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July 25th, 2012
11:25 AM ET

Driven by personal tragedy, man builds crosses for Aurora victims, thousands of others

By Dan Merica, CNN

(CNN) - In a vacant lot across from the site of last week’s movie theater shooting, 12 white crosses stand solemnly, their arms covered in messages of hope and the ground around them full of flowers.

For the loved ones of the 12 killed in the Aurora, Colorado, theater, the crosses have become a focal point of remembrance, a place to memorialize victims and pray for their families and friends. But for the man who built the white crosses, each just over 3 feet tall, the crosses are something more: symbols of his own survival since tragedy struck his family 16 years ago.

Greg Zanis, an electrician from Aurora, Illinois, said he has built 13,000 crosses in that time, each a memorial for a victim of an American tragedy.

He traveled to Tucson, Arizona, after the 2011 shooting of U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, ventured to Martha’s Vineyard in Massachusetts after John F. Kennedy Jr. died in a 1999 plane crash there and went to Colorado after the Columbine school shooting that same year.

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Zanis, a former carpenter, usually spends four hours each Sunday building crosses and said he “can do them blindfolded.” Though he varies the cross design based on available lumber, he has a few basic styles, including a flat cross that can be attached to walls or fences and another one that can be staked into the ground at rural sites.

After the Aurora shooting, Zanis got calls from family members of Columbine victims who wanted to see how he was doing and thank him again for the crosses he built for them. It is those kinds of connections, Zanis said, that made him travel to Aurora last weekend.

“It is overwhelming to think about all the crosses I have put up,” Zanis said. “I am doing it for the victims, but this is a public grieving. This allows the public a place to go to and have that big cry.”

Readers weigh in: Where was God in Aurora?

Zanis’ voice cracked as he told CNN in a phone interview the stories of victims’ families he met in Aurora and described praying with the city’s mayor, Steve Hogan.

“I am having a hard time because I heard so many of these stories in person,” Zanis said from Illinois, where he returned after spending a few hours in Colorado over the weekend.

Zanis said he began building crosses in 1996 after discovering his father-in-law dead from a gunshot wound to his head. Zanis described the scene in his father-in-law’s office, where he found the body, as “gruesome” and difficult to discuss. The killer was sentenced to 15 years in prison.

Zanis attended support group meetings to deal with the grief but said that none of them helped much. In an effort to cope, the lifelong Christian built a white cross and displayed it at his home as a permanent memorial to his father-in-law.

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Later that same year, a young boy was gunned down in Zanis' town. The victim’s mother asked Zanis to build her a white cross as a way for her to remember her son. He obliged and has been building crosses ever since.

After a local newspaper quoted Zanis saying he’d build a cross for anyone grieving from loss, he began getting weekly calls from around Illinois. Now he receives around three calls a day from people all over the country asking for crosses, many of them families with victims of gun violence.

But Zanis said he believes that shooting deaths are “not about the gun” - he carries one with him at times. “I don’t think I am going to go murder somebody,” he said. “We need to be able to defend ourselves.”

Zanis doesn’t charge for the crosses and said he doesn’t accept donations for them. When he has the opportunity to deliver the crosses, he said he looks for a chance to talk and pray with families.

“When I talk to a family member, I talk to them differently than other people would - I share my loss and that just opens them up to sharing their loss,” Zanis said. “This is a perfect thing for me to do.”

And for those who want to stay in touch, he said he is happy to be someone who will listen.

“I tell them that I am going to answer the phone even at night. I am going to be there for you, and while I won’t always have the best answer for you, I will tell you that you are going to see them again in heaven,” Zanis said. “It isn’t final yet, I will say, and people relate to that.”

- Dan Merica

Filed under: Christianity • Colorado • Violence

soundoff (752 Responses)
  1. QS

    "But Zanis said he believes that shooting deaths are "not about the gun" – he carries one with him at times. "I don’t think I am going to go murder somebody," he said. "We need to be able to defend ourselves."

    I find it quite contradictory and insensitive on his part that he would take the time and make the effort to do this for the victims...and then say something like this.

    Essentially he's saying "I'm sorry for the victims and want to help the families get through this...but I still don't support gun laws that could prevent certain people from doing the same thing to other families."

    July 25, 2012 at 12:37 pm |
    • junior

      A gun is not the only utensil/tool used to commit tragedies. History has taught us that.

      July 25, 2012 at 1:01 pm |
    • Who invited me?

      junior is right
      A lot of people have been killed because of what people have interpretted in the bible, so the bible in effect was used to kill thousands, in gods name.

      July 25, 2012 at 1:05 pm |
  2. Tootles

    Too bad that Jesus was not even impaled on a cross and that the cross is a pagan symbol. Research it.

    July 25, 2012 at 12:36 pm |
    • Wow

      You've defined dimwit on a whole new level. Thank you!

