In the midst of downtown Seward, Nebraska, sits a rather unassuming woodworking shop. The shop, home to sanders and table saws, smells of sawdust and varnish, and comes to life each morning when a group of retirees shows up for work. Their job? Hand-carve wooden crosses.
Seeking purpose in retirement
In 2010, years after Clayton Kent retired from his grocery business, he began to grow weary of his relaxed workweek.
On a visit to his hometown of Hastings, Nebraska, Kent saw his brother and nephew making hand-carved wooden crosses to give to sick or hurting members of their church. Kent was inspired to dust off his high school woodworking skills. His brother and nephew helped him get started with the right equipment, "and the woodworking just came back to me," Kent says. The first cross Kent made was for his granddaughter's confirmation.
In May 2010 he and his friend Herb Holtz started carving crosses in Kent's garage. They began referring to themselves as the Cross Makers.
"It's all volunteers, volunteers, volunteers. We couldn't do it without volunteers. Some work a lot of hours, some just come one morning a week."
It wasn't just the two of them for long. Kent told friends about the Cross Makers, and they came to help. Within a few months, about a dozen men and women were gathering in the garage four mornings a week.
Kent's original plan was to give all the crosses away to churches, friends and funeral homes. But word spread fast, and the group members soon realized they needed money for supplies. So later in 2010 the Cross Makers officially became a 501(c)(3) nonprofit with the corporate name, Cross of Life.
They developed a website that expanded the group's customer base. "The first order we got online was from a town in England," Kent says. "We were thrilled."
In 2013 they moved to a donated building in downtown Seward. Today there are 40 volunteers who dedicate time weekly to cut, sand and polish the wooden crosses.
"We've made 82,000 crosses," says Kent. "It's all volunteers, volunteers, volunteers. We couldn't do it without volunteers. Some work a lot of hours, some just come one morning a week."
Stories that feed the soul
The crosses are carved from cedar, walnut or oak – much of which is donated by farmers. All the crosses are unique in shape and size. Particularly popular is the palm cross, designed with smooth rounded edges to fit comfortably in the palm of the holder. These crosses come with a card that describes the love of Christ.
The crosses bring comfort to sick or grieving church members. They make a heartfelt gift to people in hospitals, in nursing homes and in the military. And people who are depressed, anxious or worried find comfort in the contemplative nature of the crosses. Kent hangs thank you letters on the walls of the shop and has file folders filled with notes from grateful recipients.
The Cross Makers are not paid for their work – at least not monetarily. "It's just so wonderful to do something like this without any pay or any benefits," says Kent. "Our reward comes from the letters we receive from people who have enjoyed the crosses. It's the stories that keep you going."
Any proceeds not used for materials and equipment go to local charities.
From hobby to passion
These days Kent has taken a step back from his work at the shop. At age 83, his health requires a break from daily woodworking. He still visits the shop regularly and continues to be in awe of what began as a retirement activity to keep him busy seven years ago.
"This started as a way to spend my extra time, and it's turned into a way to share blessings with a lot of people," Kent says. "I never expected that this little hobby could do that."
Ready to take action?
Whether your talent is cooking, building or animal care, there are endless ways for you to make an impact on the world around you. If you're an eligible Thrivent member, you can help support Cross of Life and other Thrivent Choice® enrolled nonprofit organizations by directing Choice Dollars®, applying to lead a Thrivent Action Team or making a personal donation.
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