Greg Zanis of Aurora stands in front of crosses he placed in Las Vegas to honor the victims of the mass shooting there. Zanis will be honored for his work by Las Vegas officials. (Gregory Bull / AP)
So are you starting to grow immune to the violence?
It’s hard not to become more desensitized when these mass murders are coming at us in increasing frequency, which each horrific headline offering yet another narrative of incomprehensible evil.
In the last five weeks alone, almost 100 innocent victims including children and babies have been slain in three separate locations for reasons we struggle to comprehend.
The month of October started out with dozens of country music fans being shot like fish in a barrel by an older well-to-do man who seemed to have no major beefs with life, yet saw fit to amass an arsenal of weaponry and fire from 300 yards away into this crowd of strangers.
On the last day of the month, an alleged terrorist in his late 20s who, despite having experienced what appeared to be a normal childhood, become radicalized to the point of driving a rented truck onto a bike path and plowing into a group of New York residents and visitors, killing eight and seriously wounding another 11.
That method of murder brought the killer into close contact with his victims … but nothing like the intimacy of this latest slaughter, where a disgraced airman, who had socialized with his victims only days earlier, opened fire on a congregation as they gathered in prayer on a quiet Sunday morning.
I don’t know about you, but I could barely finish reading the story that described the eyewitness accounts of the killer, a father himself, aiming his weapon into the faces of crying children and pulling the trigger.
As we struggle with our own feelings about these attacks, I’m often asked how Greg Zanis — I’ve written about him several times recently because of his mission to plant crosses at the sites of the slayings — is coping with so much death.
There’s no question the Aurora man has been in overdrive since last month. Only several weeks after delivering 58 white crosses to Las Vegas in memory of those who lost their lives at a country music festival, he headed to New York City in his white pickup to plant another eight for the victims killed on Halloween.
Zanis arrived back in Aurora that following Friday and was able to catch up on a little sleep before learning about the slaughter during the Texas church service.
Two carpenters joined him that same day in carving and painting yet another 28 crosses for those victims. And on Monday Zanis hit the road again — traveling solo, as always, catching a few moments of sleep in his truck where possible — stopping first at Camp Lejune in Jacksonville, North Carolina, to deliver crosses in memory of the 16 Marines killed in a plane crash. Then he went on to tiny Sutherland Springs, arriving just a half hour before Vice President Mike Pence visited, to plant his white crosses with the red hearts directly across from First Baptist Church.
By Thursday Zanis was behind the wheel again, heading this time to Las Vegas with duplicate crosses for family members of the concert victims. He’ll also attend a 9 a.m. ceremony on Sunday, where Nevada officials, including a congressman and three state representatives, plan to present him with a proclamation declaring "Greg Zanis Day," along with the "Key to the Las Vegas Strip."
While it’s easy to see some irony in that distinction for this deeply religious carpenter, "What Mr. Zanis did was very significant for this community, in the way he helped create a place of mourning for people and a source of strength and healing," said Erik Pappa, director of communication for Clark County, which has jurisdiction over the unincorporated section of the city where the shooting occurred.
After the service, said Pappa, the crosses and all memorabilia left at their bases will be individually boxed and taken to the Clark County Museum, where they will be display until Dec. 17 on the amphitheater stage. They will then be documented and cataloged as a permanent part of the museum’s collection.
"These crosses are historically and culturally significant," he added, "and we want to do a good job of preserving them because they mean so much to us."
As if he’s not been faced with enough sadness, on Zanis’ return trip to the Fox Valley, he’ll stop in Littleton, Colorado. There, he’ll meet with some of the loved ones of the 13 victims of that 1999 Columbine High School massacre which launched Zanis’ national crusade that recently became the nonprofit Crosses for Losses Foundation.
It’s no wonder people ask how the Aurora carpenter is keeping up … and coping.
It’s a question I posed to the Rev. Dan Haas, who will join Zanis in Las Vegas on Sunday to deal with the press the carpenter tries to avoid but knows is necessary to keep this expanding mission viable.
"People now expect it," Haas said of the white crosses. And sadly enough, "Greg now sees this as a full-time job."
But Haas, who’s known Zanis since the late 1970s and who brought that first cross to a vigil for Zanis’ murdered father-in-law in 1996, insists that, although delivering these crosses "has consumed him … he is embracing it."
Despite the pain and sadness all around him, said Haas, "he knows he can comfort others as he has been comforted."