A Sign From God?
Now, listen to me Reverend, all the
praying that you do Surely you’ve been favored with a miracle
or two I’m a stranger to the church, a little
lamb astray But if you show me a miracle I’ll be
there every day.
—“I’m Looking for a Miracle,” Jesse Winchester, 1978
The struggle for the image of Kerrville, Texas—and arguably for its soul—has gone into overtime. The good citizens of the tiny Mesa Vista subdivision have fought an evangelical Christian organization to a tie through four quarters, but beware the Hail Mary.
A legal dispute over a rural hilltop’s restrictive covenants and The Coming King Foundation’s intention to erect a seven-story cross on a lot overlooking Interstate 10 has evolved into a battle between born-again Christians flying the flag of religious freedom and Kerr- villians who object to such an ostentatious display.
At issue is a two-acre Mesa Vista lot that adjoins 21 acres of rocky soil punctuated by scattered live oaks and cedar trees on a north frontage road, aka Benson Drive, just west of the main portal to Kerrville, where Texas 16 intersects the interstate. Born-again artist-designer Max Greiner Jr., a Southern Baptist turned evangelical, says this is the exact location where, in 2003, God told him to erect a 77-foot, 7-inch cross to bring passers-by to Jesus.
“I had a vision of a cross-shaped garden with four of my Christian sculptures next to the interstate with cars coming into the gardens by the thousands. I saw a design of a hollow, empty cross symbolic of the resurrection,” Greiner tells me by phone as he motors toward Nashville to attend February’s National Religious Broadcasters Association conference.
That vision came to him, he says, as he prayed at Kerrville’s Y.O. Ranch Resort Hotel. “The Holy Spirit said, ‘Look up, and I’ll give you the mountain; it’s right in front of you.’ I could see the cedar-covered hill across the interstate.”
The Coming King Foundation’s Web site explains how God set aside property that “looks just like the Biblical Holy Land” where a giant cross would be “high and lifted up,” halfway between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans on Interstate 10, at “the same exact latitude of Israel.”
It turned out that Clifford Reeh, who owned the property, was not only a Christian, but years earlier had purchased a $1,500 bronze “Divine Servant” from Greiner’s gallery in west Kerr County. After praying, Reeh decided to donate the hillside for The Coming King Sculpture Prayer Gardens. When his heirs balked at that generosity, Reeh put a $500,000 price on the property.
The Web site details a series of prayer vigils and “miracles” leading to the 2005 purchase of the land by local rancher Herschel Reid, who then donated it to the foundation. Greiner saw God’s vision being fulfilled.
The foundation went public with its plans months later, telling city leaders the development would draw thousands of visitors to dine, shop, and lodge in local motels. Greiner says he secured the blessing of city planners and local tourism officials.
Not everyone was so sanguine about a religious theme park on Kerrville’s doorstep, especially the half-dozen or so residents living in the 36-year-old Mesa Vista subdivision. A number of individuals, including some the artist says are “atheists,” began speaking out against the project.
Mesa Vista homeowners such as Bill and Janet Leslie and Frank and Michelle Clark feared for their serenity and their views. The Clarks’ attorney filed an injunction against the foundation, claiming the project would violate deed restrictions precluding commercial use. The owners of six other Mesa Vista lots have since joined the suit.
As a result, all hell has broken loose. Front-page stories about the contentious project, as well as dozens of pro and con letters to the editor, continue to pepper the pages of the Kerrville Daily Times. District Judge Keith Williams recently ordered the parties to mediation, but they couldn’t reach an agreement.
Leslie sums up the sentiments of neighbors who live on the long cul-de-sac street creasing the 40-acre development.
“That cross is not a dwelling,” she says. “They’re trying to get around subdivision restrictions. With all that other land available, I don’t see the need for [Greiner] to put a cross in our subdivision.”
The clash has become the talk of this laid-back town of 20,000 in the heart of the Hill Country.
Writer and businessman Joe Herring Jr., a Kerrville native, says his 2007 Kerrville Daily Times op-ed questioning the erection of a “giant, gaudy cross paying tribute to ancient Rome’s crude but effective killing system” prompted more e-mails than anything he’s ever penned.
“That’s a big cross,” Herring says. “My biggest problem is the size of that thing.”
