Gary Garner has been furnishing churches for 26 years

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Even when answering the phone, Gary Garner's business comes second: "Praise the Lord ... Images of the Cross."

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Gary Garner works on a cross in his wood shop on Oct. 10, 1997.  File/Staff
File/Staff
Gary Garner works on a cross in his wood shop on Oct. 10, 1997.

As long as he crafts wood that glorifies God, he believes, then God will take care of him. It has been that way for 26 years for the church furniture maker.

Though his south Augusta business now has a Web site imagesofthecross.com, most of Mr. Garner's customers come to him through word of mouth. It has been that way since he started making crosses in his basement in the midst of the recession in the late 1970s.

In 1977, he had a spiritual epiphany that not only saved his life but also provided him with a career.

More than a hundred crosses dominate the showroom half of his Lumpkin Road workshop. It takes three to four hours to make each one.

The shop is filled with a choir rail and pulpit for a church in Pensacola, Fla. It was a job that came to him from a retreat a few years ago in New York, through a man who lives in Arizona, on behalf of a church in Florida that is finally being built.

Mr. Garner calls it Holy Spirit marketing.

"He's explicit in giving God the credit. Without the Lord, he'd be nothing. He isn't afraid to proclaim it," said Mike Firmin, a fellow Alleluia Community member who has known Mr. Garner since he moved to Augusta in the early 1980s.

Mr. Garner designs and hand crafts the church furnishings, a rare combination in this specialized niche.

He knows there are fewer wood carvers in the country than when he started as a teenager in Marietta, Ga., following his father into the furniture business.

"What I do here is rare in today's world. When I was coming up, there were a lot of people who did this. It was considered a real specialized craft, a respected skill," he said.

Though he has part-time helpers to put the final touches on jobs, Images of the Cross is mostly a one-man production team.

"It's just me because the craft is not something easy to train, most of the stuff is customized. I may only do one of them in my life," Mr. Garner said.

Because it is a solo act, many friends are worried about the future of the business. None of his children followed him into the craft. The 71-year-old, however, scoffs at the idea of retirement.

"It's been a great business. I know I'm doing what I'm supposed to be doing."

Spiritual direction

It isn't air conditioned in the back of the building where Mr. Garner saws and sands his exotic woods.

A poster hangs near the door that separates the showroom and workshop. Atop the drawing of God on a cloud is the phrase: Get a job where everyone loves the boss.

It was a vocational poster from a Catholic church, he explained. Most of his clients are Catholic churches.

"People are busy for six days a week, and you've got a few minutes on the seventh day to get that attention. It's got to speak to those people. I feel the weight of that responsibility," Mr. Garner said.

Jim Cordell is helping him finish the sanding and polish on the mahogany choir rails. The retired real estate salesman has been Mr. Garner's "grunt" since October.

Mr. Cordell calls Mr. Garner a very spiritual man. There is prayer before they work each morning. Mr. Garner asks the Holy Spirit to guide him throughout the day.

Mr. Garner said he goes to his customers with an open mind, considering what the church needs and wants to say with the furniture or cross.

"I try really hard to design for them, not for me. I don't need another notch in the belt of having designed something that I've wanted to design," he said.

Mr. Garner's son Craig said his father is a perfectionist and always has been.

"When he had a worker that didn't do something right, he'd make them do it over," he said. "I don't know what he's charging the job he's doing now. Whatever it is, they're getting a steal, because he goes above and beyond with time and preciseness. It has to be right before it leaves his shop."

Mr. Garner does not fit the profile of a temperamental artist, Mr. Firmin said, but the man is particular about his work.

"No one has ever said it wasn't an uplifting experience to work with Gary," he said.

Most of Mr. Garner's wood doesn't come from local sources. The mahogany is from Honduras. It is the "primo wood" for carving -- moderately hard, yet workable, a longtime favorite of furniture builders.

"He treats his woodwork like an icon ... There's a strong component of spiritual direction," said Bob Garrett, an elder with the Alleluia Community. What he means is Mr. Garner's works are more than art; there is a spiritual investment in them that will draw people in.

Mr. Garrett has a few of Mr. Garner's crosses hanging as a spiritual centerpiece in his home.

The strongest seller in Images of the Cross is a cross shaped liked spikes.