      July 25, 2012 at 12:46 pm |
    • Anon

      Hey Wow take a comparative religious college course for once in your life. Your religion is not what it seems to be.

      July 25, 2012 at 12:52 pm |
  3. ArthurP

    This crime the killing of the 12, each one representing an apostle, was a sign from God and Jesus himself to the people of the United States that the ownership of assault weapons is a sin.

    July 25, 2012 at 12:36 pm |
    • Anon

      You people are worst than OCDs if you keep finding meaning in everything.

      July 25, 2012 at 12:42 pm |
    • dalewalk

      Your ownership of a mouth without a brain behind it is a sin.

      July 25, 2012 at 12:42 pm |
    • ObamaJoe

      Wrong,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,it's all about the heart,,,,,,,,not a weapon,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,

      July 25, 2012 at 12:44 pm |
    • Ah!

      Probably.

      July 25, 2012 at 12:47 pm |
    • A Frayed Knot

      ArthurP,

      Ah... that 12 apostle deal - I've been wondering how long it would take you guys to come up with that one!

      July 25, 2012 at 12:49 pm |
    • Rick

      Or it's a sign that God does not want us fed after midnight, especially with popcorn.

      July 25, 2012 at 12:52 pm |
  4. Marci

    Rich..read the article again. He goes where he is asked to go, "Now he receives around three calls a day from people all over the country asking for crosses" Don't be so quick to judge. And it is most definately NOT a spectacle to honor someone with a cross. Very kind and thoughtful of you Mr. Zanis.

    July 25, 2012 at 12:36 pm |
  5. Name*Diane Linn

    I was very moved by this man's dedication to all of these victims. I do hope he takes good care of himself and his family to continue this good work. As one of the millions of disabled people with chronic pain I have wanted to help those worse than me and what he is doing is remarkable.

    July 25, 2012 at 12:36 pm |
  6. RobM

    I myself am not religious, however I understand that most people are. How can you condemn a man for doing something that is common practice when grieving for lost loved ones and trying to console the victims families? Because YOU or I think there is something wrong with organized religion doesn't make this any less of a good deed.

    July 25, 2012 at 12:36 pm |
    • Who invited me?

      By statistics two or three of these should not be crosses.
      My family would be quite upset if it were me and some religious zealot put a cross up for me.

      July 25, 2012 at 12:39 pm |
    • dalewalk

      And what if some of the victims were Iranian, Syrian or of the Muslim faith elsewhere? Would you object to their family putting a star and crescent flag or symbol of Muslim Brotherhood in place of the cross? How long do you think it would be before someone ripped it down?

      July 25, 2012 at 12:48 pm |
    • junior

      So you would rather induce the SWAG and utilize statistics rather than acting on the facts?

      July 25, 2012 at 1:04 pm |
    • Anon

      That's the point. Christians rarely if ever consider other religions or lack of (atheist).
      I'm atheist but my family are nearly all Christians. In their minds I'm still a Catholic.
      Before my eventual death, I'll probably have to leave a will telling them I don't want a christian burial.

      July 25, 2012 at 1:06 pm |
    • dalewalk

      SWAG? Let's leave Guns and Roses out of this.

      July 25, 2012 at 1:17 pm |
  7. ObamaJoe

    One question:

    Are you sure all those victims want white cross ?

    If you don't know Where God was in Aurora?

    you are not real Christian,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,

    July 25, 2012 at 12:35 pm |
    • Diana

      I'm an atheist, and while I generally object to christian over-reach, I simply cannot be offended by these crosses. By creating these impromtu memorials with crosses, this guy is giving our community a place to go to grieve and pay our respects. We need that, and I am grateful to this man. As much as the cross is a christian symbol, it is also a symbol to honor the fallen. It is the most universal symbol we have. As an atheist, I have no symbol to offer. I will accept this one for now.

      July 25, 2012 at 12:46 pm |
    • Anon

      How about memorial places instead of crosses. The cross is so forcefully ingrained with Christianity that the first thing you think is Jesus.

      July 25, 2012 at 1:02 pm |
    • cedar rapids

      can you imagine what would happen if a muslim group put up 12 memorials with a star and crescent on them?

      July 25, 2012 at 1:27 pm |
  8. Pat

    Atheists are part of the problem in America. They do nothing but try to destroy good. In my opinion, they're just as bad as the shooter.

    July 25, 2012 at 12:35 pm |
    • ObamaJoe

      Wrong,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,because there are too many fake Christians,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,

      July 25, 2012 at 12:36 pm |
    • Who invited me?

      You are a religious bigot. You can't seriously be blaming the atheists for this act?
      What makes you think atheists are to blame, christian?

      July 25, 2012 at 12:37 pm |
    • Pat

      Read your history books Athiests....if you can even read.