Greiner responds to criticism of the cross’s scale with a familiar refrain: “God said to make it that tall. The size is spiritually significant. … Most residents won’t see it because of the trees.”
Hometown jewelry designer James Avery weighed in on the controversy with a letter in the Daily Times in 2006. He didn’t object to the concept of a sculpture-prayer garden, but condemned the cross as just “another big highway billboard despoiling the Hill Country’s beautiful landscape.“
A number of Kerrvillians hew to that line of thinking. Many are Christians who say they don’t oppose the idea of a garden, but don’t like either its enormity or its prominence.
Still other God-fearers in this predominantly Republican community think the project would be great for Kerrville’s spirit, as well as its economy. They paint the naysayers as “Christian-bashers.” Some have gone so far as to label the Clarks, the couple who brought the suit, “anti-Christs.”
Marshall Rea, an attorney and friend of the Clarks, says in 40 years practicing law he’s never seen such vitriol directed at a client. The Clarks have recently moved down the road to Hunt, but plans to sell their $300,000 home in Mesa Vista have been complicated by the prospect of Greiner’s cross next door.
Greiner insists he’s the victim, of rumors and an unidentified “atheist from Austin” who came to Kerrville, told lies to the newspaper, and harassed him. The sculptor, whose collectors include Jack Nicklaus, George W. and Laura Bush and Billy Graham, says that since he announced plans for the cross, “there’s been nothing but commotion and chaos.”
One point of confusion involves the commercial pad sites depicted in the park’s master plan. They’re at the lower reach of the property, downhill from the cross, on the frontage road. Since no entry fees will be charged to tour the prayer gardens, Greiner says, leasing the pads to restaurants—Greiner mentions IHOP and Cracker Barrel—would help fund operations. Greiner says, “I am not making any money off this project. My wife and I are donating $1 million worth of sculptures. This is a gift from the body of Christ to the world, for our community and to lift up the body of Christ.”
Already the price tag has hit $2 million, with money raised from donations of true believers. So far, funds have been used on roads and rock work. Massive blocks of limestone—$300,000 worth—line the caliche roads crisscrossing the property. The pricey concrete foundation for the 48,000-pound metal cross has been partially poured as well. If The Coming King Foundation reaches its $5 million fundraising goal, the roads will be paved, and restrooms and a visitor center built.
Unlike neighbors Fredericks-burg and Bandera, Kerrville suffers from something of an identity crisis. Fredericksburg boasts more than two dozen wineries, 200-plus B&Bs, and shopping galore. Bandera, 22 miles south of Kerrville, lives up to its moniker as “Cowboy Capital of Texas.”
The scenic Guadalupe River town of Kerrville, on the other hand, can’t seem to figure out what it wants to be when it grows up.
Kerrville’s image-makers long ago passed on their chance to market the city’s most obvious claim to fame, the long-running Kerrville Folk Festival, which annually draws 30,000 music lovers over 18 days, pumping millions into city coffers.
Sudie Burditt, executive director of the Kerrville Convention and Visitors Bureau, hasn’t decided how the sculpture garden and cross might come into play, marketing-wise. She’s seen plans for the gardens and believes they’ll be “first class.”
Project supporter Fern Lancaster thinks the prayer garden will give her hometown an economic boost: “It would bring in lots of people like those who visit the Alamo and River Walk only an hour away.”
Then again, Kerrville’s cross would be anything but unique. America’s highways and byways are full of kitschy tributes to Christianity. Near Groom, Texas, on Interstate 40, a 190-foot cross rises over the Panhandle plains. There’s a 100-foot cross and visitor center in Ballinger, Texas, on the Colorado River northeast of San Angelo. In Effingham, Illinois, a nearly 200-foot cross marks the roadside spot where travelers can stop and hear the Ten Commandments projected from large, rock-shaped speakers. In fact, Greiner says the Kerrville project is just the prototype for a nationwide series of Coming King sculpture and prayer gardens.
Consider, too, that next door to the proposed cross is an SUV-sized U.S. flag flying from a skyscraping pole at Cecil Atkission Motors. On the other side of the foundation’s property, behind a cedar break, is a mobile home park.
