If he had stayed in his native Texas, it might never have occurred to him, said the Rev. Bryan Crow, pastor of Anaheim's evangelical Garden Church. But being in Southern California, with its Mediterranean climate and unfettered life style, "frees you to think a lot of thoughts you normally wouldn't."
What it made Crow think of, 20 years ago, was creating a biblical botanical garden and outdoor church.
Now the granting of city permits--and the $1 purchase of 34 acres from an Irvine developer--have made his dream a distinct possibility in Anaheim Hills. Although he still is struggling to raise the first several hundred thousand dollars of an estimated $7 million to $10 million needed for the project, Crow said he is optimistic that the dream will become a reality.
If it does, the biblical garden project would dwarf seven or eight similar sites in the United States, he said.
As the Riverside Freeway hummed below, Crow stood this week on a hill pointing to places in a canyon where in a few years he hopes visitors will find:
- An Arab-style hillside village with stone terraces and walking trails planted with biblical trees and shrubs that are mentioned in the Bible and are still found in the Holy Land.
- A replica of the Garden of Gethsemane.
- A miniature Sea of Galilee (with waterfall).
- The River Jordan.
That's in addition to a restaurant, picnic area, administrative center and three worship areas: a 500-seat amphitheater and replica of the garden tomb where Jesus is said to have been buried; a partially covered prayer and wedding chapel to seat 200, and a 2,000-seat, terraced church with a river running through it.
Crow's plans also call for water to be pumped from a 200-foot-long, artificial lake to create the river flowing through the main worship center, he said. The river will be heated for baptisms.
Also, visitors will be able to observe services in the garden tomb from the restaurant patio, he said. "The idea is you can come to church, have brunch and go to Bible study or worship."
Unlike religious theme parks, Crow said, his garden is intended to be a serene place--like a cemetery but with the emphasis on life--"plant life and the empty tomb." It would be similar to Bible Land's sand sculptures near Banning.
So far, Crow has obtained the land--for $1 in a land swap with Woodcrest Development Inc.--as well as conditional-use permits from the city for temporary modular buildings and a botanical garden.
Crow said he hopes to submit plans within six months for the complete village, which he believes may be expanded to 100 acres.
Meanwhile, the church plans to move four modular units onto the site next month, then begin planting the hillsides, Crow said. Construction on the main buildings could begin in two years, if city officials approve his plans.
Crow announced the project to 400 of his 800-member congregation at an August tent revival on the site, which is now used partly as a boarding stable.
His announcement comes at a time when many congregations are unable to find affordable church land anywhere in Orange County. To the 54-year-old Crow, a slow-spoken pastor with a down-home manner, it was a matter of "positive politics," and a deal that could happen only in Orange County, and only in Anaheim, the home of Disneyland.
"There's such a cooperative spirit between the city government and the community, and Anaheim has a very positive attitude towards the religious community," he said.
"When you put a developer, a worthwhile community project and a church together and work on a common goal, then it does work," said Crow, who started the Euclid Street Baptist Church when he moved from Texas to Orange County 27 years ago.
Over the years, Crow has earned a reputation as a community organizer. He is president of the Kiwanis Club of Greater Anaheim and a former chaplain to the Los Angeles Rams.
Today, he describes his Garden Church as more "Southern Californian" than Southern Baptist. And his sermons, while "Bible-based," are devoted to popular themes such as prosperity, needs and life style, he said.
But it was four years ago, while watching a performance of High Hopes, a group of gifted mentally retarded musicians, that he was struck by another idea, Crow said.
Meeting With Leaders
"If we worked with Hope University (a school for gifted mentally retarded children in Anaheim) to get them a home, we could probably get other people to work with us to get the garden site. That's where it started."
Then, Crow said, he got together a group of community leaders to explore the idea of selling his church property to Hope University-UNICO National College if a developer would help the congregation find a garden site. The group met two or three times, he said.
Two years ago, that church site was sold at "half-price" to Hope University-UNICO National College "with the understanding that the developer would make an equal contribution of land to us."