San Antonio Express-News Cover Story
Messages in the prayer garden
Many visitors’ words on stones seen as proof of the site’s sacredness
Sunday, August 31, 2014
By Zeke MacCormack
KERRVILLE — Visitors to The Coming King Sculpture Prayer Garden have left behind so many messages written on flat stones — often appeals for divine intervention — that rocks are hauled to the craggy hilltop to meet the demand.
“Are you there? Are you here God? I need you,” says one of the makeshift limestone tablets along an 800-foot “prayer path” that wasn’t in the garden’s original design.
The unscripted outpouring is seen by some as further proof of the sacredness of the free Hill Country site, said to draw more than 200 visitors on weekdays — twice that many on weekends — who pray, meditate and socialize amid large religious sculptures.
“Thousands of tourists report witnessing miracles, angels, supernatural signs and wonders,” said Max Greiner Jr., an artist, evangelical Christian, and the unabashed promoter and driving force behind the project. He sees it as the first of several gardens planned nationwide by The Coming King Foundation, a nonprofit he leads.
The foundation had to settle a lawsuit with neighbors to build the garden’s centerpiece, a 77-foot metal cross, in 2010. Tourism officials have been reluctant to promote Greiner’s regular accounts of divine occurrences there, which have drawn disbelieving shrugs from many locals.
But the gripes have subsided, and Mayor Jack Pratt calls the garden “a positive addition” to Kerrville, both economically and spiritually. “It is a symbol of the values that we espouse in our community,” he said, adding, “I consider it a major tourist attraction. … I’d say over 50 percent of (garden visitors) are from outside the city.”
Bill Lewis, a volunteer garden guide, has accommodated so many visitors who want to leave a note along the path that he has lost track of how many felt-tip markers he has lost.
“Everybody who comes up here wants to borrow a pen,” joked Lewis, 90. “No matter why they came, they leave feeling they’ve been in the presence of God, and that’s the amazing thing.”
He’ll get no argument from Darci and Steve Depweg, who recently moved to Pipe Creek from Nevada. “You can definitely feel it’s a holy place,” said Darci Depweg, 50, minutes after arriving.
More than $2 million has been raised and spent at the site, which is clearly visible to 16,000 motorists daily on nearby Interstate 10. Greiner envisions someday having a visitor center and restaurants.
“I am not aware of any other daily, year-round, tourist attraction in the Texas Hill Country that is drawing more visitors … this side of the Alamo and River Walk,” Greiner said.
The pressing priorities are paving the dusty parking lots and roads, adding restrooms and planting trees (which Greiner plans to call “The Found Maples”) along a recently poured 300-foot concrete walkway called “The Path to Heaven.”
“It’s amazing how many people come up here,” said Danny Mooney, one of many contractors who donated services at the garden. He installed tiles bearing 77 scripture verses — each in English, Spanish and German — along the new path.
The garden has logged visitors from every state and at least 37 other countries since opening in
2011, despite spotty promotion by the Kerrville Convention & Visitors Bureau because of unease
about Greiner’s claims of angel sightings, miracles, sprinklings of “glory dust” on visitors and other
“Those are things we don’t even discuss,” said bureau director Charlie McIlvane, who declined to issue Greiner’s latest release, titled “Path to Heaven Found in Kerrville,” though it is posted on the bureau’s website.
Greiner credits a divine vision for the garden, telling visitors Toby and Osvaldo Valdez, “God said, ‘Don’t make it as a ministry or a church, make it as an art garden.’”
“We’re doing this to bring people into the presence of God,” he said.
After seeing a garden brochure at a local eatery, the Yorktown couple joined the foundation and made a donation before visiting. “It’s more than I ever thought.
I’m just so impressed,” said Toby Valdez, 75.
The garden’s backers include the Hal and Charlie Peterson Foundation, which usually supports health care and education nonprofits. It has given the garden $295,000 since 2010.
“We generally do not fund purely religious requests,” said foundation manager
Brian T. Oehler, noting the garden is registered in IRS filings as an art museum.
“We look at it as a major (tourist) draw for the Hill Country.”
The site doesn’t hold universal allure among locals, however. One resident, asked why she has never visited, replied, “I can see it just fine from down below.”
Another, Nancy Riley, 76, said, “I carry too big a cross, as it is, to go look at another one.”
The 2008 lawsuit was filed by residents of the Mesa Vista subdivision, opposing the inclusion of a subdivision lot in the garden based on deed restrictions. A second lot was recently bought by a foundation supporter and donated to expand the garden to 241/2 acres.
“I don’t know what the deal is with people in Kerrville,” said Sherry Greiner, Max’s wife. “It’s possible they don’t have time with work and family and other obligations they have.”
But Irma Chavez, a Kerrville resident, said a day hasn’t passed in nearly three years without her traveling from her home here to the peaceful hilltop.
“I just go there to pray to my Lord and to reach out to the souls,” said Chavez, 49.