POLK COUNTY, Fla. - In Christian circles, the Road to Damascus is the biblical site of the Apostle Paul's conversion from a persecutor of Christians to one of them. It's a road now stoked with symbolism, used in reference to watershed experiences.
In a much less literal sense, it's kind of like County Road 98, which straddles the conversion from Pasco County to Polk County, and for some, a turf war of sorts.
"What concerns us is the message that it sends," said Atheist of Florida member Rob Curry. "A very chilling message that, if you're not a Christian, if you don't believe as we do, then you're not welcome."
Curry's referring to a road-anointing performed on CR 98 last year as part of the "Polk Under Prayer" campaign, where Christians poured olive oil on the asphalt and prayed over it, calling for a revival in the area.
"Mainly we want this to be a safe haven for folks who want to raise their families," explained Polk Under Prayer organizer, Dr. Richard Geringswald. "Asking God's protection from ne'er do wells and evil doers."
A year later, members of the campaign spent this last week burying bricks, engraved with Psalm 37:9-11, beside the twelve major roadways leading into Polk County, including I-4.
PUP leaders prayed over the bricks, asking for God to change the hearts of criminals who enter or exit their county, and if not, to incarcerate them.
Last year, Sheriff Grady Judd and Polk County Schools Superintendent Dr. Sherrie Nickel participated in a PUP rally.
"They are entangling religion and government," Curry said.
So, the atheists plan to untangle it.
Or Saturday, wash it.
The Humanists of Florida are rallying on CR 98 around 2:30pm to mop the road of any anointing oil that may be left over a year later.
"To symbolically welcome everyone, all citizens, whether they believe or don't believe," Curry said. "We're not doing anything to harm anyone. No gods will be harmed in the washing of the roads."
They plan to bring mops, spring water, and soap. They also plan to bring their support for leader, Humanists of Florida President EllenBeth Wachs.
"As an atheist in Polk County, I feel wholly unwelcome," Wachs said. "I'm humbled by what they're doing for me."
Wachs sued Sheriff Judd last year for harassment after she was arrested for making loud noises in her bedroom. Her arrest followed months of controversy with Judd when she and others complained that he donated the jail's basketball hoops to churches.
"We don't want anyone to believe they're not welcome in any county in Florida," added Atheists of Florida member Gael Murphy.
According to Dr. Geringswald, PUP never set out to make anyone feel unwelcome, unless they're up to no good.
"We're not against atheists," he said. "We're for Jesus Christ."
The atheists call it a fun poke at an anointing they believe never really had any power, anyway.
"I don't think we're acknowledging the anointing any more than we'd be acknowledging magic by going to see the Wonderful World of Harry Potter," Curry laughed.
And if they did take it seriously, Dr. Geringswald points out, there's probably not a whole lot of oil to wash off.
"It's probably a year too late on their part," he said. "First time it rained, it got washed off."
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