October 18, 2013
By Donna Gable Hatch Features Editor firstname.lastname@example.org dailytimes.com
The Coming King Foundation, a nonprofit arts foundation, recently received a $125,000 grant from the Hal & Charlie Peterson Foundation, which will enable work to continue on its Sculpture Prayer Garden.
The 23-acre site — which is located north of Kerrville at 520 Benson Drive, near the entrance of Interstate 10 West — features seven monumental sculptures that point to God. The centerpiece is The Empty Cross, a 77-foot 7-inch Cor-ten steel contemporary cross sculpture created by artist Max Greiner, Jr., founder of The Coming King Foundation.
The $2 million reddish brown, 70-ton cross is at the summit at the same latitude as Israel, approximately halfway between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans.
Since the entrance first opened in July 2010, thousands of people have visited the site, even in its unfinished state, some from as far away as Finland and Nigeria, Greiner said.
“The grant is being used to finish as much of the 300-foot cross-shaped garden at the top of the mountain as possible,” Greiner said. “Currently, the engineering drawings are being completed by VEI in Fredericksburg, so we can put this new construction out for bid at the first of next month.”
The Foundation won’t know how far the grant money will go until all the bids come in, he said, “but we believe (the foundation) should be able to build the top half of the garden.”
Greiner said he also hopes to complete the bottom half of the garden and install steps and an Americans with Disabilities Act ramp. “We will also place the monumental bronze sculptures in their permanent locations, finally, and we will begin placing the 77 scripture tiles in the cross-shape garden.”
The 16-inch by 16-inch tiles will be placed every 12 feet and will present the gospel in English, German and Spanish.
“Once we have the money, we will also place flag poles and landscaping around the cross.”
Throughout years of legal wrangling with residents who live along Mesa Vista — which is north of the garden — who worked to halt the project in court, Greiner remained steadfast in his devotion to his vision. “This cross will go up eventually. This is God’s project, and He will see it through,” Greiner said of the embattled project in January 2010. A settlement was reached in March of that year.
The Sculpture Prayer Garden — which boasts $2.3 million worth of Christ-honoring sculptures donated by internationally collected artists Beverly Paddleford, David Broussard and Greiner — is not quite 50 percent complete, but it’s getting closer every day.
The Texas Department of Transportation on Oct. 2 green-lighted distribution of Sculpture Prayer Garden brochures at each of its 12 Texas Travel Information Centers, which serve to “create a positive first impression of the Lone Star State,” according to TxDOT’s website. The move, Greiner said, will exponentially boost the number of visitors to the site, which is a boon for tourism.
“Many Christian denominations and churches request permission to have their events at the garden, even in its unfinished state,” said Greiner, a member of Impact Christian Fellowship, 2031 Goat Creek Road. “We also have already had Bible studies, concerts, presentations, weddings, memorials and tours — and there is no fee of any kind requested. This garden is a gift to the community.”
On Oct. 12, an army of Christian soldiers — volunteers in the Partners in Ministry’s Community Service Initiatives program and others — gathered at the site to install a Prayer Pathway. The outreach project focused on the installation of an 800-foot path incorporating nearly 1,000 ‘prayer rocks’ — small rocks on which visitors write a message or prayer and leave at the site — into the landscape.
Teams were comprised of multi-generational and multi-denominational volunteers — a first for CSI, Partners in Ministry president Jeff Anderson said. Teams also cleared land, cut branches, trimmed weeds and high grass and built a two-foot wide, weed-free strip along both sides of the pathway for placement of future prayer rocks.
“We organized the volunteers in eight blended task groups where, in past years, we would have organized in 30 or more homogeneous teams,” Anderson said. “The productivity of the eight task groups exceeded our expectations in regards to results, and the feedback has been very positive. We look forward to future CSI Days that support projects like Kerrville’s Prayer Pathway and help to lift up the Texas Hill Country.”
Greiner said the messages written on the rocks and in a prayer request box at the site are prayed over by a team of the foundation’s volunteers, called prayer intercessors.
One such volunteer is Col. Bill Lewis, 89, U.S. Air Force retired, who can be found from 4 to 6 p.m. Mondays and Fridays, eager to speak to visitors, answer questions, hear testimonies and offer prayers.
“I feel certain that people are drawn to the cross because God intended it would enable His children to feel His presence and share His story,” Lewis, who was among the legion of volunteers at the Prayer Pathway Project, said. “I’m amazed at how many people come, the reasons why they come and what they say they take away as a result of their visits. One man comes to the cross after work and spends a short time praying. He told me it enables him to go home from a stressful day feeling like the husband and father he wants to be.”
Many of the garden’s visitors, Greiner said, claim to have experienced the presence of God, genuine miracles, angels, and physical and emotional healing during their visit to the site.
Greiner knows skeptics abound, but he’s not apologetic for what happens on the hill.
“The miracles are real, and thousands of lives are now being changed for the better at The Empty Cross. God is doing these things, not us. It’s not my fault.”
Some critics of the project argue that donations to the foundation could be better spent in outreach to the community. Others say the site is zoned commercial for business — future plans do include a gift shop, restaurants and other commercial operations — which denigrates the site.
But Greiner takes pride in the fact that, since the beginning in 2005, the spiritual garden has been built “on faith in God, without debt or public tax money. The Foundation has only two part-time paid workers and no office. We do virtually everything with local volunteers.”
