Cross Makers deliver comfort one cross at a time

Crack open the door at 331 Jackson Ave. and the scent of fresh cut cedar with a hint of polyurethane varnish is overpowering.

Stepping through a sawdust haze and speaking loudly to compete with sanders, table saws and jigsaws is 82-year-old Clayton Kent.

Welcome to the Cross Makers, he says with a hearty handshake.

His all-volunteer, mostly octogenarian workforce teasingly call it “a sweat shop.”

Just as the name implies, they make crosses -- palm crosses, meant to fit comfortably in the hand of its holder, encouraging fingers to clasp the smooth edges.

The crosses are made for Christians of all denominations, but available to anyone seeking comfort in a painful world.

To date, they have made more than 77,000 crosses -- shipping them to every state in the union and a handful of foreign countries.

Kent started the Cross Makers six years ago as a way of filling some empty hours of retirement.

The idea began when Kent’s nephew received a shipment of hand-sized crosses to give as gifts to the members of his Hastings church.

“I thought I should do that,” Kent recalled.

Although he loved the idea, Kent was far from impressed with the quality of the mass-produced crosses from a country far away.

“I can do better than that,” Kent told himself.

And so, this long-time retiree, who “had done a little woodworking back in high school,” went into his garage and drew cross forms on pieces of leftover wood. He cut, sanded and polished 26 T-shaped crosses.

“I took them to my wife for inspection,” he said. “She noticed a scratch here, a hole there …”

Ultimately, “she rejected all 26,” Kent chuckled.

Undeterred, he persevered -- determined to make a better cross. One worthy of the hands, hopes and prayers of those holding it in their palms.

He calls it “The Cross of Life.”

The design evolved from a traditional cross into a curved form almost resembling a dancing puzzle piece. The smooth, rounded edges make it comfortable to hold and stroke your fingers over.

Branded with a heart, the piece elicits an aura of joy, peace and comfort.

“The whole thought is to get them into the hands of people who are hurting,” Kent said.

Letters to the Cross Makers show that is exactly what’s happening.

“I didn’t fully appreciate the energy and loveliness of the cross until I held it in my hand,” one woman wrote.

A nurse told of giving the crosses to her cancer patients, encouraging them to squeeze the wood as she puts in chemotherapy IVs.

“All of you will never know how your crosses affect people and how much love they feel from all of you and your labor,” she wrote in a letter. “One woman said she found strength to go through her tests. One died with it in her hand. And one young man told of his faith being strengthened and the comfort it gave him.”

Another letter talks of discovering the palm cross while visiting the chapel at Madonna Rehabilitation Hospital.

“The cross is a touchstone both to the eye and the hand,” the woman wrote in her 2012 letter. “In this busy and hectic world, the moment of being connected can be rare, and it is so important.”

The thought behind the crosses are simple -- yet profound. Each cross is accompanied by an inscribed card:

“May you acknowledge the blessings and love of Christ as you clasp your fingers around this cross.

Be reminded of the blessings you receive through Christ.

Know that He died for your sins.”

Since 2010, the Cross Makers have given away thousands of palm crosses to hospital and care center patients, to funeral homes, to military veterans --- to anyone needing a reminder of “God’s richest blessings.” They sent crosses to Newtown, Connecticut, following the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre. After the devastating EF5 tornado in 2013, they sent $1,000 in cash and some crosses to the Salvation Army in Moore, Oklahoma.

A couple of years ago they sent a shipment of 250 palm crosses to a Marine unit serving on the front lines in Afghanistan.

“We got a real nice letter back,” Kent said as he paged through several binders of thank-you’s received over the years.

For the first 3½ years, the Cross Makers worked in Kent’s garage. In November 2013 they moved into a donated building on Jackson Street. The Cross Makers occupied what was once an apartment; on the other side of the structure was a medical clinic.

Today, the nonprofit owns the entire building.

Crosses are sold through the Cross Makers Etsy.com store and Amazon.com.

They are also available in a limited number of gift shops, religious store and truck stops, as well as through Grow Nebraska stores in Kearney and Grand Island.

Online prices start at $10, with discounts for bulk orders.

