Greg Zanis did not know any of the 23 people from Lee County, Alabama who died in last week’s tornado.
But just 36 hours after he received a call about the tragedy, the retired carpenter had finished 23 handmade crosses painted with the names of the victims. Zanis even left his wife’s birthday party early to start work on the monuments.
“I want the community to know that first off, they’re a family,” he told local news station WVTM. “Lee County is a family.”
It’s an inspiring act of kindness, but one that Zanis has done all too often over the past 23 years.
As the man behind the nonprofit organization Crosses for Losses, Zanis has built and distributed over 26,000 crosses honoring victims of shootings, natural disasters, and other tragedies.
When asked what motivates him to spend hours building and preparing the crosses, then driving them to the hometowns of the victims he memorializes, Zanis has a simple but heartfelt answer.
“I do this because this is exactly what Jesus would do if he were alive today,” he told WSFA. “But instead of a donkey, I have a truck.”
The first cross Zanis ever built was for his wife’s father – the man who taught him carpentry – who was murdered in 1996. Since retiring in 2014, the memorials have become his full time job.
Crosses built by Zanis have stood for victims of the Sandy Hook shooting, Boston Marathon bombing, the California wildfires, the Pulse nightclub shooting, the Mandalay Bay shooting, and the Columbine High School shooting – the first major disaster he built crosses for.
He also prepared Stars of David for victims of last year’s shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue.
“I take every cross and I kiss it after I put the name on it, and I sit there and think about a family,” he revealed. He also admitted that his good deeds take an emotional toll on him.
“I’m really just a big liar – I try to look strong while I’m in these towns even though I know I’m just headed for a bruising.”
But ultimately, Zanis says his crosses give hope and comfort to the families of victims, and he hopes that in some small way his work is healing America.