By S.L. Hansen
SEWARD (SNR) - They hold onto one while enduring chemotherapy… recovering from a stroke… preparing for the end of life… praying for an ailing loved one.
It’s a simple, wooden cross, artfully shaped to fit into the palm of one’s hand, a heart shape burned near the top, sanded and finished by loving Christians who just want to offer comfort to the suffering.
The Crossmakers of Seward have made more than 39,000 crosses since May 2010 – crosses that have encouraged and blessed just as many people, as they or their loved ones go through hard times.
It started when Clayton Kent, a member of St. John Lutheran Church in Seward, visited his brother back in their hometown of Hastings. His brother and nephew had been carving wooden crosses to give to sick and hurting people in their church, following the lead of another fellow in Grand Island.
Kent was profoundly inspired.
“When you’re in a hospital, laying in bed wearing open-back pajamas, you’re pretty much down to nothing,” he said. “All your possessions don’t mean much.”
Holding up one of the palm-sized crosses, he continued, “But this – we’ve been told of people who have held it six, eight, 10 months and never let go. It’s a comfort to them.”
Kent decided he would make crosses as well. Borrowing the design his brother used, he went home and started working in his garage. Within days, other friends showed up to help. Within months, there were more volunteers than Kent knew what to do with.
“I thought I’d give crosses to friends and churches, but it kind of grew out of proportion,” he smiled.
Now, virtually every church in Seward is represented among the Crossmakers. That includes Bill Morris and Clarence Wattier from St. Vincent de Paul Catholic Church.
“I thought it was a Kiwanis thing,” Wattier admitted, “but I enjoyed it so much, I stayed with it.”
The Seward Crossmakers, Inc. is now organized into a 501(c) non-profit organization. Their inventory features not only the popular palm-sized “Cross of Life” but numerous other products as well – crosses to place on the wall, crosses to wear, crosses to hang from a vehicle’s rear view mirror.
Many people have written to the Seward Crossmakers to tell them how much the crosses have meant to them or their loved ones. Thick binders full of letters and emails tell the stories of how comforting and encouraging the crosses have been during the suffering.
The design of the crosses evolved over time. For example, the lower limb of the cross is curved slightly to better fit the shape of one’s palm. Also, there are now four different sizes of palm crosses, ranging from large to extra small, so that any suffering adult or child can have one that fits their hands perfectly.
Generosity keeps the Crossmakers going. The wood – red cedar, walnut or oak – is donated by people who need trees removed. Logs are planked by a lumber mill in Palmyra and planed at no cost by Seward’s Hughes Brothers, Inc., before the Crossmakers cut, shape, sand and finish the crosses.
All the workers are volunteers, mostly retired people. One of the men who cuts out crosses is a paraplegic who doesn’t like television and would rather do something to help others.
“He’s been God’s blessing to us, and it’s been God’s blessing to him, too,” Kent said.
The Crossmakers will welcome anybody of any skill level to pitch in and help.
“One guy just cleans and makes us coffee,” Wattier said.
For quite a few years, Kent and his wife parked their cars in their driveway to make room for all the equipment in their garage.
Last year, a generous benefactor donated an entire building to the group. The former medical clinic now houses a showroom, several work rooms, a break room, and a large garage that houses wood, a float featuring the biggest Crossmakers cross for various parades, and an industrial vacuum to suck in all the sawdust from the work rooms.
Kent and the others always intended to give the crosses away, but once people started ordering them for retail stores, the Crossmakers realized that it was important to have some income to keep their non-profit organization going. To that end, the crosses are sold internationally through Christian retailers and online in the Crossmakers’ own Etsy shop – run by a volunteer, of course – for reasonable prices.
The income is used to cover expenses like utilities, equipment, materials and building renovation. Anything extra is passed on to the community. The Crossmakers board of directors has made gifts to local libraries, scholarship funds, food banks and other worthy causes.
“This is a family of people who love to help,” Kent said. “There’s nothing negative about this program at all.”
He added, “The cross speaks every language there is.“