‘Sign guy’ says goodbye to R.I. following eight years of service

Pastor’s promotion of inclusivity has attracted college students, young couples to First Baptist

Contributing Writer
Friday, March 7, 2014

Pastor Dan Ivins grew up as the boy who lived. After he survived a mysterious explosion in his youth, residents of Ivins’ small Tennessee town claimed that God had specific plans for him.

A four-year-old Danny was with his grandfather Burkett Ivins when his car exploded in the garage. Burkett Ivins had a record of “eight justifiable killings” as a U.S. prohibition officer and county sheriff, reported the Pittsburgh Press in October 1947. He was on trial for fatally shooting a political opponent’s young relative when he died from the explosion.

The young Danny survived with shock and numerous stitches. “I shouldn’t have lived. I wasn’t supposed to live,” he recalled this week.

Ivins recognized his survival as a miracle but did not consider it his calling until 20 years later. He left his job at a South Carolina paper mill at 25 and returned to school. Ivins has since preached across the country, from Washington to Birmingham, Ala., Portland, Ore., to Providence.

Ivins arrived at the First Baptist Church in America on North Main Street ­— the church established by Roger Williams in 1638 — in February 2006 and preached there for eight years before recently retiring to Knoxville, Tenn.

After he served six months as the interim preacher at First Baptist, committee members asked Ivins to preach full-time. Ivins said he appreciated this gradual process and believed it helped establish a healthy union between him and the church. He likened it to romance. “If you marry someone without dating them, you end up firing them,” he said.

At First Baptist, Ivins became known as “the sign guy.” He realized the church sign’s creative potential soon after his arrival and began to use it to promote the church. His signs have included borrowed quotes as well as original, pithy comments on religion and human nature that have attracted college students and news outlets alike.

“I knew that people came by. (The sign) got great visibility. But not many came inside,” Ivins said. He then began to create his signs, which now number 124, as a way to make contact with passersby who never entered the church.

Some of his signs made the church visible across the country. One sign that read, “God has no faves but the sign guy does, go Broncos!” garnered 1,254 likes on the church Facebook page and 1,983 shares.

Ivins said former professional baseball player Yogi Berra largely inspired his quips. He noted Berra’s line “When you come to a fork in the road, take it” as the type of witty one-liner he aspired to write. Otherwise, his creative process was simple. “I (would) get a bee in my bonnet,” Ivins said. He then would work to fit his idea to the given space.

Ivins said composing the sign’s message was like writing a tweet. “You’re kind of limited. You can’t just say anything.”

At one point, Ivins proposed replacing the traditional sign with an electronic one, but other church committee members refused it.

The sign’s messages have played a prominent role in conveying the church’s mission of accessibility and acceptance. Ivins has strived to welcome people of all races, sexual orientations and religions and created the church’s enduring motto: “We reserve the right to accept everybody.” Reminiscent of signs on restaurants and shops that once read, “We reserve the right to refuse service to anyone,” the motto was inspired by the pervasive segregation in the Deep South, Ivins said.

Ivins preached at the Baptist Church of the Covenant in Birmingham for eight years beginning in the early 1980s, a little more than a decade after the church formed in response to racism at the city’s First Baptist Church. In 1970, Birmingham’s First Baptist had voted to refuse membership to Winifred Bryant, a black woman, and her daughter Twila Fortune. As Bryant left, 250 members followed and founded a biracial church.

Influenced by his experience in Birmingham, Ivins said the First Baptist Church in America now welcomes everyone. Ivins said one of his best signs read, “Still a haven for those who have been banished.” He considers himself among the banished for being too radical and hoped to provide a home for other unsettled believers, he added.

Before moving to Providence, Ivins preached at a church in Portland. After six months, Ivins said he knew he had made a mistake. “Portland tried to make me into something I’m not, and I can’t do that,” he said.

Ivins took action, found the opening at First Baptist in Providence and fled the West Coast. “Providence is as far as you can get from Portland and still be on dry land,” he said. “Rhode Island is a funky place, and I think that’s why I fit in.”

Ivins said he wishes more people took advantage of First Baptist’s unique tolerance.

“There’s always someone getting kicked out — Jesus, Roger Williams and me. If they can tolerate me, they can tolerate anybody. I’m the test.”

The church has evolved greatly in the last decade, due in part to Ivins’ efforts. “It’s a much stronger place than it was,” said the church’s historian, J. Stanley Lemons, professor emeritus of history at Rhode Island College and a member of the church since 1967.

Lemons wrote a new history of the First Baptist Church in 1988 for the 350th anniversary of the church’s founding and published an updated version in 2001, in addition to the numerous books he has written on black history, women’s history and the history of Rhode Island.

When Lemons arrived in 1967, Providence was experiencing a decline that affected many of its churches. The city lost 40 percent of its population after World War II, a decline second only to Detroit’s, Lemons said. He attributes the population plunge to the interstate highway that opened around 1955.

“Like pulling the stopper out of the bottle, people flowed out to the suburbs,” he said.

Many Baptist and Catholic churches closed during this recession. The First Baptist Church in America has only begun to stabilize in the past decade, Lemons said. After recently adding eight new members, the church membership is at around 120.

The church has attracted many more young people since Ivins’ arrival. Ivins said many students and couples in their late 20s arrived around 2008. He has met students from Brown, the Rhode Island School of Design and Johnson and Wales University.

But Lemons laughed and said most “don’t get up in time. They don’t even come when we offer breakfast to them! They’ll come to lunch.”

Ivins said students come because the church is “spontaneous and genuine.” He allowed some students to compose new signs, and others have used the church as an exhibition space.

“We let them display their artwork as long as it isn’t too risque,” Lemons said. “We try to be a good friend and neighbor to the colleges around us.”

One particular student-composed sign, which read “Earth without Art is ‘Eh,’” was a favorite among RISD students.

Following Ivins’ retirement, church committee members are now searching for a new full-time preacher. An interim minister will assume many of Ivins’ responsibilities until they locate their permanent pastor.

“I’m leaving something I love,” Ivins said. “How do you just walk away from something you love?”

Many of the committee members and churchgoers were saddened but supportive of Ivins’ decision to retire, he said.

“It isn’t about age. Age is just a number. I think it’s time for a new voice, new growth,” Ivins said.

Ivins’ final sign read, “Looky here. The sign guy’s outa here. It’s been a trip! God bless all y’all!” His associate has followed up with a sign that reads, “Sign guy retired leaves us sad but inspired,” on which RISD students have posted their own messages, “RISD will miss u” and “Please don’t go.”

Ivins still has plenty of energy. Church members gave him a Harley Davidson helmet labeled FBCIA #36 — Ivins was the church’s 36th pastor — to wear on his red Honda motorcycle. “They really know how to do a number on somebody, literally,” Ivins said.

Ivins said he’ll never be able to replace the community he found at First Baptist.“This is the best church in the world,” he said. “I love my place. I love my people. I’m proud of them and hope good things come, and I’ll do what I can to enhance that.”

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