      July 25, 2012 at 12:39 pm |
    • QS

      The fact that you consider religion "good" shows how blind you are.

      July 25, 2012 at 12:39 pm |
    • Pat

      And the fact that you make such statements prove that Atheists lack any type of moral compass.

      July 25, 2012 at 12:43 pm |
    • Darth Cheney

      Your opinion is stoopit.

      July 25, 2012 at 12:49 pm |
    • Anon

      Hey Pat up yours too. Christianity is slowly dying due to education and you can't do $#it.

      July 25, 2012 at 12:50 pm |
    • QS

      "And the fact that you make such statements prove that Atheists lack any type of moral compass."

      LMAO! Oh, you're one of those!

      July 25, 2012 at 12:52 pm |
    • iyace

      @anon – Actually, religion is not dying. Because of the slowing birth rate in developed countries which have a higher than average amount people who profess no religion ( minus the united states ), the developing countries, such as Brazil who are highly religious, account for an increase in religious profession. New gallup data actually shows and increase in religious profession, and a decline in atheism ( not necessarily nonreligious, which is different). A new study released by the University of Nebraska-Lincoln show that in most measures, the more educated one is, the more likely one is to be religious, and more importantly, participant.

      July 25, 2012 at 1:30 pm |
    • cedar rapids

      You are comparing atheists to this shooter?

      does your hate know no bounds pat? such a disgusting post from someone who would no doubt call themselves a christian. You should be ashamed of yourself. There is no 'good' in your hate.

      July 25, 2012 at 1:32 pm |
    • cedar rapids

      hey iyace, you missed out an important part of the study....

      "It all falls down to what you consider to be religious,” said Schwadel, an assistant professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. “If it’s simply attending religious services, then no. Highly educated people are not less religious; in fact, they’re more religious.”

      “But if it’s saying the Bible is the literal word of God and saying that only one religion is the true religion, then they are less religious,” he continued."

      July 25, 2012 at 1:34 pm |
  9. Puckles

    Cheesy.

    July 25, 2012 at 12:35 pm |
  10. Joe

    I'm surprised there are not protests by callus heartless individuals like seyedibar and Rich.

    July 25, 2012 at 12:34 pm |
  11. thes33k3r

    Driven by personal tragedy...and a desire to convert every single human on the planet to his misguided, sectarian belief system, man builds wooden symbols of Jew who may have lived 2000 years ago. The cat is out of the bag....supernatural beliefs are destructive. They do much more harm than good and thankfully our species is gradually leaving them in the dustbin of history where they belong.

    July 25, 2012 at 12:34 pm |
  12. Tell It Like It Is

    Well, for those of you grumbling and pitching a fit over someone doing selfless acts ~ I think easing anyone's grief by doing something compassionate is probably not within your own capability. So kudos to Greg Zanis. May he continue to show communities how much he cares.

    July 25, 2012 at 12:34 pm |
  13. HM8432

    An atheist may have also set up a memorial, but there was nothing there, because there was nothing to see; but it didn't happen, because atheists have nothing to offer or help...except their opinion (as the responding posts will prove)!

    July 25, 2012 at 12:33 pm |
    • TruthPrevails :-)

      First off, you're an idiot to make such an asinine statement!! Atheists do plenty of good in this world (Dr's Without Borders; UNICEF; to name a couple).
      Second, This man is honoring the innocent victims of a horrific mad man. I will not judge him (like you have judged me) on how he is honoring them. I personally find it a beautiful tribute to these people. I do not require an imaginary friend to see good in this world. I see it in good people like this man. He didn't stop to ask which god they believed in if they believed at all. He simply took the time to ensure that it is their names that stand out and to ensure that people had a spot to gather together and share their grief.
      For you to make anything more of this does not make you a good person, it makes you quite immoral.

      July 25, 2012 at 12:40 pm |
    • HeavenSent

      TruthPNOT, Jesus told us His truth about you.

      Romans 1:17-32

      Amen.

      July 25, 2012 at 12:46 pm |
    • TruthPrevails :-)

      HS: You know I dismiss your book. I do not dismiss the good this man is doing. I am more than happy to set aside my differences in belief/disbelief to find the good in this.

      July 25, 2012 at 12:51 pm |
  14. Lorrie R.

    Can't we be happy that someone has done something positive for the families, friends, and public. What have you done – all you criticizers. Shut the hell up and see the good in this kind gesture.

    July 25, 2012 at 12:32 pm |
    • ObamaJoe

      It's Ok,,,,,but not positive,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,

      July 25, 2012 at 12:37 pm |
  15. DO YOUR RESEARCH

    But Jesus DIDN'T die on a CROSS!!!! It was a straight torture stake. DO YOUR RESEARCH "Christians."

    July 25, 2012 at 12:32 pm |
    • Lorrie R.

      My research tells me you are uneducated and ignorant. But Jesus loves you just the same you sad sack.

