Rick Milby wasn’t trying to be playful. His stern expression and deep voice didn’t seem to lend itself much to jokes. Neither did his windowless office in Abundant Life Fellowship Church in Corpus Christi, where he’s been the pastor for 35 years. No, Milby was actually giving me something of a sales pitch.
“Papa Johns will match two for one,” he told me from the other side of his desk. “You buy a pizza, you can get one free. That’s a good deal. If you go to Texas Roadhouse and buy two entrees, you’ll get a free appetizer.”
Milby’s supporters have partnered with both chain restaurants to offer a $25 card that allows customers to claim buy-one-get-one-free appetizers or pizzas for a year. All 25 of those dollars will go toward raising money for the pastor’s grand vision: making Corpus Christi home to “the largest cross in the Western Hemisphere.”
The pastor’s vision for the cross came about three years ago when he took his family on a road trip to Galveston. Along the way they drove toward a 170-foot cross outside of Sagemont Church in southeast Houston, near the intersection of I-45 and Beltway 8. Milby was mesmerized by the way the cross appeared to keep growing larger as the car approached it. He decided then he wanted a mega-cross for Corpus Christi.
In short time, he and Danny Isom, the family pastor at Abundant Life Fellowship, formed the Corpus Christi Cross Project, an organization completely funded by community support and private contributions. A plan for a 150-foot-tall steel cross turned into 160 feet, which turned into 175 feet when engineers told Milby in 2015 that they could save on material costs at that height. At that point, Isom broached the logic of ‘what’s another 45 feet to become taller than a 208-foot cross in Augusta, Florida, currently the largest in the United States?’ Milby couldn’t have agreed more. “I went back to the engineers and said ‘Change the structure, change the drawings. We’re going to build this thing 210-feet tall.’”
After the groundbreaking on January 31, the Federal Aviation Administration approved the structure to soar up to 230 feet. The Corpus Christi Cross Project upped the ante one more time, deciding to use every one of those approved feet. It would make Corpus Christi’s cross the second tallest in the world. Only the 492-foot cross at the Valley of the Fallen, a monument outside of Madrid, Spain, will be taller. (Which technically means if the Corpus Christi cross is constructed, the claim of everyone involved that it will be the tallest in the Western Hemisphere is inaccurate; the Valley of the Fallen is also geographically located in the Western Hemisphere. Though, the Corpus Christi cross will still be taller than the other giant crosses of Texas, including the one at Sagemont, a 190-footer in Groom, and a 100-foot-tall cross in Ballinger.)
Abundant Life’s proposed cross won’t be in the heart of the city; it will be on the way in, just off of I-37 and Carbon Plant Road across the freeway from the Coastal Bend State Veterans Cemetery. The vast majority of people entering Corpus Christi will do so by driving on I-37 where they’ll see the mega-cross on their left side welcoming them in. An average of 80,000 drivers would pass by it on a daily basis, coming or going in either direction. “Any airplane that flies from anywhere all over the world into Corpus Christi will fly within a half mile of that cross,” Milby said.
As if 230 feet of steel isn’t a strong enough visual, a beam of light will shoot into the air from atop the structure, “like God is pointing His finger into the cross,” Milby said. There will be a pool of water at the surface where the pastor has already made an open invitation for Christian churches to conduct baptismal services.
It’s an ambitious project, one that is estimated to cost more than $1 million, a hefty sum to raise for Milby whose Abundant Life Fellowship Church averages about 150 attendees each service. (For comparison, Sagemont Church has 20,000 members and an annual budget of $13 million to work with. “The money comes from God,” Sagemont pastor John Green told me. “He gives it to the people He chooses.”) As of March 30, approximately $160,000 had been raised for the Corpus Christi Cross Project.
Yet ifs and whens loom over the fundraising needed to build the cross and the aggressive timeline for its completion. “My dream is that next year on Good Friday, I’m going to conduct a citywide service under that cross,” Milby told me back in April.
