ISAIAH BRANCH-BOYLE/Durango Herald
No one knows what happened to the 4,500 crosses that disappeared from Chapman Hill sometime between the night of July 9 and the morning of July 10, but the city of Durango did get complaints about the propriety of religious symbols planted at the city ski slope.
The crosses were supposed to raise awareness of the scourge of childhood poverty, but police speculate that someone might have raised the stakes to protest religious symbols in a public park.
The foot-tall crosses were organized into the pattern of a cross on a hillside.
“There were some complaints to the city about allowing all those crosses there,” said Durango Police Sgt. Rita Warfield.
“Some people thought it was a religious statement, but it was actually to recognize childhood poverty,” she said. “It could be that someone who was really offended by it did it.”
Warfield could understand why somebody might have been confused about the crosses.
“I don’t know how you differentiate between putting a cross out to get somebody to go to church or to support a cause,” Warfield said.
The crosses were a project of First Baptist Church of Bayfield, which got a monthlong permit from Durango. City Manager Ron LeBlanc said the request fell into a gray area between freedom of expression and freedom of religious liberties.
He admitted that he was surprised at the pattern of the crosses.
LeBlanc said he did “not believe there was any solid policy to justify denial of the request.”
“The crosses were to be made from wooden stir sticks for paint. The placement was to be random. The group never disclosed the placement was to be in the shape of a cross,” he said.
“This is certainly a gray area between freedom of expression and religious freedom. I wish we had better policies in place to help guide this type of decision, so I approved the request thinking it more to be freedom of expression than a religious statement,” LeBlanc said in an email.
“As you now realize, whatever I do will meet with some opposition and some support,” LeBlanc said. “That is the nature of my position. Sometimes I make a good call; other times I wish I had it to do over. I am sorry if this offended any member of the community.”
The church group since has moved its banner down the hill to be closer to Florida Road. The banner explains that an estimated 19,000 children die from the effects of poverty every day.
The multitude of crosses, which the church had started planting in late June, was an attempt to put a face on the tragedy, said Gordie Herrick, a member of the church.
“We had committed to praying over each cross individually,” Herrick said. “We actually try to visualize a child that the cross would represent.”
Planting them was hardly a day in the park.
“We did not realize how hard it would be,” Herrick said. “Chapman Hill is a pile of rocks. You can’t just pound them in.”
The church group used metal bars to pound “starter holes.”
“On the first Saturday, we probably had 30 people out. It was a great effort,” Herrick said.
“It was disappointing on a lot of different levels,” he said. “Why wouldn’t somebody want to help starving children? I don’t know what the motivation was.”
Herrick said the crosses were obviously stolen because they “were not found in the bushes.”
He surmises that a small group of people could have taken an hour to pull them out and throw them into bags.
“They must have driven off with them,” he said.
The church was never out to proselytize, he said. It is open to suggestions about how to get its message out there.
“If this is not the way, that’s fine,” Herrick said. “Tell us what is the way.”
The group has a Facebook page called The Crosses Project.
“If you want to do something else, let us know,” Herrick said. “What we’re trying to do first and foremost is raise money so kids don’t die. We’re trying to put food in starving kids’ mouths. Tell us how we should do that.”