By CASEY CHAFFIN
When Rev. Gary Zerr took his first tour of the St. Edward Catholic Church campus, he honed in on the sign out front. He was less than impressed and told his guide as much.
“I said to the guy driving me around, ‘Gosh, that sign’s new? That’s the ugliest sign I’ve ever seen.’”
That’s when he found out his driver was the one who paid for it. He half-chuckles, half-sighs at the memory.
“Oh brother, I got off on the wrong side with this guy,” he remembers thinking. “Because it was brand new, I couldn’t change it for a couple years. We were stuck with it – it had too-small lettering, and it was metal and ugly-looking.”
So he lived with the sign. For a few years. A decade ago, the church replaced the sign with a new one, with bigger, more readable lettering. But that wasn’t the only part of the sign that has changed over the years.
Zerr said of the sign in the early days, “We had really boring things…like ‘community dinner this Wednesday.’” The sign didn’t have any interest to it. Then Zerr discovered Keizer Christian Church’s sign on Wheatland Road in north Keizer.
“I used to go walking out there at Willamette Mission Park and I’d see their pithy sayings. … We were doing ecumenical things with [Keizer Christian] back then and I see this pastor and I say, ‘Where are you getting all this good material?’ She said, ‘That’s for me to know and you to find out.’ Come to find out, she had a book. When she retired, I said I want to buy that book from you. And she said nope, I’m giving it to the next pastor.”
Nevertheless, Zerr decided St. Edward could do better. He bought his own. There are a surprising number of books on improving one’s church-sign slogans – five of which Zerr keeps in his office. He found new material, but it didn’t always occur to Zerr how meaningful the sign was to people.
“When we had groundbreaking for this church, which was six years ago, former mayor Lore [Christopher] was there, very happily, at the groundbreaking. … She said to me kind of in an offhand comment, ‘I want to thank you for the sayings on the signs. Some of them made my day,’” Zerr said. “And that’s when I began to realize that we had an obligation in a way, it’s the only sign like that in Keizer, and it’s just a moment to help people with life a little bit.”
Zerr sees the sign as a way to make a small impact in people’s lives, even if it’s just a momentary chuckle as they drive down River Road.
“The world’s in such bad shape these days – I don’t want to read the news anymore – you get these things and it sticks in your head, and if somebody’s having a bad day, and the sign cheers them up or gets them thinking a little bit, gosh, I think that’s great.”
And while the messages bend toward Jesus-centric, they are also meant for the community at large.
“I think that that’s a way that we can make a difference, by not being Catholic so much as assisting people with life a little bit,” Zerr said. “What we put up there is very denomination-neutral, it’s faith-neutral in some ways, because it is meant for the whole community.”
The sign has its evangelical purpose, however. Some current parishioners were lured into the church by the pithy sayings on the sign.
“We had a guy who came in named Ed. We called him Drive-By Ed because he drove by, came in and joined the church,” Zerr said. “Many people spur-of-the-moment will come in from seeing those things. They think, well, there’s a Catholic church with a sense of humor and they’ll come in and check it out. Some stay,” Zerr said.
Announcements for twice-annual Catholics Come Home classes have also found receptive audiences in the drive-by crowd.
The slogans that end up on the sign go through a vetting process. Suggestions for the sign are brought forward at St. Edward’s 15-person staff meetings, to make sure they really are funny, and definitely not offensive or political. Suggestions come from Zerr himself, the church staff, his collection of church-slogan books and the community.
“I’m a strong believer in collaboration. These things need to be discussed in a group, so we can decide what works,” he said.
One of the most popular slogans the church has used was a pun-filled suggestion during the Fourth of July barbecue season: “Ketchup with Jesus, lettuce praise and relish him.”
“That was the saying that got the most attention of anything,” Zerr said.
But more than Zerr’s love of puns, the sign helps him live out a mission rooted in faith, one that he didn’t come upon until after a 10-year career with American Airlines. During that time, he was involved with his church, but didn’t make the commitment to become a priest until he was 35 years old.
“I had a career before I came here. … Having been somebody that drove by many times before I ever got into the clergy, I know what it’s like to need something. I know how much I would’ve appreciated seeing something like that, before I was a priest, on my local church or on somebody else’s church, anybody’s church,” Zerr said. “I would’ve been so grateful that they put those darn things up, because life is just not always very happy for people.”