There's a power in the Christian cross, Mr. Garner said. "Nobody looks at one of these and yawns."

Career craftsman

Mr. Garner was born in 1936 in Canton, Ga., which is now part of the northern fringe of metro Atlanta.

His first taste of the furniture business was assisting his father in refinishing the antiques he sold. Much of his woodworking skill was self-taught.

He was a teenage entrepreneur, working nights and weekends in his own furniture-making business. His workshop was a one-room building behind his parents' house, heated by a pot-belly stove.

"Grandpa was an artist. Dad did painting and drawing until he started with furniture," Craig Garner recalled. "He gave his paints to his sister."

Two years out of high school, one of his friends set him up on a blind date. It was with a high school senior named Nancy, a girl he'd met years ago as a child when she lived down the street.

"He didn't remember me, and I remembered his name, that was it," she recalled. They married in 1958, a year later.

The family moved from Marietta to Nashville, Tenn., in the late 1960s, when Mr. Garner went to work for a family-owned furniture company. After four years, he realized there was no way he could be promoted any higher than manufacturing manager because family members held those positions.

He returned to Georgia. After a brief stint with a friend's frame shop he went to work for himself, becoming a general contractor for luxury houses in the northern Atlanta suburbs of Sandy Springs and Dunwoody.

"He built some spec homes, out of that got some luxury homes, comparable to what you would find in West Lake. He designed them and built them. He didn't want to get back into furniture," Mrs. Garner said.

It was a short-lived career. The economy soured, and banks frowned on mortgages.

"I was caught in all of that. Half the builders went bankrupt," Mr. Garner said. "I hadn't been around long enough to ride out the downturn. I got swept out with a lot of other people."

The family got stuck with a spec house and sold it for a loss, paying the high-interest loan for years before getting out from under it.

Mrs. Garner helped make ends meet by working as a part-time bank teller. For the next three years, Mr. Garner did commercial woodworking, going into offices and restaurants with a team of people who had worked for him when he was in the home-building business.

"Then the Lord shut that down."

Finding his 'fix'

Mr. Garner's family knew he was down in the dumps after the business trouble, but were never aware that his depression was severe enough to border suicidal.

"What I remember was them sitting us down and saying there are some changes," Craig Garner said. "His business hit bottom. Still got to pay the bank on the mortgage for houses that weren't selling. I never saw all that he was going through mentally, with not being able to sleep at night."

Mrs. Garner said she was aware of her husband's inability to sleep, coupled with an ulcer.

Mr. Garner said he wasn't a Christian man then.

"I was a self-made superstar," he said.

He was carrying a $300,000 life insurance policy.

"Satan started eating my lunch daily, telling me to cash it in," Mr. Garner said. "Do something good for your family. You've got that policy. Cash it in, pay off your debts, give them something to live on."

Without sleep and losing weight, Mr. Garner said he was sure people thought he looked terminally ill.

He stumbled into a prayer meeting one night, "led by the nose by the Holy Spirit." He heard about it from a motorcycle-riding priest. He was surprised to see the attendees weren't a group of old women knitting for an hour, but a vibrant group of businesspeople.

"I haven't seen people this happy in my entire life," Mr. Garner said. "They became my fix to get through the next week."

Six weeks into sitting on the sidelines, Mr. Garner opened up to the group, not about the suicidal thoughts, but simply asking for a prayer so that he could sleep at night.

Mr. Garner said their prayers did more than that, making him born again and baptized by the Holy Spirit.

Not only did he sleep that night, he did so without tranquilizers and got a full eight hours when 90 minutes of sleep had been the norm.

"Never had another bad day, ever, in 31 years," he said.

Mrs. Garner joined her husband in the transformation into Christians.

Craig Garner recalls the aftermath of the change, prayer meetings in the house and new faces coming over. His parents would bring home strangers and homeless people from soup kitchens to live with them until they got their lives straightened out.

"It was frightening to see this radical change," Craig Garner said.

Mr. Garner began making crosses in the basement. One ad in the newsletter for the Atlanta Catholic diocese put the business in motion. Buyers came to the house and browsed the selection hanging on the dining room wall.

A church hired him to construct their pulpit and chairs.

Conversion had come with a career.

