John Cockroft says his cell phone rings for one of two reasons. It’s either a solicitor attempting to scam him or a person wanting a light-up cross for their yard.
Cockroft, a former newspaper editor from Ozark, sells small lighted crosses through a group called Cross Light Courage. They are 14-by-10 inches, and are sold for $40. Cockroft buys them from a company in Alabama.
Cockroft said his group is an, “independent alternative social Christian movement,” not directly affiliated with the Christian County Cross Keepers, a group devoted to protecting the display at Finley River Park and encouraging Christian County homeowners and business owners to put up their own lighted displays. Instead, Cockroft wants to sell his crosses to people in Ozark, Nixa and beyond.
“I support Cross Keepers, they are part of the community,” Cockroft said. “I’m on a mission to place crosses nationwide, every day of the year, so it’s not seasonal.”
On Nov. 30, 2018, the Madison, Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation sent a letter to the city of Ozark asking that the city take down the cross display in the park.
On Dec. 11,2018, Ozark city officials announced that the cross lights would be deactivated, but reversed course about four hours later and announced that the cross would remain on display at the park and illuminated at night as part of Ozark’s drive-through holiday light park. The lands of Finley River Park are partially owned by the city of Ozark and partially owned by the Christian County Agriculture and Mechanical Society, which administers portions of the Christian County Fair. In early 2019, city employees moved the frame of the cross to a spot in the middle of the park near the saddle club arena, land that the A&M Society owns.
Cockroft has been selling crosses through a swell of business that largely relies on word of mouth and his Facebook page. He said most people want a lighted cross in white or blue, and that his customers are buying the products for their symbolism.
“It’s not a yard decoration, it’s nothing like that, it’s not a way to thumb your nose at atheists,” Cockroft said. “The whole intent is just to share the light of the cross.”
Cockroft sees the crosses as a way to foster conversations. He said that he is using the experiences himself to change the way he thinks about others and himself. He’s more apt to give another person the benefit of the doubt today, rather than greet them with skepticism as he would have in the past. These sorts of self-examinations and conversations of faith, Cockroft said, are where he draws the fascination and the inspiration to order and deliver crosses to others.
“There are more opportunities for curiosity, interaction that wouldn’t have been out there otherwise,” Cockroft said.
He hopes to see more of the lighted crosses in Christian County.
“When people go by and they see something that wasn’t there, they’ll be curious, and they can’t help but say, ‘I wonder why these crosses keep popping up?’” Cockroft said. “The light of the cross—that gives them hope and that gives them something to talk about that they wouldn’t have otherwise.”
Cross Light Courage, however, is not limited to Christian County, Cockroft said.
“It started in Ozark, but it continues to go all over the country. I think Ozark will be part of something that will be recognized as the founding place of something that happens big,” Cockroft said.
Cockroft said that he has shipped some of the crosses to Madison, Wisconsin, the place where the Freedom from Religion Foundation is based.
“I found it interesting that somebody that lives there asked me for some crosses. To me, that’s a very revealing thing,” Cockroft said.
State Rep. Lynn Morris, R-Nixa, organized meetings in Ozark and in Nixa with the goal of making moves to light the public display year-round. He is also organizing citizens to designate Ozark as the “city of crosses,” and Christian County as the “county of crosses.”
Cockroft isn’t interested in trying to battle the Freedom From Religion Foundation directly. He sees the controversy with the cross at Finley River Park as a way to foster conversations between Christians and non-Christians.
“Thumbing my nose at an atheist would really be a low-quality thing to do. I think that it looks really stodgy and strange,” Cockroft said. “In America, we want to explore all of our freedoms, and so this group from the atheist side got what they wanted, they moved a cross from public ground. The other group got what they wanted, more attention on the cross. I think it’s kind of what happens in America.”