A Billboard Builds a Church in Brownsburg

by Kathleen Moore

A billboard on westbound I-74 connected Deb Samples to a loving church community at the time she needed it most. Featuring photos of diverse individuals and families along with the simple message “love your neighbor,” the sign directs viewers to the website churchthatserves.org. Those who follow the link will find the Good Samaritan Episcopal Church website, and a message: “All people are welcome means all at Good Sam’s!”

“It’s easy to pooh-pooh lawn signs or print or a billboard, but together that’s how my husband and I walked in the door at Good Sam’s,” says Samples. “In the fall of 2016, I started to see road signs in front of Harris Academy in Brownsburg for their church service. And then in our local paper, they took out a half-page ad, and what struck me was that there were people who were non-European in it, and a same-sex couple – people that might look a little different from many Brownsburg families. That was the kind of the diversity we were looking for, so that was the second thing. And then the third thing was we were driving on I-74 towards Brownsburg where the billboard is, and there it was again. So, it was kind of one of those rules of three things, when God is trying to get your attention. So I said, ‘I guess we’re going to have to go there!’”

Samples was especially in need of a church home during that period in her life. “Our 34-year-old daughter Megan was dying of cancer,” she says. “We had known for just a few months that she had the cancer, but we knew by then that she was not going to be with us long. And she died later in May of that year. And so, I tell people when you’re trying to think of a church, there probably is maybe no worse and no better time to find that church family.”

Samples’ urgency to find a church compelled her to be direct. During her first visit, she told the congregation she was “here to see if you are as loving and accepting and diverse as you say you are.”

“I still remember the three or four people who talked to us that day and made us feel at ease,” Samples says. “I was quickly very confident that these people are going be able to share my burden.”

Within a matter of weeks, founding pastor and vicar Gray Lesesne and the Good Sam’s community was providing food and support to the Samples family, an impressive feat for a small but growing church plant that, at that time, met in a school library. “I remember saying to Gray later, ‘Wow, I had no idea you guys had it together like that.’ And Gray said, ‘No, we didn’t!’ So, it’s one of those special things that they embraced us at such a horrible time in our lives and loved us through it.”

The idea for the billboard came from Good Samaritan’s Connections Team, which handles public relations and advertising for the church. “I think from the get-go we were just trying to think of outside the box ideas,” says Nanci Slagle, Connections Team co-chair. “We’ve got lots of churches around us and certainly they’ve put up billboards and other ads around town, but I think that we have honed in on the idea of sending a message and not focusing on the church as much.”

Among those pictured on the billboard are Brooke Brink, her wife, Jen, and their two sons, Oliver and Jackson. “Our 5-year-old son Jackson thought it was by far the coolest thing ever when he saw it,” says Brink. “I believe his words were, ‘How did we get on that? That’s big! Whoa! Everyone needs to come see my sign!’”

Brink says the sign represents “truth in advertising.” “Our church is full of so many wonderful people from so many different walks and phases of life, but we really are one big tribe,” she says. “We love all, we welcome all, and we celebrate all. I can’t imagine our family serving, worshiping, and gathering anywhere else or with anyone else.”

“Out of all the advertising and PR stuff we’ve done, we’ve had the most ‘bang for our buck’ using this billboard in terms of visibility,” Lesesne says. “People are constantly saying to us, ‘Oh we’ve seen your billboard.’ We’re up there with the truck supply stores and the tobacco outlet – our billboard really stands out.” The congregation pays $600 per month for the billboard, which is driven past by 25,000 cars a day.

“We’ve always seen Good Samaritan as sort of a lab,” says Lesesne. “We started in 2015 with public worship beginning in 2016, so we’ve been this sort of lab for the diocese to try different things. And so for us, especially as a church plant, it’s all about evangelism and welcome. That’s all we’ve got. We’ve had people come to us and say, ‘I would not have come to your worship had I not seen that billboard.’”

“I’m new to the whole Episcopalian thing so I don’t realize how different what we’re doing is,” Slagle says. “People should give some new and different ideas a shot. We’re always saying there’s no one at our church who’s ever going to say, ‘We’ve never done it that way before,’ because we haven’t been around long enough!”