North Carolina church rides the bus for free speech

North Carolina church rides the bus for free speech

Henry Lister and his five-member team of marketing professionals and graphic designers in the congregation have been spreading the message of United Church of Chapel Hill (N.C.) in an unconventional way – inside city buses. The signs are honest and clever, and some of them are downright funny, taking a lighthearted approach to an often serious subject. But a petition to censor free speech in Chapel Hill may put an end to the biannual campaigns – a move that Lister, the United Church of Chapel Hill and even the American Civil Liberties Union are not taking lightly.

"This petition really raised the free speech issue as to whether or not the buses are a public forum," Lister explains. "Our posters deal with topics like gay marriage and the death penalty. Our pastor has asked, ‘Are you going to silence these voices?'"

The 2004 launch of the UCC's all-church "God Is Still Speaking" campaign inspired Lister and his team to revitalize their church with this new message of inclusion and progress. While looking at various advertising methods that were both effective and cost efficient, Lister learned that the city of Chapel Hill was opening up the interiors of city buses to public advertising. Relatively inexpensive and with exposure to more than 2 million people each year, United Church of Chapel Hill jumped on board as one of the first organizations to utilize this new opportunity.

"Still Speaking captured the theology, spirit and joy all together in one campaign that not only energized us, but gave us a sense of how to start inviting people to come back to church," Lister said. "It gave us the framework of how to go forward."

The first bus sign campaign incorporated much of the Still Speaking text and imagery created for the UCC national ad campaign. But in 2005, the congregation started coming up with its own messaging. With the help of congregation members Chris Conerly, principal of Chapel Hill design firm seriouslycreative, and graphic designer Dick Hill, the campaigns kept getting smarter, edgier and more memorable, Lister said. The 2008 campaign even won an award from the Raleigh/Durham chapter of the American Advertising Federation. And, best of all, the signs work. United Church of Chapel Hill currently has more than 880 members, up from 130 in the 1990s.

"We really adopted the theme that ‘you are welcome here,'" Lister said. "Between the theology and the invitation of welcome, we felt we had to create quick, impactful messages to covey the special nature of the UCC and of Chapel Hill."

Despite Chapel Hill's liberal college town status, the playful nature of the ads has prompted some angry phone calls over the years. A few signs have been stolen and some have been defaced. But the current petition to censor free speech came up when members of another denomination raised questions about an ad paid for by an organization calling for the U.S. to stop sending aid to Israel. The group petitioned city council to remove all non-commercial ads from city buses, which would include United Church of Chapel Hill's messages of inclusion. Church representatives oppose the petition, and the ACLU has weighed in, supporting the right of free speech. The groups are currently awaiting a decision from the Chapel Hill city council on how the issue will be resolved.

Despite the uncertainty, Lister and his team are brainstorming ideas for a 2013 campaign, to start after the election. They will likely stick to timeless issues like the environment, LGBT rights and the death penalty, although they would also like to address the issue of peace in the Middle East. Lister admits the signs have gotten less "pithy" in the past few years, particularly in 2012, as it's an election year "and people are already on edge." But no matter what looms on the political horizon, Lister and his team will continue to express the message of the UCC in a fair, relevant, and, ideally, witty way.

"We still want to convey a strong message about who the UCC is," he said. "We're fun, we don't take it too seriously, we can laugh about it. There is an edge of absurdity to theology, and we all get stuck in own logic loops trying to figure things out. It's tough coming up with answers, but it's all part of the search."

To see all of the bus signs from 2004-2012, visit the United Church of Chapel Hill's website.

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