Tuesday, April 3, 2007

A fledgling nondenominational church in Strasburg, Va., yesterday began erecting a 150-foot-tall cross, which church officials say is the largest in the Eastern United States.

The white, steel cross will tower over Interstate 81 about four miles from where the highway intersects with Interstate 66.

“There’s nothing like this on the East Coast,” said Jay Ahlemann, 61, senior pastor of Church of the Valley, a collection of 18 congregations in Northern Virginia that now meets in an elementary school.

The raising of the cross was expected to be finished last night. Officials also have plans for two 125-foot-tall crosses, a church building and a park with benches and a fountain, all of which combined will cost roughly $4.2 million. Construction is expected to continue through December.

Raising the large cross before Easter Sunday was the priority, Mr. Ahlemann said.

The cross is positioned so that drivers southbound on I-81 will look directly at the cross for two miles. Mr. Ahlemann hopes they will be “inspired by the sight of those crosses and reflect on grace of God.”

Bulldozers, cranes and other construction vehicles yesterday rumbled over the site that is to become a place to meditate. Spotlights at the base of the crosses will illuminate the structures from top to bottom.

“This is going to be a beautiful setting for reflection,” Mr. Ahlemann said.

He acknowledged such major changes are a “big step” for a church movement that started just a couple of years ago.

Mr. Ahlemann began Church of the Valley in 2005. Before that, he was the pastor of a church in Ashburn where many of the Washington Redskins attended in the 1980s.

Mr. Ahlemann got the idea for the cross in August 2005 while driving to a conference in Baton Rouge, La. He saw several crosses from the interstate and talked with a Mississippi-based company about getting a large structure for his church.

Mr. Ahlemann said the congregation has plenty of fundraising to accomplish to complete the rest of the projects, but he is happy to see construction under way.

“This is for everybody in the area,” he said.

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