Why Should Only Churches Have Signs? How One Man Found New Friends With a Blackboard and Some Chalk

Since the long-gone days of the Burma-Shave billboard, the art of putting up ever-changing public messages on roadside signs has been largely left to churches. Church signs frequently display aphorisms, quotes, and announcements, and some of them can be pretty funny. I can’t help reading them whenever I pass by.

But why give churches the monopoly on entertaining signs? What’s preventing you or me from putting up a sign with our message of the day?

That’s what Ayden Byle thought. A couple of months ago, he was a newcomer to Toronto’s Cedarvale neighborhood. He didn’t know anyone there. But he made friends quickly after he got noticed by a lot of people who walked or drove by his house.

It was because of his sign.

When Ayden Byle began writing cryptic messages to the neighbours, life changed on Atlas Ave.

Byle moved into the neighbourhood in April. His house is a boxy bit of modernism in a neighbourhood of traditional bungalows, duplexes and triplexes. It’s the kind of style everyone has an opinion on — love or hate.

“Then Ayden moved in and everyone loves it,” said neighbour Ian Taylor, 36. Byle, a tall 38-year-old with the faintest trace of grey in his dark brown hair, has the neighbourhood’s attention, and admiration, ever since he started posting daily messages on a chalkboard in his front window.

Byle wrote messages like “One simple hello could change everything,” “Grace trumps karma,” and “Is there any better place than here?” None are stunning revelations. Some are even a little trite.

But people responded.

Every morning, parents who drop their children off at the nearby schools slow down to read the status updates. Some take pictures. Others leave sticky note requests on his front door.

“When I first started doing it, I was a bit self-conscious. I’m a single guy … do people think I’m batshit crazy? Because every night I’m in here doing my sign,” he says.

He needn’t have worried.

He grabs a pile of mail, sticky notes and cards, and spreads it on his table. There’s a big construction-paper card from a Grade 7 class, complete with quote ideas. There are homemade cards from families welcoming him to the neighborhood. Letters from anonymous strangers thanking him for the inspiration.

Byle has given a well-attended party for his new neighbors — after writing the invitation on the sign, of course. They brought house-warming gifts, including some nice bottles of wine.

This isn’t strictly a story about atheism, or religion (Byle isn’t too interested in either, calling discussion about such topics “semantics“). But it is a story about community, which religious folks have historically been very good at building. Atheists may have some catching up to do in that regard.

Maybe this inspires.

Also, isn’t it fascinating that in the age of instant-messaging and Facebook and Twitter, a physical sign still has such power to draw people in — and make a difference?

(photo via Metro News)

About Terry Firma

Terry Firma, though born and Journalism-school-educated in Europe, has lived in the U.S. for the past 20-odd years. Stateside, his feature articles have been published in the New York Times, Reason, Rolling Stone, Playboy, and Wired. Terry is the founder of Moral Compass, a now dormant site that poked fun at the delusional claim by people of faith that a belief in God equips them with superior moral standards. He joined Friendly Atheist in 2013.

  • Art_Vandelay

    A lot of people have been killed because of semantics.

  • Brian Westley
  • Monika Jankun-Kelly

    Hemant, thanks for this and other posts about secular community building and secular values. It has long frustrated me that the overwhelming majority of secular discussion is about church/state separation and arguments against religion. Both are vitally important and much needed, but there is more to life, to secular philosophy, than that. Thanks for also focusing on what we’re for, not just what we’re against, which is how others define us.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/friendlyatheist/ Hemant Mehta

    Just to be clear, Terry Firma wrote this, not me, but we appreciate the kind words all the same!

  • griffox

    This is awesome. I have been thinking about doing something like this. I live in a rural area and a lot of people have signs with hellfire & brimstone bible verses on them like, “The wages of sin is death.” They are interchangeable, so the next day, it might say something different, but equally as awful. I first thought it would be funny to make signs with bad 80′s lyrics. People driving by would expect a sermon, but would get a laugh instead. Then I thought I could just have a blackboard and encourage people stop and write their own message. I like the idea of reaching out to people – who you would otherwise never cross paths with – without forcing any agenda or condemnation on them. It would certainly take the high ground to those using their roadside real estate to preach.

  • Monika Jankun-Kelly

    Oops, sorry Terry! Thank you, Terry, for writing this piece, and Hemant for hosting it. :)

  • Terry Firma

    Thanks for the kind feeback!

  • Terry Firma

    Also, for the kind feedback. Heh.

  • meekinheritance

    There is someone who lives along Ohio State Route 4 in/near Springfield that does something similar. I used to drive by it every day, and was disappointed when I got there too early to see the new saying.