home
RSS
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.

CNN’s Belief Blog: The faith angles behind the biggest stories

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.

Follow the CNN Belief Blog on Twitter

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. TruthPrevails :-)

    Even as a non-believer I see the good in this. The victims families regardless of belief or disbelief have one things in common-they all lost a loved one to a mad man that night. If this memorial takes the attention away from the crazed freak who brought these people such great heart break, perfect. Each of these crosses bares the name of the victims. This spot gives those families a place to gather and share stories and come together to share in their grief...maybe share some stories, maybe hug another person and maybe just find something to hold on to during such a horrific time. Is it such a bad thing to allow them to gather and pay tribute to those who lost their lives? These families will share a common bond forever now and this place will be good for them when they need to face the courts dealings in regards to this. Let them have their space and have some respect.

    July 25, 2012 at 1:12 pm |
    • Peace2All

      @TruthPrevails 🙂

      ^Like^

      Peace...

      July 25, 2012 at 1:18 pm |
    • Anon

      Crosses are inhuman torture devices that somehow got mixed with an imaginary zombie Jew that was somehow his own father and son at the same time. You find good in that?

      July 25, 2012 at 1:21 pm |
    • HeavenSent

      Jesus was Judean, not a Jew. It was Pilate at the time they cried for Him to be crucified if He were king of the jews.

      July 25, 2012 at 1:28 pm |
    • TruthPrevails :-)

      Anon: I don't look at it that way...not in this situation...in the biblical sense, yes but all this man is doing is giving the victims a memorial and if that happens to be in the form of a cross, so be it...at least he is not paying tribute to the monster who took their lives. This is not about belief or disbelief, this is about a senseless loss of life and as previously stated it will give the families a place to gather...I see no harm in what he is doing. Sadly you're making us non-believers look worse...we don't need further help on that and this is not the time. Have some respect for the deceased and their families at this time please.

      July 25, 2012 at 1:30 pm |
    • gary james

      in the wake of the tragedy in Aurora CO..there has already been media talk of tearing the theater down.... here is my suggestion... Re model the Century 16 theaters to 13 theaters... change the name of the theater to MEMORIAL 13 name each room after each of the people killed and dedicate one to the injured... and their names and memory will live on... pass this on or share if you think this is a good idea

      July 25, 2012 at 1:55 pm |
  2. Wayfaring Stranger

    Have some respect for the deceased! At least this man cares enough to take the time to honor their memory! How are you honoring it, by bashing him for caring? The cross is a beautiful symbol of hope!

    July 25, 2012 at 1:12 pm |
    • Who invited me?

      the cross was a device used to torture people to death. Odd symbol of hope you have chosen.

      July 25, 2012 at 1:15 pm |
    • Wayfaring Stranger

      It's a symbol of the ultimate love of Jesus Christ and the choice of a future eternity with him DEFEATING DEATH AND HELL!!! Sorry who invited me. By the way would you like to go to church with me, I'm inviting, or your could accept Jesus as your Lord and Saviour, He's inviting. Have a lovely day!

      July 25, 2012 at 1:18 pm |
    • Who invited me?

      been to churches...hard to keep from laughing at all the rituals and other rediculousness, that is not even in the bible.
      You sure find some odd ways to honor "Him"
      Like the first communion where catholics dress up their daughters as little child brides of christ, what's up with that?

      July 25, 2012 at 1:24 pm |
    • Anon

      As if the mythological mofo known as Jesus existed in the first place. You've all been hoodwinked by a nearly 2,000 year old desert farce.

      July 25, 2012 at 1:27 pm |
    • HeavenSent

      Ecclesiastes 12:13-14

      13 Let us hear the conclusion of the whole matter: Fear God, and keep his commandments: for this [is] the whole [duty] of man.

      14 For God shall bring every work into judgment, with every secret thing, whether [it be] good, or whether [it be] evil.

      Amen.

      July 25, 2012 at 2:08 pm |
  3. nik green

    How does he know that all the victims were Christian?

