After making 27,000 crosses for mass shooting victims, Illinois man calls it quits

Greg Zanis has made more than 27,000 crosses over the years as part of his Crosses for Losses ministry.

AURORA, Ill. — Greg Zanis of Aurora, who has erected crosses for victims of mass shootings across the country, is retiring from the work that has often put him in the national spotlight.

He’s made more than 27,000 crosses since 1996 as part of his Crosses for Losses ministry.

“I always felt this was my calling,” Zanis said.

He said he believed his work “began to show a face of the victims” of shootings around America.

In the last year he’s acknowledged his ministry has become increasingly difficult.

“I leave a piece of my heart behind each time I go,” he said last spring.

“I had a breaking point in El Paso,” he said of the Aug. 3, 2019, mass shooting outside a Walmart store in El Paso, Texas. A gunman killed 22 people and injured 24 others.

“I hadn’t slept for two days, it was 106 degrees, and I collapsed from the pressure when I heard there were two more victims of the mass shooting,” he said.

A trip earlier this month to the Naval Air Station in Pensacola, Florida, became a turning point, he said. Three people were killed and eight were injured in a shooting there.

“I got as far as Indianapolis and turned back. I decided I wasn’t going to do this anymore,” he said.

His work has also taken a toll on his family, he said.

“I was trotting around the country, putting 5,000 to 6,000 miles on my truck, not even thinking of my family missing me,” Zanis said. “I did it time and again. I jumped in my truck to go to the Paradise fire in California without telling anybody.”

He recalled Orlando, Florida, where a gunman killed 49 people at the Pulse nightclub in June 2016.

“After Orlando, it never stopped,” he said of the mass shootings. “The country had me on the road for a while every week. I have driven 850,000 miles to put up crosses. I slept in my truck and never had the money to cover what I was doing.”

Zanis has relied on his own resources and, in recent years, on charity. He received a donation of quality wood from a furniture manufacturer to make his crosses.

“I never made money. I always lost money on a steady basis,” he said. “At one point last year I was $10,000 in debt, and somebody covered that for me. Now I am $14,000 in debt.”

The first cross he made was for Nicholas “Nico” Contreras, a 6-year-old boy shot and killed in his grandparents’ home in Aurora while sleeping in their back bedroom on Nov. 10, 1996.

Zanis erected crosses after the Columbine High School massacre in April 1999 in Colorado, where two students fatally shot 12 students and a teacher.

He also placed crosses for the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in December 2012 in Newtown, Connecticut, where a 20-year-old shot 20 children and six staff members.

He made the trip with his crosses to Las Vegas in October 2017, when a gunman opened fire on a crowd at a music festival, killing 58 people and injuring hundreds of others.

He’s also gone to the anniversaries of mass shootings, including Newtown and for the Northern Illinois University shooting in DeKalb that happened in February 2008.

It was Dec. 31, 2016, when hundreds of people carried more than 700 of his crosses in Chicago for each person slain in the city during the year. He has placed crosses on a lot in the Englewood neighborhood of Chicago for murder victims.

Earlier this year he placed five crosses for victims of a mass shooting in his hometown of Aurora after a disgruntled worker at the Henry Pratt Co. killed five employees and wounded five Aurora police officers and an employee on Feb. 15.

Zanis has approached Lutheran Charities of Northbrook about taking over his ministry.

“I feel it is not the end of the ministry. It is the end of me doing it,” he said.

He may take a year to train those interested in picking up where he left off, he said.

Lutheran Charities goes out to tragedies across the country much as Zanis has done. That group approaches families and loved ones of victims with its K-9 Comfort Dog Ministry, founded in 2008.

Tim Hetzner, president and CEO of Lutheran Charities, said the group has been impressed with what Zanis has done.

“We met Greg probably 10 years ago responding nationally to disasters and crises, from Newtown on. He’s an incredible man,” Hetzner said. “We hope to carry on the good work Greg has done over the years in touching families and individuals who have experienced loss.”

Zanis’ work had a very direct meaning for him.

“I saw myself spreading love with crosses,” he said.

Abel Uribe | Chicago Tribune                                On Dec. 31, 2016, family members, friends and volunteers helped carry over 700 crosses along Michigan Avenue in Chicago in honor of those killed in the city that year.

Abel Uribe | Chicago Tribune On Dec. 31, 2016, family members, friends and volunteers helped carry over 700 crosses along Michigan Avenue in Chicago in honor of those killed in the city that year.