time outside in the beautiful Shenandoah Valley. Contact Lindsay at [email protected].