    July 25, 2012 at 1:12 pm |
    • Wayfaring Stranger

      How do you know that they wouldn't be honored at the thought of him caring???

      July 25, 2012 at 1:12 pm |
    • ObamaJoe

      Think it in a Human way,,,,,,,,,,,,,

      July 25, 2012 at 1:13 pm |
    • Mark

      How stupid are you people? He only makes the crosses if he is asked to.

      July 25, 2012 at 1:18 pm |
    • Anon

      Crosses are inhuman torture devices that somehow got mixed with an imaginary zombie Jew that was somehow his own father and son at the same time.

      July 25, 2012 at 1:18 pm |
  4. KATFISCH

    I'm a Jew, and while I can appreciate this man's kind intentions, I would not happy if I were one of the victims and a cross was erected in my memory without consulting the family first. And if my family member were killed and a cross was erected on his/her behalf, I'd ask him to take it down, and I sure hope I woouldn't be considered un–American for doing that. With due respect to my Christian friends, I'm weary of the general Americanization of Christianity and its symbols. I disagree with Voice of Reason, To me, the cross is still very much a Christian symbol, as Christmas is a Christian holiday.

    July 25, 2012 at 1:11 pm |
    • Mark

      How stupid are you people? He only makes the crosses if he is asked to.

      July 25, 2012 at 1:16 pm |
    • HeavenSent

      True Jews from one of the tribes of Israel are Christians.

      July 25, 2012 at 2:10 pm |
  5. Unknown

    The "loving and accepting" atheists will hate this.

    July 25, 2012 at 1:09 pm |
    • iheartyou

      don't hate it at all. this was such a tragic thing to have happened that if putting wooden polka-dot frogs up would help grieving family members and survivors feel better then i think it's great. a wooden cross means nothing in the world to me, but i understand that it means something to others. it's not for me to say what should and shouldn't help ease someone else's pain. i think it's a very sweet and caring gesture and i hope it helps. compassion, sympathy and caring for your fellow man is not exclusive to "church folks".

      July 25, 2012 at 1:15 pm |
    • Atheist

      We just thinks its pointless and self serving for self-righteous Christians who sob over 12 Americans they didn't know but don't care about hundreds of thousands of afghanis, iraqis, and Syrians who are being slaughtered either by us or due to our policies. You Christians are ignorant and selfish and it makes those of us who are sick of your cultural tyrrany happy to see you upset and offended. You live in a fantasy.

      July 25, 2012 at 1:16 pm |
    • TruthPrevails :-)

      I'm an Atheist and I put a cross on my Mom's grave...out of respect for her! When that cross was replaced with her stone, my brothers and I had 'psalms 23' and two crosses engraved-all out of respect for her. I will go to a church funeral, I will not participate but I will go-out of respect. I do not feel that grief is a time for anyone to start picking on the belief or disbelief of another person...these times are already tough without more being added to it.

      July 25, 2012 at 1:20 pm |
    • Dee Smith

      I'm an atheist, and I think the sentiment is wonderful. Like most atheists, I don't have to believe in someone's religion to appreciate their philosophy.

      July 25, 2012 at 1:25 pm |
    • HeavenSent

      Truth, your heart seems to be opening to His truth.

      Blessed are they that mourn: for they shall be comforted.

      Matthew 5:4

      Amen.

      July 25, 2012 at 1:32 pm |
  6. Atheist

    Hopefully this guy gets it at the screening of the sequel. Haha! Praise nothing!

    July 25, 2012 at 1:09 pm |
    • bla bla bla

      You are a creep.

      July 25, 2012 at 1:22 pm |
  7. etta rgun

    Man's crosses huge waste of everyone's time.

    July 25, 2012 at 1:07 pm |
    • ObamaJoe

      And trees 🙂

      July 25, 2012 at 1:09 pm |
  8. ObamaJoe

    ,,,I'm not you kind of Christian,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,Lorrie R.

