Local artist weighs in on 9/11 cross controversy

Kevin Kato and artist Jon Krawczyk, along with members of the Los Angeles County Fire Department, hoist up the cross that Krawcyzk sculpted with steel from Ground Zero at Bluffs Park earlier this year. The artist then embarked on a cross country tour, which ended at Saint Peter’s Church where the cross replaced the I-beam one from Ground Zero. That cross is now at the 9/11 Museum, and is the subject of a lawsuit. Devon Meyers / TMT

Malibu artist Jon Krawczyk built a replacement cross for the famous 9/11 I-beam cross, which was moved from a church to the 9/11 Museum. Now the American Atheists have filed suit to have the original cross removed from the 9/11 Memorial site.

By Megan Farmer / Special to The Malibu Times

Malibu artist Jon Krawczyk heard nothing but positive messages from people during his three-week trip cross country this summer while transporting the cross he sculpted using metal from Ground Zero.

He created the piece in honor of a cross that was found by workers in the wreckage of 9/11, which was being moved from a church to the 9/11 Memorial Museum. Krawczyk said he could have never predicted the controversy that would arise just a few months later.

“I built the cross to serve homage to the original cross found on 9/11 and help people remember those who were lost. It was amazing how many people were touched by the message,” Krawczyk said.

Krawczyk’s cross rests at its new home at Saint Peter’s Church in New York City, replacing the infamous crossed I-beam that was found in the ruins of the Twin Towers. The original hunk of twisted metal found in the rubble after the towers fell was shaped like a Roman Catholic Cross and has since been moved to the 9/11 Memorial Museum at the World Trade Center site.

This move was the lightning rod that provoked a lawsuit from the group, American Atheists, who are fighting to have the original cross removed from the 9/11 Museum. The group views the cross as a religious symbol and as a monument to Christianity, which they say doesn’t belong in the museum if no other religious group is represented, including their own.

“We feel that all different points of views should be represented equally,” Larry Hicok, the California representative for American Atheists, said. “There’s no reason for one point of view to trump all others. We think it’s best to be inclusive and have something from every religion, including something that represents atheism.”

Krawczyk’s experience has led him to a different point of view. While traveling across America with his cross in tow, he said people from all religions, even those who are not religious at all, were supportive and touched by the message of perseverance after 9/11.

“I think that it’s sad when people take a good message and try to break it down,” Krawczyk said. “My basic thought in life is that you want to build people up, build society up, and have messages of hope and sacrifice. The American Atheists’ lawsuit is tearing people apart.”

Krawczyk, not of any particular religion himself, said the 9/11 cross represents comfort to people and brought many together in a time of trial and difficulty, something that should be memorialized and remembered. He said whether the atheists believe it or not, the cross gave people hope, and he believes if we break religion down and take the people out of it, the underlying message of all religion seems to be love. That is the message Krawczyk said he is trying to spread.

Hicok said the issue isn’t about love, but rather about organized religion not wanting to give up power. He cites the controversial mosque that was built two blocks from the World Trade Center site last year as an example of Christians not having tolerance of other religions, and said this is just another instance of Christians wanting to keep their dominance and exclude other points of view.

Religious symbolism was common in the aftermath of 9/11, with many ironworkers often cutting out small crosses or Stars of David from the steel beams of the collapsed towers as tokens of remembrance of the loss they suffered.

The original I-beam cross, which is now the source of significant controversy, was found in the debris by workers and erected at Ground Zero serving as a spiritual symbol for many to continue carrying on with their work. A Roman Catholic priest held mass there each week, serving as a source of support for workers who were sifting through rubble and remains in the 9/11 aftermath.

For those who lost family members on 9/11, the removal of the cross from the museum is a sensitive issue, and some are offended by the atheists’ lawsuit.

Debra Burlingame, whose brother was a pilot on American Airlines Flight 77, which was hijacked by terrorists and crashed into the Pentagon killing all aboard, is currently on the board of the World Trade Center Memorial Foundation and said the atheists’ lawsuit demonstrates the height of arrogance and attempts to trivialize the experience people had on that day.

She said there is no atheist exhibit at the museum because it doesn’t fit into the story of 9/11.

“If there was some grand atheist experience people shared on September 11, that would be one thing,” Burlingame said. “But the American Atheists are forgetting that this is a graveyard. There are 1,126 families who didn’t find any remains at all of their loved ones. This is a very sacred place.”

The American Atheists have proposed building a monument of an atom at the 9/11 Museum, since all humans are made of atoms, they said, and it can represent the entire community. But Burlingame said she doesn’t believe it belongs there. She said it isn’t the job of the 9/11 Memorial Foundation to be pushing any one religion, the difference is the cross is a historical artifact that was deeply and profoundly meaningful to people who worked in the Ground Zero aftermath.

Krawczyk said he believes the courts will find there is no merit to this lawsuit and the cross will remain in the museum. He said people of all religions were inspired by the discovery of the cross and doesn’t believe it is an example of the government sanctioning Christianity, but rather an important historical piece that should remain open to the public.

Krawczyk plans to visit the 9/11 Memorial and Museum this November with his two children and hopes to share the beauty he finds in the cross with them.

“I hope that when people see my cross at Saint Peter’s, it inspires them to go to the 9/11 Museum. People say we’ll never forget, but I like to say, ‘Always Remember.’ This was a powerful day in our history and the cross helps comfort us in telling the story of 9/11.”