God’s messages of love are sometimes burnt onto people’s hearts through humble means.
Take a sheet of plywood and wood pen, a little scroll saw, and a willing set of hands, and anything is possible, through God.
That’s certainly the story of retired dairy farmer John Eckermann from Strathalbyn, a town between the Adelaide Hills and the Fleurieu Peninsula, southeast of Adelaide.
Over almost five years, John has crafted almost 20,000 crosses and Christmas symbols out of wood, and more recently acrylic cast-offs, engraving most of them with biblical messages.
His palm-sized crosses, cross-shaped key rings, angels, doves, bells and hearts have made their homes across all the mainland states, from schools to service stations, in the hands of children and chaplains alike.
This labour of love has almost become an obsession for 68-year-old John, who was encouraged by his local pastor, Wayne Kerber, to take up the hobby.
‘The faith crosses started when we went to the 150th anniversary of Callington Lutheran Church and Pastor Leon Rosenberg was handing them out to the children in the children’s address’, John recalls.
‘He said that they were the last ones he had as Mr Keith Pfeiffer was not doing it any more.
‘I was looking for a hobby and said to my wife Ruth, “I reckon that I could do that”. The next day when I went down the street to get our mail, who was at the post office but Keith!
‘God certainly had plans for me, I had never seen Keith there at the post office before. I bought myself a scroll saw. It was the best thing I have ever bought.’
Keith’s failing health meant he was not continuing to make the crosses, but he kindly showed John his tricks of the trade. That was November 2014.
That scroll saw has since made more than 8000 crosses which John has designed with three different messages. These were followed with the addition of more than 1500 key ring crosses last year, featuring the message ‘Take God with you always’.
John has given the key rings away at local shows and market stalls, as well as 500 to 600 crosses. ‘The feedback has been very inspiring, how much people treasure them and the comfort they have brought them’, John says.
‘God has certainly given me that challenge to spread the word with these crosses.’
The cross ministry was born out of painful circumstances. John and his wife of 44 years, Ruth, were forced off the once-fertile land around Lake Albert near the mouth of the Murray River during the millennium drought of the 2000s.
Once they lost their water, there was no future for their dairy and beef farm of 900 head of cattle.
John and Ruth moved to Strathalbyn, and John needed a hobby. ‘God had things planned for us up here’, he says.
And his wooden crosses and symbols have found their way around the country, to congregations of multiple denominations, to police chaplains and Australian Lutheran World Service. About 500 crosses went to the Lutheran Women of Australia national convention in NSW last year. Another 3500 faith crosses and 1300 cross key rings went to Albury for congregations and church-planting initiatives, along with altar crosses and Easter and Christmas decorations. In the past three years, another 800 faith crosses have gone to the Finke River Mission in the Northern Territory.
They are also spreading throughout John’s local district. One of the peace doves has become a permanent fixture at the front counter of a local petrol station.
Last year alone, 1000 hearts were handed out at the local Christmas pageant, where the Strathalbyn congregation coincidentally won the prize for the best float.
‘When we were handing them out, the kids would say that they still had the others on the Christmas tree every year, so even if they do not come to church, the real meaning of Christmas is always there with them’, John says.
It takes John about five minutes to make each cross, but his biggest challenge has been crafting a 550mm by 390mm wooden artwork featuring the Lord’s Prayer. It has taken John 18 hours just to cut out the artwork, which required 720 holes. For his efforts, he has taken out first prize in the woodwork section of the local show for two years in a row.
His quality control expert, Ruth, provides creative and calligraphy support by labelling the special crosses ready to burn. ‘It’s been a team effort’, John says. ‘I wouldn’t be where I am today without her help.’
Fellow Strathalbyn parishioner Lance Thiele has helped John in his woodwork endeavours, assisting him to make individual communion cup trays and faith boxes for the children baptised in their parish. He also frames the Lord’s Prayer artworks. ‘We both enjoy working for the Lord with this mission outreach’, John says.
John is also thankful for the help of up to 10 members from the congregation to thread cord through each wooden decoration each Christmas.
‘It’s humbling to see how something so simple can be so effective.’
Helen Beringen is a Brisbane-based writer who is inspired by the many GREYT people who serve tirelessly and humbly in our community. By sharing stories of how God shines his light through his people, she hopes others are encouraged to explore how they can use their gifts to share his light in the world.
Know of any other GREYT stories in your local community? Email the editor firstname.lastname@example.org
This feature story comes from The Lutheran April 2019. Visit the website to find out more about The Lutheran or to subscribe.