      July 25, 2012 at 12:36 pm |
    • Rescue

      You need a hug don't you?

      July 25, 2012 at 12:42 pm |
    • HeavenSent

      Oh, we should research from your site of lies? ROTFLOL.

      July 25, 2012 at 12:47 pm |
    • Darth Cheney

      It doesn't really matter, and we don't really know. What we do know is that the cross has emerged as the key symbol of Christianity regardless of what happened that day. That's good enough – though it would be respectful to only use that symbol for Christians who died at the hands of this assault-weapon-toting freak.

      July 25, 2012 at 12:56 pm |
    • Nick

      So a theologian in 1922 believed that it wasn't a cross but one piece alone. Let's all believe him.

      July 25, 2012 at 12:57 pm |
  16. dang

    Alot of these people make me sick on here. He doing a good deed to people and trying to help out people. I guess people can see a good deed if it hit them in the face.

    July 25, 2012 at 12:31 pm |
  17. Seyedibar

    right... because nothing salves a person's fears like tiny replicas of an ancient torture device.

    July 25, 2012 at 12:29 pm |
  18. Scott

    Typical comments from the resident religion haters. Here is a man that takes his own time an money to put up memorials to the murdered victims and all the komrade atheists can do is diss the gentleman.

    Scott

    July 25, 2012 at 12:29 pm |
    • Anon

      The victims we're probably not all Christians, that's why.

      July 25, 2012 at 12:37 pm |
    • ObamaJoe

      not all religion haters are bad,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,because some of them realize the religion is not the real religion ,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,

      July 25, 2012 at 12:39 pm |
    • TruthPrevails :-)

      Scott: I have no use for religion but I think what this man is doing is a beautiful tribute. It gives a place for people to gather and honor & pray if they feel the need to and whether I agree with the belief or not, does not take away the benefit this does for those needing comfort in the face of tragedy. If one person finds solace through this, then this man has accomplished a lot.

      July 25, 2012 at 12:45 pm |
    • Anon

      There is no "real" religion. It's all a complete farce. Especially the three abrahamic desert blood cults invented by primitive bigoted men.

      July 25, 2012 at 12:46 pm |
    • HeavenSent

      Jesus' truth sets us free from the bondage of satan's lies.

      Romans 1:17-32

      July 25, 2012 at 12:49 pm |
  19. Rich

    Personally I'm against this. It's none of his business, not his grief, and not his decision. Families should have the choice to mourn in private and not make a public spectacle of it–and yes, this is a spectacle. If I was one of those families, I would most assuredly NOT want public displays like this trivializing the awful events.

    July 25, 2012 at 12:29 pm |
    • Marci

      Rich..read the article again. He goes where he is asked to go, "Now he receives around three calls a day from people all over the country asking for crosses" Don't be so quick to judge. And it is most definately NOT a spectacle to honor someone with a cross. Very kind and thoughtful of you Mr. Zanis.

      July 25, 2012 at 12:37 pm |
    • Anyone

      The world is the way it is 'cause nobody cares. Caring isn't a sin or spectacle as you put it, just giving a damn about others.

      Someone needs to give you hug.

      July 25, 2012 at 12:40 pm |
    • Jess

      I think it's great what he does. He doesn't accept money for it so I don't consider it disrespectful. And with situations like this it is public whether the families want it to be or not and most of the people who hear this kind of thing are saddened and mourn the loss of the victims as well–or at least civilized human beings do. I think he's a wonderful man.

      July 25, 2012 at 12:45 pm |
    • jgnewman

      When someone among us is kind and giving enough to do something to help to ease the pain of others, how can that be met with hostility?

      July 25, 2012 at 3:22 pm |
  20. Cryspyx

    i understand the gesture he's trying to make, but unless he took the time to learn whether or not every single victim was christian, than he's not doing anything to help with grieving and he's pushing his own agenda.

    July 25, 2012 at 12:27 pm |
    • Anyone

      You don't need to be a christian to have a cross be place on your grave or for remembrance. Help comes in many forms and this one of them.

      July 25, 2012 at 12:36 pm |
    • Anon

      I'm really hope Christianity dies soon.

      July 25, 2012 at 12:47 pm |
    • Anon

      *hopeful

      July 25, 2012 at 12:48 pm |
    • TruthPrevails :-)

      This has nothing to do with the religious aspect of it. This has to do with giving recognition to the innocent victims of a mad man. A place for families and friends; survivors and anyone else who wishes to, to gather and find some solace in a midst tragedy. I don't stop going to church funerals because I don't believe, I go out of respect for the deceased and the family...that all this man is doing for these innocent people.

      July 25, 2012 at 12:48 pm |
    • Anon

      It's very christocentric if you haven't noticed.

      July 25, 2012 at 12:59 pm |
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.