For nearly three decades, drivers on Interstate 84 heading through Nampa have drawn solace, inspiration and even irritation from a massive roadside sign bearing Bible verses.
A few weeks ago, the electronic billboard went dark, leaving a wide black band across the pages of its open book.
The group behind the massive sign has been deluged with queries from people wondering what happened to the homilies.
Weve been averaging about 12 calls a day, said Ron Vieselmeyer, president of Highway Evangelism, which lists its name and number at the bottom of the sign. People say they miss it. We hear from a lot of truck drivers, long-haulers. You just never know who youre going to minister to when youve got a thousand cars going by it every day.
The Coeur dAlene-based group aimed to fix the sign, but members were told it would have to be replaced because the parts were obsolete. The price? An estimated $108,000.
That was a shocker, Vieselmeyer said.
Highway Evangelism will get more bids, hoping the ultimate cost will be lower, he said. But to get the billboard up and running, its clear the nonprofit group must seek donations.
Weve never before asked for money, Vieselmeyer said. Every once in awhile someone would give us a gift, but we could always get by.
A LITTLE HISTORY
Nampas Bible billboard, readily readable from cars heading east or west, is one of three that Highway Evangelism maintains in Idaho. The other two are along Interstate 90 in Coeur dAlene.
Nampa contractor Walter Opp gave Highway Evangelism a 99-year, $1-per-year lease to put the sign on his land between the Franklin and Garrity interchanges. When Opp sold the land, he made sure the lease was honored, Vieselmeyer said.
The original Nampa billboard, erected in 1984, was static with large black letters across the outline of an open book.
About a dozen years ago, Opp offered to replace the sign with a modern, electronic version. He even picked up the $157,000 tab, Vieselmeyer said. Opp died in 2003.
The signs verses, drawn from both the Old and New Testaments, generally change once a week. Examples of verses that were featured include: You shall have no other gods before Me, from Exodus; The gift of God is eternal life, from Romans; and Lo I am with you always, from Matthew.
Over the years, Highway Evangelism has received many positive comments about the Bible billboard but only one complaint, Vieselmeyer said. Shortly after the sign went high-tech, a woman complained to the Idaho State Police that the sign was too bright and would distract drivers. The group toned down the lighting, he said.
No one has complained to Highway Evangelism about the signs religious content, he said.
But some have found other venues to vent about the billboard.
Dustin Williams of Boise, whose blog is devoted to sharing the good news of atheism, humanism, skepticism, secularism, free thought and whatever else I care about, posted in June 2011 that the Bible billboard was a hideous eyesore that he disliked driving past.
On Saturday, he said he still considers the billboard an eyesore with messages that range from cliche to comical. But, he added, they are certainly welcome in the marketplace of ideas.
Williams free-thought group is part of the Treasure Valley Coalition of Reason. Last summer the group put up two Treasure Valley billboards to reach people who dont believe in God.
One, on Caldwell Boulevard between Nampa and Caldwell, read: Are you good without God? Millions are. The other, along the I-184 Connector in Boise, read: Dont believe in God? Join the club.
Paul Rolig, spokesman for the coalition, said the electronic billboards were a response, in part, to the Nampa Bible billboard and other billboards across the Valley spreading the news of specific congregations.
The signs, funded by a grant from the national United Coalition of Reason, were up for the month of July. The group might try a similar campaign or other media effort in the future to spread the word about secular humanism, Rolig said.
A FIXTURE IN NAMPA
Highway Evangelism had initially looked into placing a billboard near Salt Lake City or Portland, Vieselmeyer said, but had trouble with zoning ordinances. So the group turned to Nampa, where Vieselmeyer grew up. And the community proved a perfect fit, he said.
Mayor Tom Dale said hes happy to have the Bible billboard associated with Nampa, which has a tradition of faith-permeated events such as the annual God and Country Family Festival.
I appreciate the efforts of the people who installed and maintained that, Dale said. It really gives a good, positive message to people as they drive by on the freeway.
The mayor continued: In this day and age, we need something positive, describing the verses as scriptural, thought-provoking and usually uplifting.
We can lift our eyes above our momentary problems and think about something greater than ourselves, Dale said.
I hope they get it up and running again.
Kristin Rodine: 377-6447