When the Quakers get together about once a year to discuss what message they want on their Highway 198 billboard by Exit 156, they discuss promoting peace in Ukraine, the preciousness of the Valley’s water, or farmworkers’ rights.
This year they wanted to relay the message that everyone is loved.
In August of this year the Quakers, also known as the Visalia Friends, designed and hand-painted a sign featuring the progressive pride flag and the message: “You are Loved; You are Valued; You are Welcome.”
Andrew Glazier, a local painter and member of the Visalia Friends, said that the decision to create the billboard came out of a group discussion about teen suicide said Andrew Glazier.
”The idea for the sign came out of a talk that revealed the number of suicides happening every year. We didn’t want teenagers to do something rash or that they will regret. When you tell a teenager who has come out that they are going to hell, as some churches do, that’s not going to help. That’s not good for their psychology.”
Soon after the design was finalized, Glazier got to work.
“I painted coat after coat to get the vivid colors just right,” Glazier said.
“We don’t just give peace or unconditional love lip service,” Glazier said. “We say you are welcome. We care about you. We may not understand you but we love you.”
Jessie Snyder, a member of Visalia Friends Meeting who is also part of the LGBTQ community, said the group wanted to pick a relevant message for the times after seeing aggression towards LGBTQ people.
“It was a little bit personal and we wanted to create a safe space for the LGBTQ community,” Snyder said. “We were also doing a little bit of outreach.”
The original Visalia Quakers who landed here from Pennsylvania founded Self-Help Enterprises and SCICON. Those elders are now gone and the Friends are always looking towards the future, recruiting new members, and youth members, to bolster the ranks of the Visalia Friends, said Snyder.
Snyder and Glazier said the Friends Meeting discussed the possibility that a billboard with a progressive pride flag would be defaced – and six months later, on September 30, it was.
The sign “was defaced with homophobic graffiti. We felt hurt, trespassed upon, angry. Fired up,” said Erin Elliott, Outreach Committee Member for the Visalia Friends in an editorial.
“When we put this message up, we knew there was a chance something like this would happen,” Elliott said. “We talked about our fears and decided to be brave, and do it anyway. We are repairing the damage and keeping the message up. If this happens again, we will repair it again.”
A group of seniors at Exeter Union High School volunteered to fix the sign immediately after hearing about the vandalism.
“They were there ready to climb up the scaffolding and repaint the sign but it had been raining so it was too dangerous for them to be up on the platform. So I went ahead and repainted the sign,” Glazier said.
“But the seniors shared the heck out of it on social media,” Glazier said. “As a result many people offered to donate money for paint or anything they could do to get the wonderful message back up.”
The seniors weren’t the only ones to notice that the billboard had been vandalized.
The Tulare County Sheriff’s Office (TCSO) saw the defaced billboard and immediately called the number at the bottom of the sign.
“The deputy asked how the Visalia Friends wanted to proceed, because in the sheriff’s office’s opinion it was a hate crime,” said Snyder.
“That’s what it felt like to me,” said Snyder. “And that’s how the rest of the congregation felt the same way. So we filed the report as a hate crime.”
Snyder said that the TCSO went out of their way to contact them and make sure the crime was properly reported.
“The deputy was so kind,” Snyder said.
The sign brought a lot of comfort before and after it was vandalized.
Glazier said that many parents of gay children would tell him how much they appreciated the billboard.
Elliott wrote, “We used our voice and platform to lift up a message of inclusion and love because we want everyone out there who feels marginalized to know that they are never alone. This attack, which we have reported as a hate crime, validates just how important it is to stand with victims of oppression.”
“A colleague shared that her son had recently come out to her, but to no one else,” Snyder said. “He’s scared. And she told me our billboard meant so much to her because she could point to it as they drive by and say ‘see? You’re safe. People love you.’ She said it’s helping her encourage him to step out into the world.”