Govind Development, a local company, is handling much of the engineering and construction for the project, but Andy Bennett, Govind’s president, was reluctant to talk about finish dates, in part because his company was not managing every aspect of the project. Bennett said a project like this could certainly be built that quickly, adding the caveat that “in our business, in any construction project, if you’re trying to expedite something you end up paying a little more for it.”
Regardless, much of the community appears to be rallying behind Milby’s vision. Govind is providing certain pro bono services for the church, and Bennett likes the idea of the cross. “We think it’s a good project for our community, for the Gulf Coast, and specifically for Corpus Christi,” Bennett told me. “We want to build interest in our city. We want to bring tourism here.”
Mayor Nelda Martinez has also thrown support behind the endeavor, which strikes a personal chord with her. According to Martinez, her late father had wanted to build a large cross for the bay of Corpus Christi, but was unable to purchase the land he desired from the Texas General Land Office. “I see a piece of my father and something he wanted to do [in Milby’s plan],” she told me.
It’s also why she, along with two city council members, didn’t hesitate to attend the cross project’s groundbreaking this past January. But their attendance became the spark for a minor controversy when a San Antonio man named Patrick Greene filed a lawsuit against Milby. In the suit, Greene asked the courts to admonish the mayor for her presence at the ceremony.
When I spoke to Greene on the phone in late March he didn’t wait for any questions to start voicing his opinion on the cross, calling it “a monstrosity” and “an eyesore.” Greene had dropped the lawsuit the previous day citing a turn in his wife’s health that required his full attention, but his opposition of the project had remained.
The lawsuit frustrated Martinez. Government officials are allowed to attend religious ceremonies in any capacity. Martinez also later said that if the suit were to be filed again then they would fight back with every legal asset in their power. “I think when it involves my taxpayers, I take it seriously,” Martinez told me. “Personally, I knew my constitutional rights.”
Greene, who is an atheist, has never been to Corpus Christi, but he has a history crusading against things he believes cross church/state lines. In 2012 he threatened to file a lawsuit against Athens, Texas, over a nativity scene on the courthouse lawn. Greene’s protests made him unpopular among many Christians in Athens, until he began having vision problems that led to a diagnosis of impending blindness. In an act of turn-the-other-cheek generosity, Christians in Athens raised what he claimed was “hundreds of dollars” to help with medical expenses. Greene was so moved by these acts of kindness that he dropped his threats of filing a lawsuit and converted to Christianity.
Only, Greene’s conversion was brief. (His vision problems were also temporary; he says his retina reattached itself.) Still, Greene told me, the emotional weight of the circumstances made him briefly consider Christianity. “These people treated [my wife and I] so nicely, which was the total opposite of the way we were treated by Christians normally,” he said. “Ninety-nine percent of Christians treated us like dirt [in the past].
Greene’s opposition to Christian institutions dates back many decades, and he considers the idea of a 230-foot cross an example of unsolicited and unavoidable proselytizing. But his lawsuit didn’t amount to much more than a blip on the radar for this project, and it shouldn’t pose problems going forward. After the lawsuit was dropped, Milby filed a sanction against Greene in May preventing him from filing a similar suit. It ended in a settlement in which Greene agreed his lawsuit was “baseless” and “without merit.”
Council member Carolyn Vaughn, who was also named in Greene’s lawsuit, attended the cross’s groundbreaking, not as a city representative, but as a member of the Abundant Life Fellowship Church for 35 years and a close friend of Milby. “He’s a great preacher. He preaches the Word, and I love the church,” she told me.
It’s Vaughn’s right to be at the ceremony, just like it’s her right to donate to the project, which she told me that she did. But separating Vaughn, or Milby’s, political life from their religious preferences is no simple task.
Milby heads the Corpus Christi Tea Party and hosts a weekly radio program called “The Corpus Christi Tea Party Report.” He talked openly about the sin and degradation resulting from the current presidential administration. “I believe that America is being overtaken today by a liberal agenda that is wrong [and] immoral,” he told me. He went out of his way to refer to abortion as the “genocide of children,” and criticize the legalization of marijuana in three states.