"It was a life of stepping on rakes and getting hit in the back of the head, where you almost had it and then bang," Mr. Garner said. "Since doing it for Jesus, it is like walking in the park."

In 1984, the family heard about the Alleluia Community in Augusta. Mr. Garner moved his workshop from his metro Atlanta home into a Broad Street building.

Years later he would move it to a secluded building on Peach Orchard Road. Three years ago, he moved into a vacant building on Lumpkin Road near the Alleluia Community. Its biggest advantage: a garage door to get the big pieces in and out.

On a mission

If it is Wednesday morning, the 71-year-old wood crafter is sitting in front of Planned Parenthood in prayer.

Mr. Garner is usually up by 5 a.m. anyway, even after nights of walking a one-hour neighborhood watch that the Alleluia Community calls a Prayer Watch.

A few of his mornings are dedicated to a men's group prayer meeting, and some mornings are for his physical fitness. Wednesdays are spent on Broad Street.

"He has a strong stand on abortion, very vocal, very active. He puts his money where his mouth is. He used to do it by himself. He prayed in front of the abortion clinic on a constant basis," Mr. Cordell said.

The clinic doesn't open until after he's left.

"You do good any time you stand up for truth. Your presence, whether they're open or not, does good," Mr. Garner said.

Mr. Garrett, the community elder, said Mr. Garner is also a leader when it comes to the fight against pornography. Part of that charge is the protesting of the X-Mart on Gordon Highway, which was blocked again two weeks ago by the Augusta Commission.

"If taxpayers have to spend their money to defend the morality and goodness of their city, it is worth the money, I think," Mr. Garrett said.

Mr. Firmin, who runs the food bank, said Mr. Garner is a person who pushes buttons, and some people don't like his forward approach. The man plays a prophetic role in the life of the church in this area by his passion for what he does, Mr. Firmin said.

"To save the country we've got to stop abortion and the hedonism of pornography," Mr. Garner said. "There's a lot of people on the fence about abortion, that it's a sin and evil. On Friday nights, drivers are looking ahead like you're not there with a 16-foot banner that says 49,000 lives were lost in this building."

Mrs. Garner said there are no wrong numbers, no errant phone calls, that come into Images of the Cross. Even when Mr. Garner gets a telemarketer on the phone, he'll ask if there's something in the marketer's life he can pray about. A few of them bite and say there's something terribly wrong with a loved one.

It has happened enough that Mr. Garner is convinced even the wrong numbers were supposed to get to him because there was a prayer need.

The future

Being a mostly one-man show, Mr. Garner's workload is anywhere from six to 10 months behind schedule. His customers are willing to wait to get their hand-crafted crosses, crucifixes or furnishings.

Mr. Garner is also a casket maker, providing most of them to the members of the Alleluia Community. He has a few on hand to prevent a repeat of the first casket request: a woman dying not long after the order.

"Trying to buy wood on Saturday in Augusta is a tough chore," Mr. Garner recalled of his hunt for cherry. By Monday morning, he had his first casket built, just moments before the funeral home came to put her in it.

Questions are coming more often about what will happen to Images of the Cross once he dies. His four children are involved in other professions.

"I don't want to see his shop die with him. I've told him that," Mr. Firmin said. "I know it isn't easy to find another him, you never will."

Meanwhile retirement is not in his vocabulary. When he went to his 50th high school reunion, all of his classmates were retired and asked what he did to keep himself busy. "What retirement?" was the answer.

Reach Tim Rausch at (706) 823-3352 or timothy.rausch@augustachronicle.com.

GARY GARNER

BORN: Sept. 21, 1936, Canton, Ga.


TITLE: Owner of Images of the Cross


MEMBERSHIP: Alleluia Community


FAMILY: Wife, Nancy; children Sherrie, Brad, Craig and Curt

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speaknthetruth
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speaknthetruth 06/30/08 - 08:05 am
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Thank God for people like

Thank God for people like Gary who are willing to stand up and be counted. Thank you Gary for being a great example to me and my family over the years. Here's to 71 more years of running the race!
G l o r y!

FallingLeaves
27
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FallingLeaves 06/30/08 - 03:14 pm
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Nice positive article.

Nice positive article. Thanks Mr. Rausch.

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