MOBILE, Ala. (BP)–Each time the two men approached the metal cross with their welding torch, they prayed. Then the hot hiss of flame searing steel would break the silence, shaping delicate leaves and melding clinging vines to the cross.
For Mark Foley and Jim Daniel, the physical labor was much more than a break from the desk-bound stresses of being a university president or the CEO of a metal fabrication firm whose creations grace the Smithsonian.
It’s a way to share their faith and create a place for quiet reflection at the Baptist-affiliated University of Mobile.
On Monday, March 9, with a prayer dedicating the art to God, an “Amen” and a shout of “Let’s put it up!” a crane raised the 12-foot piece of structural art and placed it atop a concrete pedestal on the Christian college campus. It is situated along the main drive on a hill near dining and residence halls and will be surrounded by a rock garden featuring large boulders to provide a resting place for visitors.
“I wanted us to have a visual representation of our place as a faith-based university, a piece of structural art that immediately says, ‘This place is of Christ,'” said Foley, who has served as president of the 1,641-student school since 1998.
The piece, titled “I Am the Vine,” is a much larger version of a 14-inch metal sculpture Foley fashioned in 2006 in his garage workshop for his wife Marilyn. Both pieces depict a crown of thorns hanging from the top of the cross, with steel vines growing from the cross stained with splashes of red representing Christ’s blood.
The depiction is based on the scriptural reference in John 15, verse 5: “I am the vine; you are the branches. If a man remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing” (New International Version).
Foley has used a blowtorch and tools he inherited from his father and father-in-law to create desktop-sized works of art for a dozen years. Then, during a speaking engagement at Deerfoot Baptist Church in Trussville, Ala., he met church member Jim Daniel.
Daniel is the third-generation to head Daniel Metals Inc., a Birmingham-based national leader in the steel fabrication business. With a main facility two-and-a-half football fields long and 150 feet wide, Daniel had the space — and the experienced workers — to expand on Foley’s original artwork. And, he recognized in Foley a man with a talent and a love for working with metal.
But there was a catch.
“I wanted us to build it together,” Foley said. “It was important to me that this piece had the deep meaning of being handcrafted by men who share the belief that life, abundance, peace, joy, love and all the virtues of our faith come from the awful experience of Christ on the cross.”
The project began in July 2008, with the university president stopping by the plant on his way to and from speaking engagements and meetings. As the cross grew, so did the friendship between the two men. In January 2009, Daniel joined the university’s board of trustees.
“It’s hard to put into words what that cross has done not only for me personally, but also for the 50 or 60 plant employees,” Daniel said. “When Mark would come to the office, we would go out in the plant and we would gather around us the men that were close by. And we’d have a word of prayer. We’d ask God to honor what we were getting ready to do.”
Each of the elements of the artwork have meaning. The cross is made of weathered steel designed to have a permanent rust color, reminiscent of “the old rugged cross.” The crown of thorns hanging at the top of the cross was formed of old barbed wire Daniel found on his property. The vine and fruit are handcrafted from stainless steel, and acid-treated bronze created red “bloodstains.” The vine “grows” from the cross itself, symbolizing submission to Jesus Christ as the source of life.
When the time came to place spikes on the cross at the point where Christ’s hands would have been, Foley’s arms served as the measuring stick.
Daniel said he has built many crosses, including a 40-foot-tall cross at Deerfoot Baptist that can be seen from the interstate, and three large crosses at Shades Mountain Baptist Church in Birmingham.
“We’ve built a lot of crosses,” Daniel said, “but never, ever have we built one with the vine being entwined in the cross. It says to me that if you don’t get involved in using your life as a witness for Christ, your life is not really fulfilled yet.”
Foley said the symbolism of the cross is something he feels deeply.
“The idea of a lifetime spent walking with Christ is something that I hope for every student who comes through the University of Mobile,” Foley said.
Daniel said the sculpture will be a focal point on the 880-acre campus.
“I know that a lot of students who are hurting, who are not having a good life, are going to go up to that cross and kneel and find hope and support from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. I think people are going to flock there -– not only people who are full of joy, but people full of agony who need some support that mankind cannot give, that must come from Jesus Christ,” Daniel said.
Daniel has entered the sculpture in an international metal works competition sponsored by the National Ornamental and Miscellaneous Metals Association. The cross will be pictured in an industry magazine and compete against the best projects of the year created by metal fabricators worldwide.
The sculpture will stand surrounded by a rock garden designed by Bill Dumas, a Mobile radiologist who became close friends with Foley through a Wednesday morning men’s Bible study.
Dumas said he envisioned the cross in a natural setting that suggested Golgatha, the rocky site just outside the walls of Jerusalem where Jesus was crucified.
“It should be a place where someone can contemplate the issues in their life and their relationship with the Lord,” Dumas said. “I think all of us in our adult lives wished that maybe we had made some more perfect life decisions in college that would have tempered our activities to be more pleasing to the Lord.
“The University of Mobile is a wonderful place where people are more focused on critical life issues than I was at that time in my life,” Dumas added. “It’s a special place for educating and bringing up people in leadership roles in the Christian faith, who are making significant efforts early in their life to draw tight with their walk with the Lord.”
Gifts from Jim and Helen Daniel and Bill and Mary Day Dumas funded the project.
The site will be dedicated at noon on April 27, with a plaque dedicating the piece “to those who courageously follow Christ and to those who will learn to follow Him through the influence of the University of Mobile.”
Kathy Dean is director of public relations at the University of Mobile.