It’s a holy week for Christians and Jews, and Old Pine Street Presbyterian Church is broadcasting a message from its signboard on the 400 block of Pine Street. It’s not scripture but poet Rainer Maria Rilke: It is spring again. The earth is like a child that knows poems by heart.
Old Pine’s signboard delivers thoughtful words from some unlikely sources, from the Grateful Dead to Albert Camus. Poetry, lyrics, and proverbs are all fair game. The quotes are a little gift to the street, rewarding all who bother to notice.
Rev. Jason Ferris is the mind behind the signboard, and said every six weeks or so he changes the message. He hopes these words can be a point of inspiration, expressing civility or connection.
“I know people are so busy, and so distracted, and so preoccupied with the stress of living in a city. If we can provide an opportunity to take a break, to reflect on their lives for a moment, that’s something we delight in doing,” Rev. Ferris told me, walking through the churchyard on a beautiful spring afternoon.
Ferris said the message signboard was daunting when he first came to Old Pine, the city's oldest Presbyterian church, a couple years ago. He wasn't sure what to do with it but knew he wanted to avoid the pitfalls he’s seen when churches try to be funny or proselytizing via their message boards. Instead he said he takes to heart the idea that you should preach with the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other.
So he draws from a deep well of cultural references for the signboard, sermon and music during services. (On Easter Sunday the church will be hearing a modified version of George Harrison’s "My Sweet Lord," with hallelujahs replacing the hare krishnas.) Ferris and his wife are documentary filmmakers, he’s been a writer and social worker prior to his life as a minister.
He uses current events, the seasons, a notable passing as his inspiration for the signboard's words. When it’s Martin Luther King Day, expect a quote from King. When Nelson Mandela and Pete Seeger died, there were their words.
“I try to relate,” Ferris said, pleased that his signboard's words have drawn some attention.
Ashley Hahn is an independent writer with a background in historic preservation and city planning. She started Eyes on the Street for PlanPhilly in 2011 and was PlanPhilly's managing editor from 2015-2017. Ashley has lived in 12 zip codes that she can think of, including neighborhoods in Los Angeles, Chicago, Boston, and New York. She is a Philadelphian by choice.