Interstates are an unlikely forum for theological debate. Some might even point to the modern commute, with its chaotic swirl of traffic and exhaust, as proof that God, if he ever existed, has absconded, leaving us alone with our dirty world.
But God may need to up his game. Because several weeks ago, his competitor bought a billboard, too. Just a short distance away, another sign reads: "Don't believe in God? You are not alone."
The "Experience God" billboard was put up by the Light Houses of Oxford Valley, a church with relaxed worship procedures — wear what you want, feel free to eat and drink. The other billboard was crafted by the Greater Philadelphia Coalition of Reason, or PhillyCoR, an alliance of groups whose members "do not believe in supernatural powers," according to their phone message.
The churchgoers were the first to notice the proximity of the billboards. In a post on the church's blog, Pastor Bob Jones challenged the atheists: "I am not asking you to believe, but simply open your eyes and minds and see if there is something more."
Martha Knox, coordinator of PhillyCoR, read the blog and saw a chance to advance her organization's mission. "We want those who disagree with us to understand that we share the same secular values," she said. Because she believes that "charity is a secular, human value, not a religious one," she called the church to organize a joint day of service.
And so, on Saturday, I joined a crowd of Christians and atheists, 20-odd of each and all wearing T-shirts to mark their allegiance, at the Philabundance warehouse in North Philadelphia.
Things began quietly. The groups mingled in the parking lot, waiting for someone to take charge. When I was discovered as a neutral party, I was assigned to take a group photo. Atheists and Christians clustered around a picnic table, patterned together awkwardly like boys and girls in an elementary class picture. It was hard to tell them apart: Both sides consisted of nice families with children and polite young adults. Even their T-shirts looked the same, white with subtle blue logos across the chest. Only the details gave a few away: a "Spirit in the Sky" ringtone on one side; Knox's edgily short hair on the other.
Once inside the warehouse, everyone got down to packing personal and medical supplies for shelters as a radio played hip-hop. No one talked theology. I asked Knox if things might get feisty, but she thought people were being intentionally welcoming. "No one wants to be evangelized to," she said. Instead, some teenagers stood off to the side, making small talk about where they came from. "What's right in your heart is right in your heart," said the mother of some atheist girls.
Pastor Heidi Butterworth agreed. "People are in different places in life," she said later. "Hey, you guys are other people in the community. We love you and God loves you. It's simple."
Eventually, everyone would tuck into their cars and drive off, with no future plans made and no one converted. But before they did, there was one brief adventure: The radio turned vulgar. "Shake, shake, my ass, ass," a woman's voice sang, to the distaste of both groups. One of the atheists walked over the stereo and looked at it, as if trying to determine how to change the station. "Show, show, my thong, thong," it blared. After a few moments, the man shrugged and started dancing. This too, he decided, he could tolerate.