He also spoke about his increased involvement in politics over the past few years. “Little by little we’ve been working our way into different departments.” Milby is on the Charter Review Board and the Ethics Commission of Corpus Christi.
Vaughn also talked about the intersection of her politics and her faith. “We’ve got Christians rising up in office,” she told me. “It’s one of the reasons I’m serving. Pastor Milby encouraged me to do that.” Her election to office predates the idea for the cross, so it wasn’t her motive for running, but, she told me, “I’m on there for a reason though, and this cross could be one of them.”
Vaughn viewed Greene’s lawsuit—the only notable vocal opposition that had surfaced—as a typical example of attacks on Christianity, stating that people would “clap their hands” at a Muslim project. I asked her to confirm that she believed a 230-foot Muslim symbol could be erected in Texas. “Lord, I hope not. That I would be against,” she said. “We already know that they are out to get America. I’m sure there are some that are great, but we have to figure out who the great ones are first. I’m not against Muslims at all, but my faith is first so I would not support [it] if they’re going to infiltrate the community.”
When I asked Mayor Martinez about a hypothetical situation involving the construction of an icon of a different faith being built at such heights, she said, “[People of another faith] would have every right. Those are people’s liberties and rights.” But even the mayor stopped the interview at one point to ask me whether or not I’m a Christian. I am, and knowing such seemed to put her at ease.
Milby is able to see such matters from both a religious and constitutional standpoint. “I wouldn’t be okay with [a large non-Christian symbol in Corpus Christi], but I wouldn’t protest it or stop it.” He even said that while he considered Greene’s lawsuit frivolous, it was Greene’s constitutional right to protest. It’s worth noting that Milby didn’t become worked up talking about all of this. He was no less pragmatic than a man talking about two-for-one pizzas.
Before I left Corpus Christi, I made the pilgrimage out to where the cross would be erected. After parking my car on the edge of a residential neighborhood, I crossed Up River Road to the plot of land adjacent to the freeway where the grass and weeds were almost waist-high. It was 90 degrees as I trudged through the shrubbery to reach the middle of the field.
I looked up at a plain, 10-foot wooden cross planted in the ground. Easter Sunday had been four days earlier. There were no signs or banners or fancy pronouncements to advertise what had seemed like a grandiose project. It was just a placeholder for things to come. Eventually that wooden cross, which reflected the texture and approximate size of the actual cross Jesus Christ was crucified upon, would be replaced by a steel version standing 230 feet tall. It was hard not to wonder if, maybe, simplicity was actually the most powerful approach to the Christian message.
The roar of traffic off I-37 was loud, but turned into white noise relatively quickly. Cars and trucks were speeding by on their way into Corpus Christi, perhaps some for the first time. Back in a conference room in City Hall earlier that day I hadn’t even finished getting out my first question about Corpus before Mayor Martinez took an opportunity to protect her city from the carelessness of an outsider.
“I’m going to give you a gentle reminder,” Martinez interrupted with a smile. “A lot of people shorten our name to Corpus. If we just say we’re Corpus then we’re just “The Corpse.” It was a fair correction, and the city’s full name plays right into Pastor Milby’s plan. The Latin translation for Corpus Christi, “Body of Christ,” is perhaps the best sales pitch for an extremely tall version of the Christian symbol that once held that very thing.
What would the symbol mean to the people living there? Martinez said she hopes the cross will one day become the most recognizable structure in the city, “not just for all the good reasons that reflect [the city’s] name, but all of its wonderful people, no matter what belief they have.”
John Green, Sagemont Church’s pastor, told me that the 170-foot cross outside of Houston has been responsible for aborting numerous suicides, a testament to the power of a symbol of such stature.
For Milby’s part, his mission is, plain and simple, to raise an Ebenezer to God. “I was saved because of a rugged cross. I have eternal life because of a rugged cross. My life was transformed and changed because of a rugged cross.”
The cross I walked away from in late March—the one that was nearly out of sight by the time I reached my car—was certainly rugged. It’s just that it might have been about 220 feet too short for Corpus Christi.