Multi-talented creator Sanika Phawde has turned an unusually-worded church sign into a striking comic about connection, community and belonging. And it all started by getting to know the sign's original creator.
At one time or another, we've all seen something unusual out of the corner of our eye, only to be whisked away by life before we can find out more. But for reportage artist, illustrator and cartoonist Sanika Phawde, the urge to learn more about an unusual church sign proved too powerful to resist. And it set her on a journey to meet its creator.
The sign in question was emblazoned with the statement God is Non-Binary, which is also the title Sanika gave to her comic strip about her experience of looking into it. For a First Baptist Church in Massachusetts, this is a somewhat provocative message, so it's not surprising that it compelled the inquisitive illustrator to find out more.
"I love the sign outside this church," she explains. "I walk by it every day, and every day it makes me laugh or reflect or both. The first time I saw it was the day we moved here, and it said 'God is Non-Binary', and it made me feel like maybe I was gonna be okay after all in Providence."
The curious wording prompted a flurry of questions in the mind of the Rhode Island School of Design teacher. Over several months, she pondered who exactly made it, where they came up with their ideas and how they organised their sign messages. Then, almost miraculously, it sounds like she found out. The mysterious sign creator was none other than Pastor Jamie Washam, who was kind enough to be interviewed by Sanika.
The resulting comic sees the interviews realised as a thought-provoking, strikingly illustrated tale about community. Over the course of 21 panels, Pastor Jamie reveals the thought processes behind her church sign messages and shares that sometimes humour can be the best way to encourage conversation about tricky subjects.
Take the original sign, for example. While God is Non-Binary could be seen as something of a touchpaper for enraged discourse, the response was overwhelmingly positive. Pastor Jamie reveals that she received plenty of heart-warming endorsements and only one single criticism. And in her typical saintly manner, she replied to this complaint with kindness in order to further dialogue.
And as Sanika found out during her interview, the reach of the church signs travelled further than the traditional congregation. She learnt from Pastor Jamie that one observer got in touch to say how reassuring it was to see 'Ramadan Mubarak' on a church sign of all places and that it made her feel at home.
It's a sentiment echoed by the comic's creator herself. "I love how drawing on location and reporting through comics teaches me to notice and love more about my surroundings and my community," she reveals. "I like being a reportage artist because it helps me feel like I belong in my new city."
To read the full comic, which includes revelations about how the signs are made, the lengths Pastor Jamie goes to in order to maintain them, and where she finds her inspiration, head on over to Sanika's website.