    I have holy bible in my heart ,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,

    Newest version

    July 25, 2012 at 1:07 pm |
  9. GAW

    If these people want crosses so be it. To some people it's symbolism to others they are an eyesore. Live and let live.

    July 25, 2012 at 1:06 pm |
  10. chrism

    Thank you, CNN, for featuring this beautiful, touching and inspiring story.

    July 25, 2012 at 1:05 pm |
    • ObamaJoe

      ?????????

      ,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,weak,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,hopeless,,,,,,,,,,,

      Don't know GOD,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,wondering,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,

      That's it,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,

      July 25, 2012 at 1:08 pm |
  11. Steve

    Nice little make-shift memorial ... assuming all were Christians. If not, don't be surprised if an "ObamaJoe" comes out of the woodwork demanding one cross, representing his relative, be taken down. I'm a Christian, but in cases like this, you're usually better off with flowers and teddy bears. For those who think I'm "compromising", I would suggest that if you call this "witnessing", I'd call your idea of witnessing pretty weak. Try something a little more novel, like *talking* to people, if that is your intent.

    July 25, 2012 at 1:04 pm |
  12. Greg

    For all those that continue to complain about what this man is doing let me ask you all this. What have you done to help any of these people. Do you know how it feels to be a victim as these families do?
    This isn't about any type of religion, it is about giving something for nothing? ,aybe you do not understand that because you all care about yourselves. Maybe stop and realize that you are not the only one on this planet and just because it is one of the oldest symbols in the world you have a problem with it. So I say make another symbol and take the time out of your lives and go to these places like this gentleman and do the same thing. Or are you all just to heartless and selffish!

    July 25, 2012 at 1:04 pm |
    • Atone Deaf

      It is about religion. If it wasn't there would be no use for the crosses.

      July 25, 2012 at 1:07 pm |
    • Greg

      AtoneDeaf...............Do you have another symbol or other type of jester that isn't crude or misleading?

      July 25, 2012 at 1:11 pm |
  13. Get over it

    Everybody has challenges. We need to learn to get past them and go on with our lives. This man needs help. This is ridiculous. Crosses in this situation are just obsessive reminders of tragedy. Does he not think about all the other people that have experienced tragedy? It happens daily. People do not want to be reminded of it over and over. I think he is selfish and inconsiderate.

    July 25, 2012 at 1:04 pm |
    • Quote from the article

      "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." Sounds to me like he receives calls from people asking for the crosses... ?

      July 25, 2012 at 1:22 pm |
  14. Leslie

    This guy has a heart of gold.

    July 25, 2012 at 1:02 pm |
    • QS

      So everybody else grieving and offering condolences that are NOT putting up crosses, they're just losers, right?

      July 25, 2012 at 1:05 pm |
  15. TechnoCritter

    This man is a hero.

    July 25, 2012 at 1:01 pm |
    • Atone Deaf

      Hero? You have low standards. Your a turd.

      July 25, 2012 at 1:05 pm |
    • QS

      Playin kinda fast and loose with the word "hero".

      July 25, 2012 at 1:05 pm |
    • TechnoCritter

      @QS: Not at all. This man wants to bring comfort to those in mourning at his own expense. Maybe he's not serving on the front lines or saving lives in a hospital, but this is an act of compassion and generosity that I wish I saw more of.

      @Atone Deaf: I think it's supposed to be "you're".

      July 25, 2012 at 5:01 pm |
  16. Pat

    I wonder how many Atheists were in the theater that night? And I wonder how many Atheists walked out believing in God?

    July 25, 2012 at 1:00 pm |
    • Jim

      answer to first question – probably a few. Answer to second question – none.

      July 25, 2012 at 1:02 pm |
    • ERSmith

      I don't know how many walked out but I can guarantee those who didn't are not atheists anymore.

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

      How's that ER? Because they're dead they are no longer Atheist. So all the Christians that are dead from this shooting are no longer Christian for the same reason, right?

