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Ron Howden of the Forest Grove Seventh-day Adventist Church maintains a well-known letterboard sign.

COURTESY PHOTO: RON HOWDEN - The Forest Grove Seventh-day Adventist Church always has a positive, thought-provoking message on its leaderboard on the south side of Pacific Avenue.Ever had a dilemma on your hands — a tough decision to make, a battle against negative thinking, an existential crisis — and just wished someone would send you a sign?

That's where the Forest Grove Seventh-day Adventist Church comes in. More precisely, that's where the church's highly visible roadside letterboard comes in.

The sign stands along the south side of Highway 8 at the east end of Forest Grove, near the corner of Pacific Avenue and Mountain View Lane. Thousands of motorists drive past the Forest Grove Seventh-day Adventist Church at 1950 Mountain View Lane every day. For many of them, their eyes are drawn to the sign, which spells out a different message every week or so.

Ron HowdenChurches, like businesses, use signs like the one in front of the Seventh-day Adventist Church in different ways. Some inform passersby when services are held, or if an event is coming up. But Ron Howden uses the Seventh-day Adventist Church's sign to speak to people — regardless of affiliation, regardless of faith.

"It's an opportunity to communicate with people," said Howden, who speaks in a soft, quiet voice that belies a dry wit and warm disposition. "My bottom line is to make people think."

Howden has been updating the sign for the past eight years, changing out the message every 10 days or so — sometimes a little more often, he said. The messages he puts up are rarely theological in nature, but they are invariably thought-provoking. Some of his recent favorites include, "Let us search for what we appreciate in others, instead of what we can judge & condemn," and, "Wanting to be someone else is a waste of who you are." With his cellphone camera, he takes date- and time-stamped pictures of each sign he puts up, so he can refer back to them later.

The messages are drawn from a wide range of sources.

"I've gotten them off of Starbucks coffee cups, I've gotten them off of Facebook … I get some off one of the Christian radio stations," Howden said. "And some of them just come to me."

He added, "When you have a community that's not all Christian, if I put up Scripture and follow it by, like, say, 'Samuel 2,' they're going to say, 'So who's this Samuel guy and why should I believe him?' But common humanity speaks to everybody. We can all relate to the signs, one way or another. Doesn't matter whether you're Jewish, Christian, atheist, agnostic. It doesn't matter. We all have a human condition."

Howden was called to church leadership later in life. He worked for nearly 40 years in the wood products industry, he said.

"My inspiration probably comes from dealing with my own personal journey, growing up in a less than wonderful home and getting involved with helping people when I saw what it was doing for myself," Howden said.

His experiences also led him to start teaching classes at the church, which are open to a wide age range. He's had teenagers up to senior citizens in his class, which teaches about "relationships and real life," he said.

"It's for anybody who wants to get honest," Howden said. "Church isn't always a place you can be honest. … Everyone puts on their church face, and everyone is just 'fine,' even though they were arguing all the way to church and arguing all the way home."

Both in class and outside class, Howden said, he has people come up to him and mention the church sign, and something it made them think about.

"Sometimes people will read the sign and they'll mention it in class, and we'll have a discussion about it," Howden said.

He added, "There's been a couple of times I thought, 'Nah, nobody pays any attention to this. I think I'll just quit.' And then I'll be out there changing the sign, and someone will come up and say, 'I love your signs.' Occasionally we get emails at church — someone will say, 'You had a sign up a couple weeks ago, and it was basically this,' and it went right to my heart. There was one I put up there about, 'Don't give anger a room in your house. It will leave a mess.' And I got an email from some gal — she says, 'God and I are still wrestling with that one.' And I'm thinking: 'Good.'"

By Mark Miller
Editor, Forest Grove News-Times
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