Pulling up to the vacant lot in South Side Englewood, the driver of a white truck and trailer — emblazoned with a bright red heart and Crosses For Losses — seemed out of place.
A stocky white man wearing only blue jeans and t-shirt in a cold, steady drizzle, Greg Zanis, 66, drove onto the muddy lot, careful not to breach the rows upon rows of treasure.
But if Zanis seemed out of place, so did the treasure — 638 wooden crosses bearing names of Chicago’s 2017 homicide victims. (Chicago Sun-Times data showed 664 people slain within city limits in 2017, following 2016’s record of 781 homicides).
“Before 2016, I’d put up 1,000 crosses in Chicago over the years. Whenever there was a homicide, I’d run out, usually at night, and put up a cross where it happened. At first, people took them down. As they got to know what I was doing though, they didn’t touch them.”
For 22 years, the retired carpenter has made a ministry of delivering crosses to victims’ families in wake of tragedies.
It was in 2016 that the Englewood lot became a repository for crosses honoring the city’s homicide victims. A woman called the Aurora man and told him his work was needed in one of the city’s most crime-challenged neighborhoods. She turned over the lot.
Every Sunday at 3 p.m. for the past year, Zanis has driven here from the far west suburbs tohonor the city’s murdered. He presents victims’ families with a cross at weekly prayer vigils held in tandem with victim support groups and churches.
“I give a cross to the family, then make one for the lot. I know everyone’s got different homicide totals, and I’m not trying to get it exact. I’m just happy there’s 100 less this year,” Zanis says. “When families come for the vigil, I tell the young men, ‘I know what you’re thinking. If you go get whoever did this, I’ll be making a cross for you next.’ A lot of times, they get it.”
On Thursday, Zanis had traveled to the Englewood lot for another reason. Walking the rows of plain crosses with red hearts in the center, he pulled several he’s taking to a Jan. 20 march in Washington, D.C. Organized by Zanis, “America Never Forgotten: A Crusade to Honor Our Lost,” will feature more than 2,000 crosses.
“People are coming from the Columbine, Sandy Hook and Orlando nightclub shootings, from the Tucson, Ariz., and Red Lake Indian Reservation shootings, from the Boston Marathon,” says Zanis. “We’re just going to have a remembrance. We don’t want to talk about the dang guns. We just want to talk about our loved ones.”
It was after the deadliest U.S. mass shooting in modern history — 58 people killed Oct. 1 in Las Vegas — that Zanis got the idea.
He pulled out reams of notebooks dating back to the 1999 Columbine High School massacre —the first time he traveled cross-country to deliver crosses. After 22 years of honoring victims, he’s gotten to know and has kept in touch with many of their families. He began calling, asking families to meet him in D.C. They said yes.
Zanis’ own family tragedy was the springboard for Crosses For Losses. His father-in-law was murdered by a burglar in 1996. Struggling to process the loss, he began attending a victim support group. When the grieving mother of a murdered 6-year-old asked Zanis to build her a cross, he did, discerning his calling.
Largely bearing the costs of building and delivering the crosses himself, Zanis turned his focus to Chicago during its record 2016 violence. He built 800 crosses that year, carried by families on Dec. 31 in a poignant silent march down the Magnificent Mile.
“I look forward to making even fewer Chicago homicide crosses this year. The crosses I make in Chicago are signature crosses, where the crossbar sandwiches the heart. It’s very symbolic,” he says.
“I love what I do. If there’s a piece of plywood in the garage, I can’t sleep. I gotta cut it. It came to me that from a unique viewpoint, I’ve seen the nation on its knees for more than 20 years now, and it’s time to go to D.C. But this isn’t political. This is just about saying, ‘We remember.’ I’m bringing my father-in-law’s cross.”