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

      or how many people who believed in god who died athiests with guns in their faces

      July 25, 2012 at 1:07 pm |
    • rdeleys

      How many people went into the theater as Christians and left as atheists, wondering how they could possibly have ever believed in such an impotent, barbaric god.

      July 25, 2012 at 1:08 pm |
    • Pat

      Ya know Jim, its funny. I knew a couple Atheists down range in Iraq, but once they started getting shot at and blown up they found God pretty quick . I suspect the same kinda happen in this situation.

      July 25, 2012 at 1:08 pm |
    • dbs

      haha i wonder how much left as atheists knowing it as just a crazy person who lost it ..religion is a belief nothing more its there when no one is what about summeria

      July 25, 2012 at 1:09 pm |
    • Peace2All

      @ERSmith

      " I don't know how many walked out but I can *guarantee* those who didn't are not atheists anymore."

      Really ? How is it you can *guarantee* this ?

      Peace...

      July 25, 2012 at 1:10 pm |
    • JWT

      Just because someone is in a stressful or even life adn death scenario does not mean they find a non-existant god.

      July 25, 2012 at 1:11 pm |
    • Anon

      Hey Pat if you get blown up by a suicide bomber at least you'll get 72 virgins.

      July 25, 2012 at 1:15 pm |
    • Thackerie

      Why do you have so much hatred for people who don't accept your religious view? Do you think your Jesus would be proud of you for portraying Christianity as a religion of bigotry and hate?

      Or, are you actually a raving atheist who is deliberately portraying Christianity in a bad light in order to turn them away from religion? If so, you're doing a great job of it.

      July 25, 2012 at 1:29 pm |
  17. Kathleen

    This article completely fails to mention the obvious: why does this Christian think his religious crosses would be welcome by non-Christians? Suppose this guy was a Jew putting up a stars-of-David for all the victims, regardless of whether they worshipped the Jewish god or not? Does anybody at CNN ever think things through?

    Hey, CNN - are your editors really so clueless that they miss such an elephant in the room?

    July 25, 2012 at 1:00 pm |
    • lindaluttrell

      Christians find the cross as a sign of comfort...given that Christ died for their sins....understood. However, the process itself of crucifixion has to be one of the most PAINful, tormenting deaths ever. Therefore, I've always puzzled over how it can symbolize peace/faith. We are so quick to condemn the Swastika and other "symbols" of violence...yet we embrace the cross...a religious icon of Roman cruelty.

      July 25, 2012 at 1:09 pm |
    • TJ

      Exactly what I was thinking.

      July 25, 2012 at 1:11 pm |
    • Mark

      Your post makes your ignorance pretty obvious to the world. He only makes the crosses if he is asked to. Maybe he does make markers of other religions if they ask him to. Now back under your rock with you before you're roadkill.

      July 25, 2012 at 1:11 pm |
    • Anon

      Christians rarely if ever consider other belief or lack of (atheist). The most important thing in their minds is fu(king Jesus.

      July 25, 2012 at 1:12 pm |
    • Matt

      because they are ignorant of other religions....now not saying the guy is not doing a nice gesture...he is. what we should do is make a universal symbol, nothing religious that acknowledges the death of someone without religious implications..

      July 25, 2012 at 1:13 pm |
    • Andrea

      Mark: He doesn't just make them if asked. Read the story – he goes to the sight and puts up crosses. Then others may call him asking for crosses. No one asked here or at Columbine.

      July 25, 2012 at 1:27 pm |
    • bla bla bla

      He makes crosses if he is asked to:

      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.

      July 25, 2012 at 1:28 pm |
    • Tony

      @ Mark & bla bla bla
      Where does it say he ONLY makes crosses when asked? Yes, he makes them when he is asked, he also makes them when NOT asked. Aurora is an excellent example of the latter. This shooting happened on Friday. Zanis had his crosses placed by the end of the weekend. That means that if he was asked by the victims' families, they (ALL 12 families) would have had to IMMEDIATELY think "We need a memorial, let's call that guy in Illinois who builds crosses and have him make one for our loved one". Sorry, I can't believe that the victims' families FIRST thoughts were of Zanis and his crosses.