All proceeds are donated to community service organizations -- the majority of them serving Seward. To date, more than $85,000 has gone to various community causes.

Their work inspires others to be charitable.

“We’ve never had to buy a nickel’s worth of wood,” Kent said. “When farmers have trees that are in the way, they call us. We cut the trees down and take them to a sawmill in Palmyra. They run them through the mill, then we bring the wood back and we finish them.”

Meanwhile, the Cross Makers continue to expand their offerings with personalized palm crosses to commemorate births, baptisms, first communions, graduations, weddings, anniversaries and memorials.

Crosses come in three woods and three sizes: cedar, walnut or oak; small and medium.

The small crosses are designed to fit perfectly in the palm of a child. The idea came from Kent’s brother, who made one for a little girl who “was never going to leave the hospital.”

Recently, Kent started making cross necklaces.

As demand grows, so does the need for volunteers. Kent recruits his fellow retirees, giving them something constructive to do one, two or four mornings a week. He’ll even arrange transportation. He used to pick up an 89-year-old volunteer from a Seward assisted living center.

“He would work two hours cutting wood, and I would sand,” Kent said.

Volunteers also work from home. An elderly man, who has lost both legs, cuts out crosses by the thousands from his home in Goehner. Kent points to a number of Rubbermaid tubs and boxes -- each holding rough cut crosses awaiting finishing.

“Four years ago, he asked us for things to do,” Kent said. “He’s told us that it is the greatest thing that ever happened to him.”

Recently, the Cross Makers started holding “Ladies Night” from 6 to 8 p.m. on Mondays.

“We invite the ladies to come in and get a little dust on them … see how it feels to work with wood and smell the wood,” Kent said.

Elaine Kratochvil is the lone female working during the week. She doesn’t like to drive at night, she confided.

The guys lovingly refer to her as their “pin-up girl,” referring to her job of inserting a small pin in each cross and then dipping the cross into coatings of sealant and polyurethane.

Kratochvil comes close to blushing. She joined the Cross Makers in March -- one year after losing her husband. Upon his death, her Tupperware lady gave her a palm cross.

“It was so appreciated,” Kratochvil said.

She keeps the cross on her nightstand.

“Sometimes I take it to bed,” she said.

And sometimes she wakes up in the morning only to discover the cross in her hand.

“Sometime over the night, I must reach over and pick it up,” Kratochvil said.

Realizing she needed to get out and do things, Kratochvil volunteered with the Cross Makers.

“Otherwise, the four walls in the house can feel like they are closing in on you,” she said.

At the age of 69, Bill Morse is a “baby” among the volunteer group.

“Clayton tried to limit me to one day, ’cuz I didn’t know anything about wood,” Morse joked. “But then I expanded to two days, then three days, then four and now sometimes five or six times a week. … When we get more orders everyone pitches in.”

And the orders definitely are pouring in. When Morse joined the group, it had produced 10,000 crosses. And since the Cross Makers organized they have produced 77,000. 

Then last year, three Christian publications -- Lutheran, Catholic and Baptist -- featured the Cross Makers and their crosses.

Orders skyrocketed. They ran out of stock.

This year, they are prepared, Kent said. The stockroom and the showroom have an ample supply, and volunteers are working diligently to keep up.

No one who needs a cross should go without, Kent said.

“I am amazed at the reactions we get from people,” Kent said.

He gets misty-eyed recalling the stories of recipients.

A wealthy woman on her deathbed called the cross her most-prized possession.

The dying man requested to be buried with three things: “A photo of his wife, a photo of his three grandchildren and his palm cross,” Kent said.

Another man, nearing the end of his life requested nine crosses. Holding them in his hands, he prayed and then gave the crosses to his children, grandchildren, wife and sister so they could find comfort.

Morse smiled upon hearing the now-familiar story.

“Inner peace … that is my payment,” he said.

Longtime volunteer Leroy Lehr, 80, said his tireless devotion comes from knowing he is helping others.

“When I’m working on a cross, I always wonder whose hand it is going to end up in and what effect it will have on them,” he said.

“We put a lot of love in our crosses,” Kent said. “There is something magical about them. They help people concentrate. … When you’re sick and laying in bed, you have this cross that you can pick up and hold and think.”