When I walked into Pastor Dan Ivins’s office at the First Baptist Church, the first thing I noticed was the orange. Ivins, who is originally from Athens, still decorates his office in the color of the University of Tennessee’s sports teams—even after fifty years of preaching at churches all across America. An orange football jersey hangs over the back of an armchair, emblazoned with the number 36. “That’s because I’m the Number 36 pastor of this church,” Ivins told me. “Roger Williams was Number One.”
Ivins, who began working as pastor in Providence eight years ago, will soon retire and move back to Knoxville. He was packing up his office when I stopped by. “There’s two kinds of moving hell,” Ivins said as I came in. “Moving out hell, and moving in hell. And you always have to do both.”
On his desk sits a nameplate with REV IVINS spelled out in scrabble tiles. On the other side of the office, a large metal sign with chunky four-inch moveable letters reads “Earth without Art is ‘Eh’” Underneath, in smaller letters: “Worship 11AM.” This sign, which was about to be carted out of Ivins’s office and placed in the church sign holder on the corner of Waterman and Main Street, is Ivins’s pride and joy. He jovially refers to himself as “The Sign Guy;” he’s been crafting the church sign’s clever and sometimes confusingly cryptic aphorisms for the past four years. “And now that I’m resigning they want me to do it from Tennessee,” he laughed.
Ivins is an unconventional pastor for a historic old New England Church, and he knows it. He rides a motorcycle to work and claims Richard Pryor as his patron sinner. During our conversation, Ivins’s dog Lillybeth, a tiny white Maltese, ran frantically around the office. He speaks with a strong Southern accent and chuckled frequently as we talked about the iconic sign, his sources of inspiration, and some of his more controversial messages.
The College Hill Independent: What was the first sign you ever put up?
Dan Ivins: First sign? “We reserve the right to accept everybody.” And the first time I preached: “It’s not just a museum.” Because when I came in at first everybody said that this church is just a museum. I try to do three things with the sign that I try to do when I’m preaching too: I try to make people think, and I try to help them laugh, and then sometimes I make ‘em mad.
The Indy: How does Rhode Island compare to other places you’ve lived and worked?
DI: It’s funky, but I fit right in. A lot of people make fun of my accent and I give it right back to them. Like they think they don’t have accents. I put up a sign once that says “Who Cares?” but spelled cares Cay-uhs. That was our code word for a long time, me and the custodian. I’d come in in the morning and he’d say “Who cay-uhs?” and I’d say it back. One time I got the choir to say it in together in unison and everybody was shocked. They were up on the balcony, and on cue I had the choir say “Whoooooo Cay-uhs?” Keep them on their toes.
But I’ve loved that sign. And it just started. I got an idea, what I call ‘a bee in my bonnet.’ So I got that bee and I put it on the signboard and leave it there for a few days until I get another bee. I’m driving our custodian nuts because he has to change it pretty often.
The Indy: What do you see as the role of brevity and humor in religion and religious organizations?
DI: I use humor all the time. I think that when people laugh it disarms them. They aren’t as defensive, and if you can combine humor with truth you’ve got a double whammy. I like Yogi Berra. And a lot of these signs are Yogi-isms. I’ll say something that’s the opposite of something; like “The Best Man for the Job is a Woman.” Well, the feminists loved that one. Like Yogi: he’ll say, “If you come to the fork in the road, take it.” Stuff like that.
People think you’re going to say something they expect and then you switch it up. And I have a patron sinner. [chuckles] A lot of people have a patron saint, but Number 36, the sign guy, has a patron sinner. I love Richard Pryor, because he’s funny. He makes me laugh.
The Indy: Do you think the humor of the sign brings people into the church who might not otherwise stop in?
DI: Oh yeah, almost weekly. Students who go walking by—RISD students, Brown students, come in and ask me what it means. This is an irreligious place too. I put up a sign for the atheists, who won’t come into the Church, but they’ll see that sign: “For those who don’t believe in God but miss him.” And people really came in for that one—what’s that mean? What’s that mean? And I don’t tell them. I just ask, “What do you think it means?” But it does create a lot of interest and I am amazed at that. Three lines. People stop at a red light and they read it and they call me.
The Indy: What were some signs you’ve gotten strong responses to?
DI: I try to talk about things that people are thinking about, like health care, taxes. This one [Ivins shows me a photograph of a sign that says “God doesn’t have favorites, but the sign guy does. Go Broncos!”] went viral—150,000 hits. Somebody put it on their Facebook. It was on TV in Denver, it was on TV in Seattle, it was on Meet the Press.
What they don’t know: it’s not dated. I did it for the San Diego game. But I left it up on the Monday after, and everybody thought I was doing it for the Patriots game. So everybody in Rhode Island got mad but everybody in Denver loved it. It created a national debate: Does God have faves?
And of course I said, no, but I do. Because I’m a Peyton Manning fan. In fact we have a Manning room here, and I started calling it the Peyton Manning room. The historians don’t appreciate it, but I’m just having fun. But see that sign was a mistake—it was meant for San Diego. But because it wasn’t dated, it went all over the place.
People were calling me and writing me to get permission to use the sign at the Super Bowl. And the tight end for Denver—Julius Thomas—he got it on his Twitter. And he wrote me and thanked me and said he got inspiration from this sign. So I had an investment in that game. He caught five passes against the Patriots!
Another time, I made one sign in response to this feature article in the ProJo about The Dating Game—the dating TV program or whatever. It’s a service that helps get single people together. And you’ll see: “Single White Female seeking something” so I put on the sign one day: “Single White Church Seeks Members. Long Term Relationship Preferred.” Well, some people thought it was racist. Everything’s racist now. That sign ended up on a list of 25 things that are common to Rhode Island.
The Indy: Have you ever had people in the church ask you take a sign down?
DI: I put up a sign when they were fighting over healthcare: “It’s going to get worse before it gets worse.” One of my more liberal congregants didn’t like it. He thought I was slamming Obama, but I don’t want to offend anybody.
Sometimes humor can be offensive. You’ve got to get people thinking. And for instance, my motto, that’s what I put up first: “We reserve the right to accept everybody.” They’re not expecting me to say accept, they’re expecting reject, they think you’re being exclusionary, but I turn the tables on them. And our church adopted that motto immediately, and I think they’ll keep it after I leave.
The Indy: What will you miss about Providence?
DI: I used to live in the Avalon, near the Amtrak station. My wife is a concierge there, but I moved out of the Avalon three years ago. It just got too loud. I have to sleep on Saturday night, and Saturday night downtown is a rocking place. With WaterFire and all the parades and races that they have. Doggone foot races. You’re trying to have worship on Sunday morning and these people running up and down the streets. Sometimes they have drums and bands—why do you have a band for a foot race? But it’s a lively town—it’s a big little city, or a little big city. We love the celebratory nature of the city. They like to celebrate stuff.
The First Baptist Church has a collection of Ivins’s signs from the past few years on their website: http://www.firstbaptistchurchinamerica.org