Recently I was going through some old files when I found a back issue of the Mennonite Weekly Review, with an article about my dad on the front page. Back in 2003, the periodical had taken notice of a “silent dialogue” he’d started about a controversial subject.
I remember it well. When his sign protesting the war met with surreptitious changes, altering its meaning, his response was characteristic of him as both a mental health worker and a Mennonite. Instead of shutting down, he sought more engagement.
In late winter of 2003, the US-led invasion of Iraq prompted Dad to place a sandwich board sign in the front yard. One side read “The Nations Say No to War” and the other said “The Whole World is Watching.” (Originally he’d worn this placard at a protest march.)
At some point that spring, someone took a pen to these antiwar sentiments, flipping the meaning with the addition of a few letters.
Dad didn’t get mad. Instead, he decided to invite passersby to participate in the commentary. He posted a blank sign, attached a permanent marker, and waited. The sign became an anonymous forum for the neighborhood to share a range of deep feelings about war.
Back in the day, at Goshen College, we had the opinion board, where anyone could scribble their random two cents. Entertaining, enlightening, enraging at times, the content was a freewheeling snapshot of campus controversies and dilemmas. Dad’s more targeted opinion board showed the diverse positions among his neighbors: concern for slain children, desire to stand behind both military and government, gratitude for free speech, comparison to Vietnam, prayers for peace, and so on.
The safety of that anonymous pen reminds me a bit of today’s comment threads online, where faceless speakers can quickly turn meanspirited. For the most part in Dad’s case, the discussion was civil, though passions were clearly high. He posted a thank-you note after the white space was full to the edges, and took the sign down.
After he was diagnosed with terminal cancer in 2011, he began to go through decades of accumulated belongings and papers. We searched for the yard signs in the basement, but they didn’t turn up, and I’m not sure there are any photographs. I was happy to find this somewhat crumpled record of his bridge-building efforts.
I lost a precious father and friend upon his death, and my family will never be the same. But this clipping reminds me that the wider community is also poorer for his absence.