“Sure, a meditation garden is a lovely concept, but not behind a car dealership,” says Kerrville’s Doris Trzcinski. “It’s in poor taste, not so much what they’re doing, but where they’re doing it. I would like to see it tucked back in the hills.”
Kerrville resident Bill Cantrell draws a stronger line.
“I don’t believe in anyone pushing their religion down other people’s throats,” the retired naval officer says. “It would seem to shout to all passing east or west, north and south, that here in Kerrville all of you Christians will find love, kindness, and succor in the community, but the rest of you might have to show your credentials.”
Beverly Lohman, who lived in Kerr County for 20 years before moving to Austin, shares Cantrell’s suspicion. She designed the popular labyrinth, rock wall and water feature at Kerrville’s oldest church, St. Peter’s Episcopal.
“It will mean Religious Right,” she says of the cross. “With more than 100 churches, Kerrville is a mostly conservative, Religious Right community, but there are artists, writers and others hiding out in the hills. It’s really speaking for a community that may not want that. For an artist, something like this cross becomes a testament to one’s ego. The whole Jesus thing is supposed to be about one’s beliefs and the word, not an in-your-face kind of thing.”
For his part, Greiner has lined up the backing of Christian evangelical heavy hitters including Pat Robertson, Rick Warren, James Dobson, and Franklin Graham, who’ve apparently prayed over the Kerrville project.
If that’s not sign enough of Greiner’s access to God’s will, witness the many miracles Greiner says have become manifest in his life since 1989, when he was called to become an evangelist and “bring the unsaved to Jesus.” On his Web site, Greiner testifies to seeing hundreds of prayerful people covered in “Shekinah Glory,” a miracle gold dust that materializes out of thin air. Greiner’s loved ones, home and studio have been sprinkled with the holy particles, he says.
Those miracles and others, he says, have been witnessed at the site of The Coming King Sculpture Prayer Gardens. Salvations and baptisms have occurred. Believers who have gathered in prayer on the hill since 2007 claim to have seen “angelic orbs” floating above the land, and Greiner says that when work began on the site, snakes slithered from the hillside and a pure white dove descended in front of an equipment operator.
Back on the earthly plane, city of Kerrville regulations have only muddied the holy waters.
Existing sign ordinances don’t address a situation like the cross, though crosses in general are regarded as religious symbols and not subject to municipal regulation. When Greiner visited city planning officials in fall 2007, the city gave him the green light. Only later, when howls went up about the size of the cross, did the City Council feel compelled to take another look at how planning and zoning regulations might apply.
City Attorney Mike Hayes says he and his staff determined that the cross did not meet the definition of a sign, so no restrictions would apply. Greiner will, however, need to get appropriate building permits and plat approvals and meet building codes, Hayes says. So far, Hayes says, “We have nothing pending.”
Longtime resident and builder Andy Phillips chairs the city’s Planning and Zoning Commission. He says the giant cross issue “isn’t being addressed at this time with respect to the sign ordinance.” The commission, Phillips says, is working to revise subdivision, zoning and sign ordinances, but the revisions might take a year or more.
City Councilman T. Scott Gross, who admits his personal opposition to the megacross, calls the issue the “elephant in the room.”
“We need to clarify our ordinance,” Gross said at a recent council meeting, “so somebody can’t put up a 77-foot anything without a permit. Language needs to be clarified. We need a definition of what is a symbol and when does a symbol become a sign. I think it crosses the line [and becomes a sign] if it’s a commercial venture.”
God may work in mysterious ways, but in the case of the Kerrville Cross, not very quickly. What does the future hold for Greiner’s holy rest stop? It’s already well into 2009, and his presumably godly enterprise is tangled in a mortal legal web. What happens if the court upholds the temporary injunction against Greiner’s cross?
“I don’t think it will happen,” Greiner says as he whizzes toward Nashville, $100,000 worth of his celebrated Christian sculptures in tow. “God has taken control, and God is elevating this to raise the visibility of the gardens. Nobody ever heard of the Jews until the Pharaoh tried to stop them from doing what God told them to do. We believe God will elevate this issue to the national and international level.”
Kerrville’s many Doubting Thomases beg to differ. They’re hoping for deliverance, miraculous or otherwise, from this mighty cross to bear.
Robert McCorkle has written about Texas music, people and places for 35 years. He lives in the Hill Country.