Autumn Phillips: Truth in marketing


My first thought was, "Get down from there. You're making a scene."

It was a ridiculous thought, because that's exactly what he was doing -- making a scene, and he was not coming down.

One week ago, my brother and his friend climbed onto a rented billboard, where they plan to stay for 30 days, praying and fasting and teaching "the truth."

The billboard is one of three arranged in a triangle to advertise -- in all directions -- at Poplar Avenue and Wyoming Boulevard, two busy arteries in Casper, Wyo.

On the face of the sign, below the large words "Truth Finders," are two bed-sized platforms where my brother and his friend sit from sunrise to sunset, reading the Bible, talking and waving at passing traffic. Beneath the three signs is a camp, where they have pitched a tent and rented a blue plastic Port-A-John.

I was standing at the base of all of this, looking up at them. It was early in the morning, and the sun was just starting to rise over the back of the billboard. I squinted as they preached.

My brother's eyes bore into me.

I kicked at the sagebrush near my feet and thought about how ironic this was. When we were growing up, I was the religious one. I would build an altar of pillows in the corner of my bedroom then find my brother, who inevitably was dressed in his Superman Underoos, a red, sink-dyed towel/cape and red-dyed tube socks/superhero boots. I would make him kneel at my altar of pillows and pray for forgiveness for all his little boy sins.

Now, the tables were turned.

My brother and his friend published a 20-page treatise of their beliefs on the Web site I read it the night before I visited him and generally was confused. But I recognized the source of the sentiment. My brother was frustrated with the state of modern Christianity. Perhaps led by groups such as Focus on the Family, the church has become an instrument of politics -- a voting bloc.

My brother's message seemed to be, simply, "God is love." Even if he was screaming it, deranged and stubbly on the side of the highway, that was his message.

As I listened to the two guys on the billboard, I thought about an article I read in The New York Times months ago about Tammy Faye and Jim Baker's son. The full-page photo of him showed a young man with a shaved head and the word "Compassion" tattooed across his chest. With his gauged piercings and his story about starting a new church that met at a bar, I thought about my tattooed, aikido black-belt brother.

I think my brother represents an entire generation of children raised in an era of religion in which people our parents' age were ashamed of their hippy excesses and turned to the church for redemption. They enjoyed the regiment of rules in those years. No dancing. No cards. Women wore dresses. Men kept their hair short.

Meanwhile, as they obeyed, our pastors were stealing money and womanizing.

Most of the children I grew up with rebelled against it all at some point. The people my age who are passionate about Sunday services usually came to it on their own as teenagers or adults.

Those who grew up in it have paced a deep trench in the front lawn of the church, refusing to go back inside. They are cargo floating on the surface of the ocean long after the ship went down. They are looking for something else.

I looked up at my brother's billboard one more time and gave him an uncomfortable smile. It was as if all his confusion and pain were splashed on that 14-by-28-foot canvas. I saw his project as part escapism from the stresses of his daily life, part therapy and part driven by the very real belief that he could save the world through marketing.


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