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Inspiration on the interstate: How this church is helping travelers remember Christ

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Three crosses, representing the cross that Christ was crucified on as well as the crosses thieves hung from on both sides of him, stand outside of the new Nephi Baptist Church in Nephi on Friday, Sept. 11, 2020.

Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

NEPHI — As you drive north on I-15, just beyond Exit 225 into Nephi, glance to your right and you can’t miss it.

There’s a miniature Calvary of three wooden crosses standing together atop a small hill, surrounded by newly planted trees and shrubs. Just beyond the trio of crosses is the new and nearly completed First Baptist Church, set against a mountainous backdrop.

Pastor Keith E. South and those who designed the special feature hope the Christian scene will serve as inspiration on the interstate.

“People have commented that seeing it gave them a good feeling,” the pastor said. “I think this is a great reminder of why we do what we do, that there’s something bigger and more important than schedules and daily routines. If one person comes to the Lord because of this, then it’s all worth it.”

The unique landscaping is part of a multiyear effort to construct the new church, which is now in the final stages. It’s possible the church could be completed by the end of the year, Pastor South said.

“We started praying about this before we came to Nephi,” he said. “It’s a humbling experience to see God do things like this. My wife and I were convinced that the Lord gave us a vision of what he wanted us to accomplish when we came here and to watch it come to fruition reminds me of how small I am and how big he is.”

It all started on Mother’s Day in 1994 when Pastor South, his wife, Donna, and their four boys, along with three core families, felt divinely directed to start the First Baptist Church, an independent congregation supported by several churches around the country.

For the first decade or so, the congregation rented and met in different facilities as the congregation grew.

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Pastor Keith South talks about the placement of three crosses, representing the cross that Christ was crucified on as well as the crosses thieves hung from on both sides of him, outside of the new Nephi Baptist Church in Nephi on Friday, Sept. 11, 2020. They are visible from I-15 which passes by.

Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

After a congregation member donated three acres along the east side of I-15, ground was broken on the new church in 2008. The foundation was poured in 2012, but progress was slow for the next five or six years while the church waited on the Lord for the ability to build the sanctuary without going into debt.

Significant construction started in 2016.

“About four years ago, the Lord said it was time to build,” Pastor South said. “He brought in a lot of money and we went to work. We’ve been working on it steadily since then. When we run out of money, we go back and pray and try to put our trust in the Lord.”

The pastor said the 17,000-square-foot church has cost somewhere in the neighborhood of $3 million. Financial support has come from a network of churches from California to Pennsylvania and Wisconsin to Georgia, along with generous contributions from individuals and families. A lawyer informed Pastor South that a client planned to leave part of his estate to First Baptist Church when he dies.

“The Lord has done it in a lot of different ways,” the pastor said.

At one point they realized they would have a lot of leftover dirt to use in landscaping. A member of the congregation, who wishes to remain anonymous, developed the idea to build a small hill with trees, a rock path and create a “miniature Calvary” of crosses. It would not only beautify the church grounds, but represent an offering of gratitude to the Lord. The project became this member’s brainchild, Pastor South said.

His son, Jeff South, is the pastor of Ruby Mountain Bible Church in Spring Creek, Nevada. One member of the son’s congregation, Bob Moriarty, owns a small sawmill business and was approached about making the crosses, which he agreed to do.

After some research, Moriarty created the Roman-style crosses from some red fir trees he secured from a ski resort in Boise.

As they installed the crosses over Labor Day weekend, vehicles stopped to watch and take photos while others honked their horns as they drove by. Many in the community have offered positive feedback, Pastor Keith South said.

“It was like Christmas to watch it come together,” he said. “Obviously they did a great job.”

For centuries the cross has been a central symbol of Christianity, representing how the sins of humanity were paid for by the death of Jesus Christ, Pastor Jeff South said.

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The entrance to the new Nephi Baptist Church is pictured in Nephi on Friday, Sept. 11, 2020.

Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

“This is a neat opportunity to telegraph to the world and everyone that drives by what the church stands for and what we believe in,” he said. “There’s been a number of phone calls and folks are talking about it.”

Moriarty hopes the crosses can serve as a type of New Testament billboard that will cause freeway travelers to examine their lives and discover spiritual enlightenment. He appreciated being involved and declined payment for his work.

“The way I look at it is Jesus already paid the price. It was something that I was just glad to be involved with,” Moriarty said. “I hope it helps people. The way the world is, especially right now, it certainly couldn’t come at a better time.”

Darren Woolley is a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints who lives near the new First Baptist Church and his neighbors are members of the congregation. Woolley said his family had a “special experience” visiting the crosses the day they were erected. He continues to admire the display.

“I think it’s inspiring and it makes me think about Jesus every time I see it,” Woolley said. “It’s beautiful and unique, especially here in rural Utah. I think it will be a destination for Christian people of many different denominations.”