"Love your brother, love your neighbor, and don't judge." This is the message retired union carpenter Greg Zanis said he wanted to bring with him on his journey to Orlando, Florida, to erect 49 crossesone for each of the victims of the Pulse Nightclub mass shooting.
Zanis, 65, resides in Aurora, Illinois, and has been married to his wife for 42 years; he calls himself "a man of faith." He added that his journey to Orlando was not an impulsive one. In fact, creating crosses and traveling to victims' homes is something Zanis has been doing for more than 20 years.
"In 1996, my best friend was murdered and I found his body," Zanis said. This sparked something in Zanis and led him to create his first cross. Later that year, 6-year-old Nico Contreras was killed. Contreras' mom offered to pay Zanis $20 to build her son a cross. Zanis refused pay and built the cross. Since then, he has constructed more than 15,000 crosses for the deceased.
Zanis said tha when the news of the Orlando mass shooting broke, he was in church; his pastor mentioned it. Ironically, though, Zanis said, "I feel that a huge amount of responsibility lies on the shoulders of the church." Zanis said he believes there is a lot of hate for the LGBT community because people fail to understand them.
Zanis, who considers himself a straight ally, said he has friends who are a part of the LGBT communityand what happened in Orlando was heartbreaking to him.
"The Bible tells us, 'Judge not,'" Zanis said. With this notion in mind, Zanis immediately said yes when he received a call from one of the victims' mother asking him if he'd be traveling to Orlando with his homemade crosses. He got right to work, making 25 of the crosses that day and the rest the next day. "I felt like a man on a mission," Zanis said.
Zanis said that he never makes fewer than 10 crosses at a time and he personally paints them himself. He also said that he will not display one of his crosses unless he has a picture of the victim because he feels that it is a way of personalizing each and every one of them. He added that his entire process is self-funded, although his daughter recently decided to create a GoFundMe account on his behalf.
Around 2 a.m. on the day following the shooting, Zanis had begun his 40-hour drive by himself, only stopping to sleep in his truck and give a press conference in his hometown of Nashville. Zanis said that once he made it to Orlando, it took him hours to set the crosses up because friends and family would come up to him hugging and thanking him. Despite the blistering Florida heat, people were at the site of the crosses with him all day long, bringing him food, water and even beer.
At one point, Florida Gov. Rick Scott came and asked if he needed anything. Zanis said he wasn't big on demands and responded that all he would like was a hugand so they did. Since then, Zanis has received thank you letters from Scott and many of the victims' families.
Zanis said he usually gives the victims' families the crosses within 40 days to a year. However, this was not the case this time around, as the 49 crosses were moved to the Orange County Regional History Museum.
Zanis continues to build his crosses. He has made crosses for recent tragic events such as the police shootings in Dallas and the fatal shooting of an unarmed Black man in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.
He was also awarded a space in Chicago to showcase his crosses. The lot is located in the Englewood neighborhood at 5538 S. Bishop St. ( A vigil was held last Dec. 31. ) He said that he got the idea from the incident in Orlando.
Zanis said he believes that, with numerous killings in Chicago, showcasing his crosses for victims can be a wakeup call. Hopefully, he said, the memorial is "a major way to slow down crime."
Pulse Special Section
Remembering the Pulse tragedy one year later at the link: www.windycitymediagroup.com/lgbt/Remembering-the-Pulse-tragedy-one-year-later/59386.html .
Pulse/Orlando events in Chicago at the link: www.windycitymediagroup.com/lgbt/Pulse-Orlando-events-in-Chicago/59385.html .
Aurora carpenter builds crosses for Pulse victims at the link: www.windycitymediagroup.com/lgbt/ORLANDO-SPECIAL-Aurora-carpenter-builds-crosses-for-Pulse-victims/59384.html .
SCOTTISH PLAY SCOTT 'Pulse' becomes a choral response at the link: www.windycitymediagroup.com/lgbt/SCOTTISH-PLAY-SCOTT-Pulse-becomes-a-choral-response/59381.html .