It was just hours before the body of former president George H.W. Bush arrived in the nation’s capital and Warren Gill hadn’t yet decided what to write about his death.
Whatever he chose had to fit the moment.
It also had to fit a defined amount of space. Three lines to be precise.
No more than that could be squeezed onto the sign in front of the United Methodist Building.
Church signs have long been platforms for thought-provoking statements. They have also, just by nature of their limited size, encouraged brevity. In that way, the marquee in front of the United Methodist Building is no different from others seen across the country.
But what makes its messages more significant — and a chronicle of sorts of our times — is its location. The building is not tucked away on some suburban street. It sits on Capitol Hill, smack in the center of a nest of power. Its neighbors are the U.S. Capitol building, the U.S. Supreme Court and the Hart Senate Office Building.
That means all day long, politicians, protesters and tourists walk by the building, where their eyes stop on the sign and absorb its words.
Sometimes those words are comforting.
Other times, they are insightful.
More than once, they have been controversial.
The message on the sign last week was biting enough that a picture of it posted on Twitter drew more than 12,000 shares and more than 42,000 likes. It criticized actions taken at the U.S.-Mexico border against women and children in a migrant caravan that President Trump has portrayed as filled with criminals and gang members. The message was a play on the biblical phrase, “I was a stranger and you welcomed me.”
It read: “‘I was a stranger, and you tear gassed me.’. . . Wait a second.”
Some companies have people dedicated to their Twitter accounts. I wondered if the sign, too, had a person behind it.
That’s how I ended up in Warren Gill’s office this week on the day he was pondering what to write about Bush’s death. He knew people would pass the sign on their way to the Capitol Rotunda to view to the 41st president’s flag-draped casket and pay him respect. He also knew that the message would remain up on Wednesday, when the nation marked Bush’s funeral with a day of mourning.
Gill weighed his options. He also considered the space. One of the longest messages that has appeared on the sign was 14 words long.
“Just like Twitter, there is a character limit,” he said.
Gill, 35 was promoted several months ago to communications director for the General Board of Church and Society, the social justice and advocacy arm of the United Methodist Church.
In that new role, he also became the keeper of the sign.
He doesn’t come up with every message that appears on it. Members of a policy staff contribute ideas and wording. But Gill ultimately decides what goes on there and when a new message is warranted.
It is a responsibility he does not take lightly because he recognizes who might see those words — people who make decisions and laws that are felt far beyond Washington.
“There are a lot of powerful people that walk by,” Gill said. “We use this space to communicate our values and to hopefully effect change in the country and in the world.”
He and others in his office also come to the conversation from a different place than those in the buildings around them.
“We are not in this for votes,” he said. “We are not in this for money. We are here to be a moral voice in this context.”
The messages on the sign have touched on health care, gun violence and a living wage. During the hearing that saw Christine Blasey Ford offer detailed testimony of her sexual assault allegations against Supreme Court nominee Brett M. Kavanaugh, the sign struck at what women were saying across the country.
It read, “Women have the right to live without violence.”
That day protesters had been leaving carnations on the steps of the Supreme Court building. Suddenly they started placing them on the sign, too.
“It had us in tears in here,” Gill said.
Gill, who attended George Washington University before going to seminary and getting a master’s in political communications from American University, said he used to be skeptical of protests. But now, he said, he recognizes the power in those voices because he can hear them from inside his office.
“I don’t always agree with every protest,” he said. “But I love living in a country where people can protest. I love that freedom.”
That freedom, of course, also allows people to criticize the messages that appear on the sign — and they do. The United Methodist denomination counts among its members the Clintons, and Trump’s former attorney general Jeff Sessions, and Gill said the angry emails that hit his mailbox come from both the left and the right.
One common refrain he hears refers to the biblical phrase, “Obey the rulers who have authority over you.”
His response, he said, is usually the same: “The rulers of the United States are the citizens.” It’s the people, he tells them, not the politicians.
When Gill finally settled on the right words to capture Bush’s death, the message didn’t touch on politics at all. It simply acknowledged the loss and spoke of a hope for the former leader, while referencing his words about “a thousand points of light.” And it did that in three lines:
Pres George H W Bush
Perpetual light shine on him
An earlier version of this column incorrectly reported that Warren Gill graduated from George Washington University.