On a bright Sunday in November, Rev. Alexa Gilmour unveiled a new signboard outside her west-end Toronto church. The group that gathered to see the sign, which asked onlookers to “take time to thank a neighbour,” included many faces she’d never seen before.
“That felt really beautiful, that they felt safe enough and comfortable enough and joyous enough [to be there],” said Gilmour, who serves Windermere United.
The sign, from its inception, was intended to be a ministry to everyone in the neighbourhood, regardless of whether they attended the church. Previous spiritual exercises included “hold someone who grieves this Mother’s Day” or “take time to sit under the trees without technology.” But some messages put Gilmour in conflict with Steven Thompson, owner of Archer Mobile Signs.
The disagreement began in the spring of 2018, after Thompson refused to post messages about Ramadan or Pride Week on the church’s rented sign. He said his “faith didn’t allow him to do it,” Gilmour told Broadview earlier this year.
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When she raised her concerns and asked to meet, Thompson removed the sign, citing a bylaw infraction.
Gilmour, with the backing of her church, filed a human rights complaint in September 2018, claiming Thompson’s refusal barred her from practising her ministry. That dispute is still being heard by the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario, and a second hearing is slated for late spring.
Thompson did not respond to requests for comment.
After the sign was taken down, area resident Kate Manson missed the regular messages — and judging from online chatter, she wasn’t the only one. Then a neighbour, Maggie Knaus, reached out after Manson posted about it on Facebook when the sign controversy first made headlines. What if they helped Windermere United get a new sign?
“We thought we’d just knock on doors. Like, hey, do you have 20 bucks for a new marquee sign?” Manson said.
“And then we reached people who were well beyond this neighbourhood, which was really neat,” added Knaus.
Money poured in from across the city and country beginning in February. Someone even donated from California. The dance school located inside the church loaned Windermere a temporary sign so they could continue to share spiritual messages. In the end, Manson and Knaus raised $20,000 over six months. After receiving approval from the city, the permanent sign was erected on the front lawn.
Any money not used will support the church’s work on accessibility and reducing its carbon footprint.
Gilmour says the crowdfunding effort shows what’s possible. “It’s a symbol of how a diverse group of people can be inspired by one another, because I’m as inspired by the neighbours now as they claimed to have been inspired by my sign,” she said. “If we can do this, what else could we do? How could we make this world better?”
After the sign was removed last year, the minister heard stories of how it had impacted people, like the atheist couple who lived across the street from Windermere and meditated to the posted words.
When Broadview visited the church recently, the sign was promoting allyship to the trans community — a message that Gilmour says she wouldn’t have been able to share last year.
Manson strongly believes in the good work churches do, although she doesn’t attend one.
“I learned this from my parents: we look after our neighbours, and this is one of my neighbours.”
With files from Alison Shouldice
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