Why Aurora man builds crosses for Chicago homicide victims

 
 
Updated 12/30/2016 8:53 PM
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  • Retired Aurora carpenter Greg Zanis built more than 750 crosses to represent each homicide death this year in Chicago. The crosses stood outside Restoration Church in Aurora for a prayer vigil Friday.

      Retired Aurora carpenter Greg Zanis built more than 750 crosses to represent each homicide death this year in Chicago. The crosses stood outside Restoration Church in Aurora for a prayer vigil Friday. Daniel White | Staff Photographer

  • Jack Wegley, a 12-year-old from Joliet, places candles on the crosses built for those killed in Chicago in 2016. Marchers are set to carry the crosses Saturday in Chicago.

      Jack Wegley, a 12-year-old from Joliet, places candles on the crosses built for those killed in Chicago in 2016. Marchers are set to carry the crosses Saturday in Chicago. Daniel White | Staff Photographer

  • Kent Wegley of Joliet carries a cross in memory of Rickey King.

      Kent Wegley of Joliet carries a cross in memory of Rickey King. Daniel White | Staff Photographer

  • Jack Wegley, 12, of Joliet, carries one of the 770 crosses displayed at Restoration Church in Aurora ahead of a prayer vigil Friday.

      Jack Wegley, 12, of Joliet, carries one of the 770 crosses displayed at Restoration Church in Aurora ahead of a prayer vigil Friday. Daniel White | Staff Photographer

  • The crosses covered the front lawn of Restoration Church in Aurora along Indian Trail Road.

      The crosses covered the front lawn of Restoration Church in Aurora along Indian Trail Road. Daniel White | Staff Photographer

  • The Rev. Manny Rivera of Restoration Church in Aurora meets with Sandra Williams, who helped place photos of the victims at the foot of their crosses.

      The Rev. Manny Rivera of Restoration Church in Aurora meets with Sandra Williams, who helped place photos of the victims at the foot of their crosses. Daniel White | Staff Photographer

  • Three trucks are expected to deliver the crosses from Restoration Church in Aurora to Chicago.

      Three trucks are expected to deliver the crosses from Restoration Church in Aurora to Chicago. Daniel White | Staff Photographer

  • Volunteer Taunia Walters of Aurora surveys the crosses.

      Volunteer Taunia Walters of Aurora surveys the crosses. Daniel White | Staff Photographer

Greg Zanis kept a meticulous ledger of all the shooting victims killed in Chicago this year.

He wrote down their names, ages and the day they died. When the retired Aurora carpenter finished building a wooden cross for each one, he highlighted the name and moved on to the next.

"Just kept adding and adding," said Zanis, who ran out of pages in his notebook. "When is this all going to end?"

He brought the crosses he built in memory of the roughly 760 homicide victims to an Aurora church Friday. Volunteers arranged the 42-inch-tall crosses in neat rows, by month, for a prayer vigil and a solemn display that would last for only one day.

Marchers will carry the crosses down Michigan Avenue on New Year's Eve to call for peace after a brutal year of violence in the city. The Rev. Michael Pfleger will lead the demonstration that is set to step off at 11 a.m. Saturday from Tribune Tower.

Zanis, known as the "Cross Guy," will join the marchers and hopes to distribute the crosses to the victims' families.

"I don't have any answers to the violence," the 66-year-old said. "Just love each other."

Making crosses is a grim task he started in 1996 to help him grieve the murder of his father-in-law. He built his first one in honor of Nico Contreras, a 6-year-old killed in Aurora that year, at the request of the boy's mother.

Since then, Zanis has delivered nearly 16,000 crosses throughout the country, often in the wake of tragedies he lists by place:

Orlando. Dallas. Newtown.

"This is a way for just a simple carpenter like me to show what's going on and not just talk about the numbers," said Zanis, surveying his work displayed at Restoration Church.

Chicago police said 758 people were killed through Dec. 29.

Zanis also built crosses for those who died by suicide and a few extras -- 770 total. He spent up to 12 to 16 hours a day building the crosses and several Stars of David since Thanksgiving. A furniture factory donated the sturdy lumber meant for table legs.

His friend, Leroy Vega, painted red hearts for each cross.

"It's very upsetting that these kids -- there are a lot of kids -- that they're not going to be able to see their families, fathers, daughters, mothers," the Aurora man said.

Vega invited Zanis to a service at his church this fall and introduced him to the Rev. Manny Rivera, who agreed to host the display that covered Restoration's front lawn along Indian Trail.

Percy Williams heard about the crosses on a newscast but didn't know where the display was until he drove past the church with his wife Friday morning. The couple continued on home, but Williams knew their plans for his day off work suddenly didn't matter.

"Maybe we should go give them a hand," Williams told his wife, Sandra. "I really want to go help."

So they took perhaps the toughest assignment: Laying photos of the victims -- at least the ones Zanis could track down through a Chicago nonprofit -- on the foot of the crosses.

"It's hard to do, but we know it has to get done," Williams said.

Williams, who grew up in Chicago's Austin neighborhood, even recognized one of the faces, a friend of a friend whose memorial was held last week.

"When you look at this, even if you don't live in that community, it should reach out and impact everyone of us, just the lives that have been lost," his wife said. "So many. So many."

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