WEST FARGO — The signs were large — 6 by 8 feet — and black with hot-pink lettering.
Travelers passing by on Highway 2 in northeastern Minnesota could hardly miss them, driving that stretch of road near Floodwood.
“When trouble comes, the joy of the Lord overcomes,” read one, while another promised, “Got questions? Jesus has the answers.”
Few likely could conceive the quiet hours spent pondering what message might reach a heart or two in any given week. Yet up they went without fail, for nearly 17 years, with the sole purpose of prompting people to think about Jesus.
“Everyone has a relationship with Jesus,” says Lisa Donelson, who, with her husband, Tom, displayed these messages from 1997 to 2014. “They either love him, hate him or are ignoring him.”
But no matter what any person thinks of Jesus, she adds, “Jesus loves you!”
In some sense, Tom says, his wife was “very early Twitter.” “She only had so much space to fill, and so many letters,” even fewer than the 140 characters the social-media platform initially allowed. “She would just sit quiet during the week and God would give her the messages.”
It started as a hopeful business to rent out signs to others. When that didn’t transpire, the signs evolved into something even more meaningful.
“I didn’t want the words to be too religious,” Donelson says. “I wanted to encourage people who were believers, and make non-believers think a bit. Everybody responds differently.”
Through the years, they heard from many who had been affected, whether good or bad. One man admitted to the couple later that the messages initially upset him, but eventually, something changed.
“One day, on a gravel road, he pulled over and accepted Jesus as his savior,” Donelson says. “We just kept putting (the messages) out there and trusting God would use them in some way.”
Some stopped to take pictures with the signs and shared how they’d been encouraged. A woman retiring from her job who wouldn’t be making the 85-mile drive anymore stopped to tell them she’d miss the messages of hope.
“What thrills my heart is that now, the sayings can go all over the world,” says Donelson, who has compiled the signs — along with devotionals — into a book, “Signs of Encouragement: 100 Signs for Your Journey of Faith.”
It’s one of two books she’s penned. The first is an account of her late mother, “Fern’s Story: From Flat Irons to Perma-Press, She’s Come a Long Way!”
“My mom was a real encourager; she was like the perfect grandma,” Donelson says. “When things were not going well toward the end, she still had that strong faith and knew that Jesus was taking care of her.”
Donelson wants people to know God is journeying with us, no matter our circumstances, she says. “Our lives are in his hands. What a blessing in these challenging times.”
The couple relocated to the Fargo-Moorhead area, their meeting place 30 years ago while attending Concordia College, after Lisa was offered a job at Northview Church, formerly First Assembly, in south Fargo.
The Rev. Bob Ona says he was pleased to see a sign ministry manifest into a book.
“It’s straight out of the heart and from her life experience,” he says, adding, “Someone looking for that pick-me-up can grab this book and find that they’re encouraged, to be reminded God loves them.”
One of his favorite messages, he says, is that “God is closer than your cellphone and he can always hear you,” adding with a smile, “God never misses the connection, and you never get a busy signal.”
Soul food such as this, Ona says, is “very much like the manna of the Old Testament,” and Jesus “invoking his prayer to ‘Give us this day our daily bread.’”
“This can be daily bread no matter where you’re at in the faith journey.”
He also attests to the author’s authenticity.
“Lisa has a very fun sense of humor, but also a real deep connection to people who come across her path — especially when they have a need,” he says. “She’s loyal to people but discerning in terms of wanting to give people what is needed, when it’s needed.”
Along with doing technology work for the church, he says, Donelson leads groups to encourage others in their faith walk. “When people are around Lisa, they know they’re not forgotten.”
Tom, one of his wife’s main supporters, agrees.
“Lisa gently encourages the reader to reflect and brings the Scripture and God’s message forward in a loving way,” he says. “She’s got a nice way of presenting the Gospel without whacking someone between the eyes.”
As Donelson became more serious about her writing several years ago, she attended a conference for Christian writers, discovering there several friends from church with similar goals. They formed a writer’s group to help each other along.
One of them, Natalie White, says, “Lisa always does her best to use her words wisely, and always has your best interest at heart… Her writing style is concise and succinct, and always gets right to the point.”
Not only that, White adds, but “It’s just the right tone — like you’re sitting down to have a cup of coffee.”
Donelson quotes Jeremiah 31:21 on her website: “Set up road signs; put up guideposts. Take note of the highway, the road that you take.”
Her own pathway in writing and faith began in her teen years, when she led a Christian youth group at school, and wrote and submitted an article to Guideposts magazine. It progressed from there, including through articles she wrote for the newspaper in Floodwood, Minn.
She says the sign messages have spoken as much to her heart as those going past on the highway — and she hopes many others will now have the chance to be blessed by them, too.
Find Donelson’s books at https://lisadonelson.com/, and through Vintage Point, Hurley’s Religious Goods and Tuesday Morning stores in Fargo.
[For the sake of having a repository for my newspaper columns and articles, I reprint them here, with permission, a week after their run date. The preceding ran in The Forum newspaper on Nov. 27, 2020.]