Greg Zanis' legacy: Cook County charity will continue building wooden crosses for victims
AURORA, Ill. - Greg Zanis was a staple in disaster relief.
The Aurora man spent his retirement building thousands of wooden crosses for 20 years.
Now, a new organization has taken over.
Just in the past two years, they’ve distributed 800 crosses.
Zanis created 27,000 wooden crosses and scattered them about the United States.
He built them in his Aurora garage, one by one.
"He was passionate about what he did, and he just went out there and did it," said Tim Hetzner the President/CEO of Lutheran Church Charities.
After the police, EMS and Fire, Zanis was a second responder.
Driving his pickup overnight to deliver the crosses, he was never asked and never invited, but knew in his heart he had to show up.
"Greg, didn’t have any idea of how many lives he touched because he didn't stick around," said Hetzner.
Zanis retired as the cross man in 2019 and died from cancer five months later, but his mission continues.
He left "Crosses for Losses" to Lutheran Church Charities, and now they make it part of their disaster relief response.
It’s now called "Hearts of Mercy and Compassion."
It’s often paired with the group’s comfort dogs that are so welcomed during disasters.
Lutheran Church Charities has expanded Zanis’ idea to include markers for those who aren’t Christians and also hearts for anyone who wants one.
While their headquarters are in Northbrook, Lutheran Church Charities now has a network of more than a dozen churches that help spread their mission of mercy and compassion.
"It was truly heartfelt ministry and that's most people don't have that anymore, they think of only themselves," said Rev. Dennis Bartels, Holy Cross Lutheran Church of North Miami.
Pastor Bartels helped get the crosses to the site of the Surfside condo collapse in Florida last summer.
"That was the focus of the memorial wall, and it became the picture of every news agency worldwide," said Rev. Bartels.
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He says the crosses have proved to be personal and something for families to hold onto and cry with, which he experienced in Surfside.
Now, his involvement is growing with the ministry.
"We are the hub for Florida now," said Rev. Bartels. "We already have 45 of them ready to go, and we can have them there in a couple hours."
From one man in a garage, to a nationwide effort of comforting those on their worst days, the mission of Greg Zanis lives on.
"I think Greg would say you're doing what I asked you to, touch people, touch people, and don't charge," said Hetzner.
You can help support Hearts of Mercy and Compassion by donating to Lutheran Church Charities.