Church wants 2 giant symbols to bear witness
Grace Community Church is raising money to build two enormous crosses that its pastor says will mark the entrances to Houston on Interstate 45. The crosses will likely rank among the largest in the world.
Counting their bases, the crosses would reach up to 200 feet. Each would dwarf I-45's current symbol of Texas largeness. "Big Sam" Houston, the colossal statue in Huntsville, stands 77 feet tall with its base.
The symbols of Christianity would tower over Grace's freeway-hugging campuses: the south campus at Dixie Farm Road, and the new north campus just south of The Woodlands. Combined, they serve 12,000 members.
Part building, part sculpture, each cross would include a "prayer center" about 40 feet off the ground — a "Space Needle-type place," Pastor Steve Riggle said — where Christians from all over Houston could come to pray for the city's well-being.
An openwork globe 60 feet in diameter, with latitude and longitude lines crisscrossing the continents, would top the prayer center. The bottom of the cross would be visible through the globe.
Riggle sees the crosses as a symbolic stand against moral decay. "The freeways are littered with sexually oriented businesses," he said. "I'd rather see something that stands for hope, life and faith."
He hopes that other churches follow Grace's lead. "What if there was one of these at every entrance to the city?" he asks on a YouTube video. "You talk about marking our city for God!"
"Marking Our City" billboards show a giant cross looming over the Houston skyline, and promise a 150-foot cross is "coming soon." But the pastor hopes both structures will be 200 feet tall, roughly the height of a 20-story building. The Federal Aviation Administration, he said, may limit the south campus's cross to 150 feet because it's near Ellington Field.
The final designs also depend on the success of Grace's "Make Your Mark" fundraising campaign. Riggle declined to say what the crosses would cost, or to give a construction timeline. The drive also is raising funds for an American heritage museum on the north campus and for charitable initiatives.
Large crosses seem to be proliferating, said Doug Kirby, whose RoadsideAmerica.com lists giant crosses among many other offbeat tourist attractions. "If we start to see a lot of 200-footers, there's bound to be a 300-footer soon," he said.
'Getting bigger and bigger'
Bruce Webb, a professor at the University of Houston's Gerald D. Hines College of Architecture, said an enormous cross makes sense at the edge of a freeway, where car lots, fast food and sex clubs vie with churches for drivers' attention.
"If you want to play in that arena, that's how you compete," Webb said. "Everything keeps getting bigger and bigger."
The cross on Grace's billboards bears a striking likeness to one often hailed as the world's largest: the "Cross at the Crossroads" in Effingham, Ill. Completed in 2001, the white metal structure is 198 feet tall and measures 113 feet at its crossbar. It cost $1 million.
Florida has at least two contenders for the title of world's largest: At 208 feet, the cross at St. Augustine Mission, in St. Augustine, is taller than the cross in Illinois, but much thinner. In Orlando, First Baptist Church of Central Florida recently unveiled a 199-foot cross.
Whether the two Houston crosses would be the world's biggest depends on how their size is determined. None of the other crosses has a base, and it's not clear whether aficionados would include it in the height. Some definitions of "largest" include the width of the cross's arm, or the structure's weight.
Inspiration, or intimidation?
Michael Lindsay, a Rice sociology professor who studies the evangelical movement, said the enormous crosses fit another trend. "There's a desire to reclaim the profound Christian ethos that once punctuated America. It's like staking a flag in the ground."
The plan has its critics. The Rev. Matt Tittle, who leads Bay Area Unitarian Universalist Church, headlined a recent blog posting at HoustonBelief.com, "City of giant crosses? No thanks!"
"Not everybody feels honored, or even safe, in a city fortified by crosses," Tittle elaborated on the phone. "The crosses don't offend me. But they're a symbol of intimidation to some. And Christians don't need a monstrosity to seal their faith."
Leaders of other religious groups did not object.
"In the Hindu scriptures, there is something called sanatan dharma, it means all religions are related to truth," said Girishkumar Naik, president of Hindus of Greater Houston. "So if you see a form of a religious structure, treat it as a structure of God and move ahead with it."
Rodwan Saleh, president of the Islamic Society of Greater Houston, said the United States "is a land that promotes marketing of ideas. Muslims have the right to put billboards up that say 'Call 1-800-Why-Islam?' I have seen that in other cities. If Muslims can do that, Christians can put up a large cross, too."
Grace has the "right to do anything they want" on its property, said Elliot Gershenson, the leader of Interfaith Ministries for Greater Houston.
"I would question, however, whether in the times of scarcity that we are in, there aren't better ways to express the way each of us, in our own way, walk in God's path," said Gershenson, president and CEO of Interfaith Ministries.
Chronicle reporter Barbara Karkabi contributed.
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