Yes, Greiner said, the Foundation hopes to lease several one-acre pad sites to family oriented businesses, such as restaurants or a Christian bookstore. Additionally, plans include a special area in the outer court where Christian artists, artisans and musicians can present and sell their work, “but all the artists will be required to sign a statement of faith in Jesus Christ, be willing to share their personal testimony with visitors and donate 10 percent of their sales to help support the Sculpture Prayer Garden,” he said.
None of the commercial ventures will be located at the summit, nor in the vicinity of the Prayer Sculpture Garden, Greiner said.
“We believe this area is holy ground. Never will there be a commercial operation at the summit.”
Some might not see it now, but it’s a win-win for the community and local economy, he said. “The income from these many revenue streams will allow (the Foundation) to keep the garden attraction free to the public forever, while providing ongoing funding to maintain the project … and will make money for a lot of local businesses in our community,” Greiner said. “The motels, restaurants and gas stations are already serving thousands of people who came to Kerrville to see the cross. This tourism will only increase.”
Anderson said it’s fiscally sound for the Foundation to try and generate income by sales or activities that are not part of a foundation’s main sources of income, which is through donations and grants. In order to maintain the site and keep it free for the community, Anderson said, the foundation will need to have a plan in place.
“Current funding providers will be encouraging this Foundation to develop ancillary sources of income so that the local community does not have to bear the weight of sustaining what is, essentially, a free public park,” Anderson, who served as an executive for two Wall Street firms, said. “A visitor center and food facilities may provide viable new income possibilities, if visitor growth continues to grow.”
To date, the Foundation has given away thousands of dollars worth of free Bibles, spiritual literature and teaching and worship music CDs, Greiner said. “We also give away thousands of the ‘Cross Over Texas’ auto decals, which would normally sell for $4 to $5 each. During the summer, we gave away hundreds of bottles of free water, too. There is no charge for what people receive at The Empty Cross. Jesus already paid the price.”
Greiner takes pride in the fact that the non-denominational spiritual garden has been built “on faith in God, without debt or public tax money. The Foundation has only two part-time paid workers and no office. We do virtually everything with local volunteers.”
Benefits to the community
When the project began, approximately 10 people a day visited the site. After the cross was erected, the number increased 10 fold. “Once the front entrance was paved and (the site) officially opened in July of 2012, the visitor numbers jumped to around 200 per day on average, for the next five months,” Greiner said. “The numbers really spiked up this summer with additional national and international publicity and promotion by the Kerrville Convention & Visitors Bureau. It is now the top year-round tourist attraction in Kerrville.”
The assessment, he said, is based on daily attendance numbers from at least 27 countries, national and international media coverage in both the secular and Christian press, and ratings on the Trip Advisor website, the leading tourism website in the USA.
Charlie McIlvain, executive director of the Kerrville Convention and Visitors Bureau, said he’s not surprised by the growing numbers of people who visit the site.
“We’re doing a lot advertising for the gardens. It’s a beautiful facility, and it will only get better as it reaches completion,” McIlvain said. “I’ve been up there on numerous occasions, and it is certainly a wonderful addition to the community and does draw visitors.”
Sugar Land resident Nana White said she and her husband, Lee, have followed the project throughout the years and made a special trip to Kerrville last April to visit the site.
“Even though it is as yet unfinished … it was a rich experience — to see the majestic cross looming up on the horizon as you approach Kerrville is breathtaking,” White said. “To stand within the cross and feel its power is humbling. The life-sized sculptures … bring life to those events. It is exciting to envision the garden in its completed state. Will it become a destination for travelers? Absolutely.”
Greiner said the art is undeniably powerful and beautiful to behold, “but people are being drawn to the garden not because of the art, but because God is manifesting His presence there.”
Kerrville resident Karl Jack agreed.
“I go up to the cross and pray there all the time, and I am awestruck by what God is doing up there,” Jack said. “God never starts anything He can’t finish. If we want to be blessed, we need to help in the completing of the prayer garden.”
Jennifer Rieck, who lives in Rio Medina with her husband, Bill, has made several pilgrimages to the site. She said she’s delighted to learn the project is making strides toward completion.
“My husband and I heard about the Prayer Garden Project about a year ago. As soon as we heard about it, we immediately drove up to Kerrville from Rio Medina to check it out,” Rieck said. “It’s absolutely gorgeous. We stood under the big cross and said prayers. We’ve taken our oldest son up there to see it, and my husband and I have gone back several times to see what progress has been made.”
Karen Cavanes said she and her family travel from Helotes to Kerrville specifically to visit the site. She said she thinks Kerrville is fortunate to have The Empty Cross perched on a hill just outside city.
“I think God smiles down on the people of Kerrville who made this place available for all to come and visit,” Cavanes said. “May God bless all the people who contributed to such a wonderful cause.”
At a glance
What: Sculpture Prayer Garden, 520 Benson Drive, near the entrance of Interstate 10 West
Details: A 23-acre garden featuring The Empty Cross, a seven-story contemporary cross sculpture on the hilltop overlooking the gardens. Six other sculptures are placed throughout the gardens with more sculptures to be added over time
Hours: 6 a.m.-midnight, seven days a week, 365 days a year
Admission: Free; guided tours available