March 14, 2004

Road religion: Vanity plates encourage virtue

Growing up in the early 1980s around a lot of church folks who were fond of adorning their cars with those stick-on metallic Evangellyfish symbols, and stickers that said, “In case of Rapture, this car will be unmanned,” I was always puzzled by a guy I’ll call Mr. Murphy.

He was a deacon in our church, a pious man who often hosted Bible studies in his home and could quote Scripture with both great ease and relish.

Mr. Murphy was unapologetic about his faith. And yet, conspicuously missing from his family truckster were any obvious expressions of it.

No fish. No stickers. No “God is my copilot” license plate frame.

One day after his daughter and I had earned our own driver’s licenses, he told us why.

He didn’t want to give God a bad name.

Apparently, Mr. Murphy was a really aggressive driver, even given to the odd fit of road rage, and he didn’t want to cut someone off in traffic and have them look up and see a “Jesus loves you” bumper sticker tearing down the road.

A wise man, that Mr. Murphy.

I think of him often when I see those fish, or those bumper stickers, and especially when I see a religious vanity plate.

Now there’s someone invested in their faith enough to actually go through the trouble of applying for a official, state-issued identification and pony up the cash.

Who are these people? And why do they do it?

After a little research, I can tell you with certainty that in the state of Illinois, BUDDAH7 is an 18-year-old girl, JESUS is a camera-shy Egyptian pastor and CHRIST is a semi-retired dairy farmer from Metamora.

Walter H. Christ, to be exact.

Mr. Christ (rhymes with “THIS-t”) has had the CHRIST plate for about 15 years, he was telling me the other day.

“My boy got it for me,” Christ said, as he drove his truck, the one without the CHRIST plate. CHRIST is currently on his ’79 Mercury Cougar. (“It is a little sporty for me,” he admitted.)

What about the plate? Statement of faith or something else?

“Well, I am a Christian,” Mr. Christ told me, explaining that he was raised as a Mennonite and now attends an Apostolic Christian church since his wife, Kathleen, died about 10 years ago. She had a vanity plate, too: KCHRIST.

Mr. Christ has lots of stories about people reacting to the vanity plate. My favorite is the time he was at a gas station in Chicago a number of years ago when the CHRIST plate was on his ’76 Cadillac DeVille.

“Another fella drove in and he kind of chuckled and said, ‘I always wanted to know what kind of car he would drive,'” Mr. Christ remembered, cracking himself up.

The other story I liked was the time he was driving near Peoria and saw someone waving at him from another car with the license plate JESUS on it.

That might have been the Rev. Hosny Reyad, pastor of the Chicago Southside Arabic Church of the Nazarene in Worth.

Reyad has had the JESUS plate — just Jesus without any numbers after it — for about four years.

“I chose this because I am a true Christian and I am a pastor for all my life, for 23 years,” Reyad, who is a native of Egypt, said. “There’s one thing in my life to be proud about and that’s Jesus.”

“It’s a good message for everybody,” Reyad continued. “People usually are involved in secular and material things. Most of the time they are not aware of their eternal life. This is a reminder.”

When Reyad applied for the JESUS plate, he figured it wouldn’t be available.

“I was thinking at least one person would think of getting JESUS. But I was praying and I got it,” he said. (Actually, there are 68 other JESUS plates. But his is the only one with JESUS alone.)

So, how about we come out and take a picture of you with your JESUS plate, I asked him.

“No. That is not necessary,” Reyad told me.

Well, no, it’s not necessary, but it might be nice for the readers.

“No. It’s not necessary,” the pastor said, shortly before our conversation ended.

Right. So, what’s the story with the ALLAH plate, I wondered.

A bold expression of Islamic faith in a culture that doesn’t always welcome it with open arms. There’s got to be a good story there, I thought.

When I called him at home in Calumet Park, the guy who owns the ALLAH plate (there are eight others but his is the only one without any numbers after ALLAH), said as much.

And then he said he wouldn’t tell me the story unless I paid him. When I explained that no reputable media outlet pays people to tell their story, that it’s not ethical, the ALLAH plate guy would have none of it.

“Are you going to pay me for this?” he asked me again.


“Well then I’m not interested. It’s a really interesting story, but I’m not going to tell you unless I get paid,” he said.

So much for spreading the word.

My next call was to the owner of BUDDAH7, the only Buddha-related vanity plate I could find.

BUDDAH7 belongs to 18-year-old Christina Perez of Moline who is not a Buddhist.

“That’s my nickname,” Christina told me. “My grampa gave it to me. Because of my stomach. Because I was so chubby.” And seven is her lucky number.

GOD has, well, expired.

At least the original one has. The GOD plate, the one without any numbers after the ‘D,’ which was registered to a Sterling man whose initials were G.O.D., lapsed off the state rolls in 2000, according to the secretary of state’s records.

There are 21 other GOD license plates — GOD11, GOD1111 and GOD2003 among them.

GOD alone, however, remains up for grabs.

Among the thousands of vanity plates on the road in Illinois, there are also:

Six YESHUAs, four JEHOVAs (one JEHOVAH), and four RABBIs; eight SHIVAs, four KRISNAs (one KRISHNA), three VISHNUs, and one HINDU; six PASTORs, five PRIESTs and a single IMAM.

There’s also one ATHEIST.

That would be Rob Sherman of Buffalo Grove, head of the National Atheists organization.

When he applied for the one and only ATHEIST plate for the first time in 1987, the state said no.

“They refused to issue the plate because they don’t issue plates with obscene words or phrases. I told them ‘atheist’ is not an obscene word or phrase,” Sherman said. Eventually, with the help, he says, of a high-ranking Illinois politician, Sherman got his ATHEIST.

How do people react to his statement of, er, lack of faith?

“They wave,” he said. “I usually get one of the first three digits. Sometimes they point at me with the first finger, sometimes people give me the middle finger, sometimes it’s the thumbs up.”

But some people “put their bright lights on behind me to blind me,” Sherman said. “I’m not going to be intimidated.”

Courage of his convictions, yes. And he’d even pose for a picture.

Still, I can’t help but wonder, what would Mr. Murphy do?

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