The Holy Spirit is moving in communities all over Mississippi, Bob Daniels believes.
He and a growing group of Christians in Starkville are wanting to anchor a piece of that movement on a plot of land off Highway 25.
For years, Daniels drove by the giant crosses displayed in cities like Winona, Grenada and Batesville dotted along I-55 and thought, “Boy, that would be a great thing for Starkville.”
After a large cross display was installed in Eupora in 2019, he felt compelled to act.
“All the crosses in Mississippi and across the South came from independent, organic efforts that sprung from the people in those communities,” Daniels said. “Christians believe in the Holy Spirit to varying degrees, but that’s where this is coming from in my opinion.”
Daniels joined forces with fellow First Presbyterian Church elder Wallace Cade and others to recruit a multi-denominational group with a single-minded goal: erecting a 120-foot tall, 65-foot wide steel cross on a major thoroughfare within the city limits.
“It would be for all who believe in Christ as Savior,” Daniels said. “It would be a reminder on the landscape that God is with us every day. … The message is that Christ died for us and salvation is through him.”
In 2020, the group formed a nonprofit called The Cross of Christ for Starkville. It has a dozen or so board members that include lawyers, real estate developers, ministers and others. Its members are diverse denominationally and racially, in an effort to “bring all churches” on board, Cade said.
As of Saturday, the group had raised almost $36,000 toward its $200,000 goal, according to its GoFundMe page, and its members are confident they will raise the rest. It has even obtained the promise of a plot of private land on Highway 25 — near the USDA building between Highways 82 and 182 — from the four children of the late Dr. Harrell and Betty Josey.
Even with money coming in and land to install the cross seemingly secured, obstacles remain. To place the cross in the city limits, the group will need city approval for at least two special exceptions from building code requirements.
The group also faces resistance from Mayor Lynn Spruill, who Cade and Daniels said has “conveyed hostility” toward the project.
“A lot of other towns who have done this have the mayor and other city leaders on their committees (to install a cross),” Cade said. “We don’t have that in Starkville.”
Obstacles in city code
The first two legal problems the planned cross project faces are matters of use and height, City Planner Daniel Havelin told The Dispatch.
A cross would be considered an “accessory structure,” something city building code doesn’t allow unless it accompanies a primary structure in accordance with zoning requirements — such as a home, business or church.
The 120-foot cross also exceeds height maximums for any private structure. The board of aldermen recently approved a usage master plan for the Josey property along Highway 25, subdividing most of the property into “commercial” zones and the sliver where the group hopes to install the cross for “conservation.” In a conservation zone, Havelin said, the maximum allowed height for a primary structure is 30 feet. In a commercial zone, it’s 50 feet. An accessory structure, moreover, cannot exceed the height of the primary one.
That means the group must obtain special exceptions for both use and height. Each requires a hearing before the Planning and Zoning Commission and Board of Aldermen. The aldermen must approve both exceptions, then a detailed site plan.
Outside the city limits, Oktibbeha County has no such restrictions, Havelin said.
“If they went out into the county, they could build this tomorrow,” he said.
So far, the group hasn’t applied for any permits or exceptions, but Daniels said it has enlisted the services of a landscape architect from the Kimley-Horn firm, the same firm the city has used for several design projects, to navigate the building permit process.
Both Daniels and Cade said the group has land options to locate in the county, but those areas would reduce the cross’ visibility and accessibility. Cade said he wants the cross area to be a semi-open-air worship spot with a pavilion for church groups to go for special events or for passersby to stop and pray.
“This cross is for Starkville, and that’s why we want it in the city,” Cade said. “… The board of aldermen runs the city, not the mayor or the city planner. This is left up to them, and I’m confident we’ll get the support of the board.”
Daniels emphasized the cross is not meant as a political statement, but he acknowledged the political backdrop forming for the permitting process.
His son, Kevin Daniels, is the Republican candidate running for Ward 4 alderman. In the June 8 general election, he faces Democrat Mike Brooks, who currently happens to chair the Planning and Zoning Commission.
“I believe there is sympathy on the board (of aldermen) for this, and there may be even more after the election,” Bob Daniels said.
If the board rejects the plan and the cross ultimately is installed in the county, Daniels said it’s worth going through the process.
“What it all boils down to is does Starkville want to be seen as a city that would deny something like this?” Daniels said. “… If this is an issue of city code, let’s fix the code.
“There is value in raising the standard for Christ,” Daniels added. “Is this something you can stand for? If not, why not?”
Questions surrounding symbolism, tolerance
For Spruill, it’s not just city code. It’s whether the city is seen as inclusive and tolerant to all cultures and faiths.
When group members approached her about the cross, she suggested they install it outside the city limits.
“I don’t think (the cross) represents the diversity of thought present in this community, especially when you consider this is the home of Mississippi State University,” Spruill said. “I do not think it promotes a feeling of inclusion or that it sends the message (of love) its supporters think it does.”
Even if she felt it did, providing code exceptions for such a project creates a “slippery slope” that could open the door to exceptions for non-Christian religious symbols or things that might be more broadly offensive.
Ward 5 Alderman Hamp Beatty, an elder at Trinity Presbyterian Church, doesn’t object to the cross symbolism. He referred to The Cross of Christ group as “nice, well-meaning people wanting to do something good.”
However, he does not believe the city should act in a way that would either establish a “preferred” religion or begin a process that could wear away the integrity of its building codes.
Daniels, pointing to the effort asking for private donations and using private land, said the cross is more an issue of freedom of religious expression.
“We’re not trying to be aggressive to anyone, but we are standing up and saying, ‘Christ is Lord,’” he said.
From a secular standpoint, Daniels believes that segment of Highway 25 is ripe for development. It could even become known colloquially as “The Cross District,” he said, with incoming businesses advertising their locations based on their proximity to the cross.
“This cannot harm the community,” Daniels said. “It’s nothing but positive.”
At least one alderman, Ward 1’s Ben Carver, is solidly in the cross group’s corner.
“I’m all for it,” he told The Dispatch. “From what I’ve been told about it, I think it will be a
great thing for the community.”
When asked if he would feel the same way if the religious monument needing code exceptions was not Christian, Carver was less sure.
“That’s really deep,” he said. “I don’t know.”
Does it ‘win souls?’
Some practicing Christians aren’t entirely convinced a large cross along Highway 25 is the best deployment of evangelism.
Stanly Godbold, a retired history professor from MSU and member of Starkville First United Methodist Church, said the city has worked hard over the years to help people “come together and tolerate each other.”
“Mostly, I just think it’s unnecessary,” Godbold said. “I question spending that much on an icon when that money might be better spent helping people in need.”
Daniels argues a cross along a major thoroughfare can inspire or comfort drivers along the road.
“This will stand there for decades,” Daniels said of the financial investment. “Kids who haven’t been born yet will see it, people we will never meet will see it. After we’re gone, it will still be there.”
Walton Jones, who has served as priest of The Episcopal Church of the Resurrection in Starkville for five years, is neither a supporter nor detractor of the project, he said. Yet, he shares some of Godbold’s questions about how effectively the cross would evangelize.
“I don’t know if this wins souls, or how many people driving through Starkville who see a giant cross would have some sort of conversion experience from it,” he said. “It wouldn’t convert me. I mean, if I drive down the street in Oxford and see a giant cowbell, I don’t know if that would make me want to become a Mississippi State fan.”