ALMA, Ark. (Christian Examiner) -- At least two of the four Bible belt cities targeted by the New Jersey American Atheists' group with anti-Christian billboards for the Christmas season are taking their own messages to the skyway this week.
In an effort to spark anti-Christian "activism" in the south, the atheists' billboards run Dec. 1 - 24 in residential areas near schools and churches in Fort Smith, Arkansas; Memphis, Tennessee; Nashville, Tennessee and St. Louis, Missouri. Their ads portray an impish looking girl with a mock letter to Santa asking to skip church this Christmas.
Starting Dec. 9 a church in Arkansas is "responding in love" to the anti-Christian billboards with a sign of their own.
Grace Church in Alma, Arkansas announced on their website Tuesday they have raised the funds to run an advertisement that will appear on the same digital billboard as the atheists' message.
"Our goal is not to oppose their message, but rather to respond with love and support," the church stated on their website. "We actually welcome their desire to support those who have felt alienated by believers and start discussion between and among the atheist and Christian communities."
The Grace billboard will run the message "Questions, Doubts, Curiosity? All welcome at Grace" from Dec. 10 through Dec. 24. The church is also launching a #respondinlove twitter campaign.
"While our parties may disagree on the divinity of Jesus, our mission is to display and embody the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth in the hope of building bridges of communication and respect where walls of confrontation and animosity now stand."
According the American Atheists website their billboards are intended to target "in-the-closet atheists who are pressured to observe religious traditions during the holidays."
Danielle Muscato, public relations director for American Atheists, told local 5NEWS in Springdale, Arkansas, he welcomes the church's billboard because he is an advocate for people deciding for themselves what to believe or not to believe about religion.
Any additional donations made to the campaign after the billboard goes live will extend the length of time the signage will run or be used to purchase additional billboards in the Fort Smith area.
In Memphis, Tennessee, the digital duel is a little more personal. Spearheaded by Memphis resident and former atheist Eric Hart, an online fundraising campaign was created using the popular crowdfunding site gofundme.com.
Hart started his fundraiser Dec. 3 and six days later has raised roughly $2,800 to purchase space on two digital signs with a message that reads: "Dear Santa, all I want is to keep Christmas sacred and celebrate without being bullied. -With Respect to All." The sign features a photograph of Hart's deceased niece wrapped in Christmas lights.
A Dec. 8 update on the page indicates the billboards display his message for eight or 16 seconds every minute at two prominent locations.
On the site, Hart claims the inspiration to purchase the signage stemmed from a desire to make something positive out of the atheists' disrespectful and divisive efforts.
"I know that the billboards were designed to get a rise out of Christians in order to gain publicity," Hart's statement read. "Let's be clear on my message, it's ok, indeed a GOOD thing, to exercise our freedoms in a dignified way. Many may not agree, but we need not be intimidated by those who would love to take away our freedoms or mock our beliefs."
In response to Hart's sign, the atheist group posted a follow-up sign that reads: "Dear Christians, I share my toys why won't you share the season? Happy Holidays for all."
Hart asked his supporters to "be respectful and not return hate for hate (or) ridicule for ridicule."
Anything raised above the cost of the billboards will be donated to Le Bonheur Children's Hospital in Memphis where staff cared for his late niece prior to her passing.