      July 30, 2012 at 11:53 am |
  18. Nobama

    Wonderful gesture by Mr. Zanis. The ignorant anti-religious comments are funny to read, too. It's hilarious how many bigots are so terrified of another person's faith. Is it because of personal shame? Probably so.

    July 25, 2012 at 1:00 pm |
    • Atone Deaf

      The ignorant religious posts on here are funny. Your probably mentally challenged if your think god exists. Delusion much nobama? Probably so.

      July 25, 2012 at 1:03 pm |
    • PraiseTheLard

      No... it's because we find such overt examples of extreme stupidity offensive.

      July 25, 2012 at 1:03 pm |
    • Nobama

      @ Atone Dead - More great humor from a bigot worthy of our pity. (Pssst - learn the difference between "your" and "you're" before calling someone else ignorant.) Shouldn't have dropped out of high school, sparky.

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

      "The ignorant anti-religious comments are funny to read, too. It's hilarious how many bigots are so terrified of another person's faith" – Yeah we are terrified because that so called "faith" fly's planes into buildings you idiot!!

      July 25, 2012 at 1:06 pm |
    • Peace2All

      @Nobama

      Hey -Nobama...

      " It's hilarious how many bigots are so terrified of another person's faith. "

      What makes you think people that don't share your 'faith' are *terrified* ?

      And, how do you even conclude that it's because of "personal shame" ? W – T- F ?

      Some 'may' be *terrified* at the ramifications of 'believers' *actions* as a result of said 'beliefs.'

      Regards,

      Peace...

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

      Some people are so blinded by their faith that they truly can't understand what it's like when you finally see through the lie that is religion. I believe in you Nobama, keep trying.

      July 25, 2012 at 1:10 pm |
    • Nobama

      I clearly touched a nerve with some of these bigots. Each and every one of you has a God-sized hole in your heart. And only God can fill it. Instead of throwing insults at a good person like our cross-making gentleman, perhaps you should search your own soul for what's missing in your life.

      July 25, 2012 at 1:11 pm |
    • rdeleys

      Yeah, I'd be proud of faith the way I'd be proud of syphilis. I don't want either.

      July 25, 2012 at 1:12 pm |
    • Atone Deaf

      You exude many excellent Christian traits, nobama. Your just a typical anti liberal dipsh•t who has no clue about what your talking about.
      P.S. I guarantee I have a higher education level than you. Get a masters degree then come back. PWND.

      July 25, 2012 at 1:12 pm |
    • Peace2All

      @Nobama

      Way to 'side-step' answering my legitimate questions to your initial posting.

      Peace...

      July 25, 2012 at 1:20 pm |
  19. Dexter

    Why is it that when someone does something good and from the heart people bad mouth them and try to tear them down. Who cares what faith they are, most people with commen sense understands what the cross stands for. God Bless this man. We need more people like him in this world.

    July 25, 2012 at 12:59 pm |
    • Atone Deaf

      I hope he burns in hell.

      July 25, 2012 at 1:00 pm |
    • Thackerie

      "Who cares what faith they are?" Obviously not the cross-planting dude! To him, one dead body is as good as another dead body for advertising his faith.

      I don't wish the guy any harm or anything. He's probably so ga-ga for Jesus that he actually thinks he's accomplishing something. I just think what he's doing is pretty silly and worthless. He could put all that money he's wasting traveling around the country to pimp Christianity to better use and actually do something helpful with it. But then I guess he wouldn't get the level of attention he desires.

      July 25, 2012 at 1:39 pm |
  20. Grigory Dashevsky.

    I post a comment,but you didn't write mu comment.Is this a free country only for guns???????????????????

    July 25, 2012 at 12:59 pm |
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9
Advertisement
About this blog

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.