Congregation’s cross laden with meaning

Editor’s note: This year, the season of Lent begins March 5. As we look forward to this time that often brings greater awareness of the symbols of our faith, Dennis Schick, a member of Lakewood UMC North Little Rock, shares the story behind one of that congregation’s most prominent symbols. The cross is a fundamental symbol for the Christian church, so it is not surprising that we find them in most of our worship spaces. Lakewood United Methodist Church North Little Rock started in 1955, but didn’t build a formal sanctuary until 1964. When it did, a cross—a huge cross—became the centering focal point. The 14-foot high cross was mounted on the floor, right behind the altar. Each Good Friday, the cross was draped in black; on Easter, it was draped in white. When the sanctuary was remodeled in 2006, the choir seating moved from one side of the chancel area to the center, so the cross had to be moved. It was mounted high on the wall, 11 feet off the floor, where it remains today. So that’s the story of “The Cross Under the Steeple,” right? Well, not exactly; there’s a backstory which makes the cross even more special. The cross—which will be 50 years old this year—began in the mind of the late Bob Millett, an early pillar of Lakewood UMC and a successful architect in North Little Rock who designed the church’s sanctuary. Bruce Holsted, a longtime member of the church, interviewed Bob’s widow, Marion, before her death in 2012. She revealed interesting details about the cross, and confirmed many stories passed down over the years. Vision, research Bob envisioned a large cross as the focal point for the sanctuary he was designing, but it couldn’t be just any cross—it had to be a special, “authentic” cross. He wanted it to be as close as possible to the actual cross on which Jesus Christ was crucified. After painstaking research—remember, this was before the Internet—he found what he concluded were accurate dimensions. The cross was to be 14 feet tall and 7 feet across. The beams would be six inches square, and the cross would weigh about 300 pounds. Bob Millett personally supervised the cross being built at Monarch Mill and Lumber Company of Little Rock. The mill was owned by his father-in-law, which gave him unfettered access to the construction process. After he had a cross built with lumber be bought locally, he decided it wasn’t good enough, that it should be made from wood from trees in the days of Jesus. So again he researched what wood probably was used 2,000 years ago. The Bible never says what wood was used for crosses. Historians have argued everything from dogwood and Aleppo pine to olive wood and cedar of Lebanon. Bob settled on olive wood, bought it in Italy and had it shipped here. Once again, he had it constructed and mounted there in the front of the sanctuary, for everyone to see. Getting it just right But he still was not satisfied. The cross looked too perfect, too smooth, too modern. So he had it taken down and took it outside. He and a few workers beat on it with hammers and other tools to “rough it up” and make it look like the proverbial “old rugged cross.” With several coats of stain, now it was ready. And there it hangs today, reigning over five decades of weddings and funerals and concerts, as well as Sunday worship services. “The cross is certainly the main feature of the sanctuary. It’s impossible to be in the sanctuary without noticing it,” said the Rev. Richard Lancaster, Lakewood UMC’s senior pastor since 2007. “Some people come when the sanctuary is empty, just to pray in silence. In times like that, the cross especially becomes an awesome presence.” The fashioning of this cross became part of Bob Millett’s faith journey, and the result of this architect’s work invites others to become closer to Christ even today. But while the details of this story are unique to Lakewood, the power of symbolism is not. All of us hold the potential to point the way to Christ—through personal effort, through the symbols we share, through actions we may not even see as significant. May “the cross under the steeple” remind us all that our passion and our pursuit of excellence can make a difference in the name of Christ.