The Rev. Adam Ericksen figured the new marquee sign outside his Milwaukie church, which sits along a well-traveled stretch of Southeast Webster Road, might attract a few more followers.
He was a bit off. Since Ericksen started sharing the messages weekly from the lawn at the Clackamas United Church of Christ, he has drawn interest from thousands.
“Lady Gaga knows Christianity and so do we. LGBTQ welcome here”
“In the realm of God no one is illegal”
“Harriet Tubman belongs on the $20. End white supremacy”
Pithy and provocative, the proclamations have garnered worldwide attention in recent months as photos of the pastor standing next to the sign have repeatedly gone viral.
Each, Ericksen says, is rooted in what he describes as a radical vision of love and inclusion at the center of Jesus Christ’s teachings.
At a time when a more conservative, evangelical strand of Christianity prevails throughout politics and culture, this competing interpretation appears to be gaining ground.
“For too long we’ve allowed other Christians to name what our faith is,” said Ericksen, who grew up in Forest Grove and joined the Clackamas congregation in 2017. “We need to be more vocal with what we stand for.”
Here’s what the 40-year-old pastor, who sports biblical tattoos and a rainbow-colored clerical collar, wants you to hear: Jesus welcomes all people. He stands for a more just world.
Ericksen and his views are not unique. Progressive Christian denominations, from the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) to the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, dot the Portland metro area and can be found throughout the nation.
Few have had as much success in spreading the message far and wide.
For Ericksen, it’s required only a box of black letters, a bold idea or statement, and striking a cheerful pose in front of an Android phone.
Days after President Donald Trump in February declared a national emergency on the Mexican border, Ericksen used his church sign to riff on a different crisis: the millions of uninsured people in the U.S.
“We do have a national emergency,” Ericksen wrote in a post on his church’s Facebook page, which included a photo of him alongside the sign. “44 million people are without health insurance.”
More than 44,000 people shared the post over the next week.
The pastor’s most recent brush with viral fame came last month amid the flurry of so-called “heartbeat bills” passed by some states that aim to restrict or outright ban abortions.
“Our transgender siblings have heartbeats”
“To see this kind of sentiment expressed from a church pleasantly surprised me,” said Malorie Taunton, who was raised a Southern Baptist but now considers herself agnostic.
“Many of my friends fall into oppressed groups not commonly accepted by organized religion or places of worship.”
Taunton, who lives in Ardmore, Alabama, said she came across the photo of Ericksen and his heartbeat message through a friend online. That eventually led her to a dozen other pics of the pastor and the messages he proudly promotes.
So Taunton put them all up on her Facebook page. Some 66,000 shares as well as stories about Ericksen and his church by CNN, Newsweek and other national publications soon followed.
Ericksen said he’s spent the past few weeks fielding phone calls, emails and messages from people around the world. Australia. Ethiopia. Europe.
“It shows that people are so thirsty for this message of radical inclusion,” he said.
Many, perhaps. But not all. Some, in fact, have found Ericksen’s interpretation of Christianity blasphemous.
“If you are a member of this church and you are reading this, I call you to repent,” wrote Rob Nelson in an essay for Reformation Charlotte, an evangelical Christian website. “Many of the messages on these signs make claims that downright go against the teachings of Christ.”
Still, there are those who are finding a spiritual home at Clackamas United Church of Christ.
“Everyone deserves to know that God loves them,” said Amira Stanley, a Canby resident. “Until recently, I just didn’t know where to go.”
Stanley, whose husband is transgender, said she felt a little apprehensive when she first walked through the doors in April 2018. That feeling quickly dissipated.
She now volunteers most Sundays as the greeter of other congregants when they walk through those same doors.
“It’s amazing,” Stanley said. “I get a lot of hugs.”