His Own Little Garden of Eden : Pastor's Project Includes Lake, River, Church

Times Staff Writer

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."

Jim Highland, executive vice president of Woodcrest Development Inc. of Irvine, said his firm, which is developing a 1,119-home tract on the hillside, agreed to sell the property to the Garden Church for $1 because "it's a chance for us to do something for a good group and it didn't cost us too much to do that."

The Euclid Street Baptist Church, affiliated with the Southern Baptists, then started an extension congregation, the Garden Church, which began meeting in temporary facilities in a commercial-industrial center in east Anaheim.

Half the congregation, about 150, still meets in the Euclid site Wednesdays and Sundays. The site will remain open, even after the new buildings are in operation, Crow said.

Crow called the deal a "once-in-a-lifetime kind of an event."

He also has hopes that the garden's size may eventually increase by 60 or 70 acres from other developments planned in the area. Three major housing projects, totaling 5,423 homes, have been approved in a U-shape behind the garden site.

Crow said his goal is to avoid debt by building in million-dollar increments financed through contributions of the membership and a nonprofit foundation in formation, the Biblical Botanical Garden Foundation.

Foundation's Functions

The site-based foundation would serve as a vehicle for raising money and managing the village, said Gregory W. Sanders, a Costa Mesa attorney who represents the church. The foundation board would represent a cross section of religious denominations, he said.

Crow said the fund-raising goal is between $7 million and $10 million. So far, he said, "We're struggling to half a million."

Nevertheless, Crow called community support for his congregation's development "phenomenal."

"Some of the other pastors have a dream similar to (the Rev. Robert) Schuller and what-not," Anaheim City Council member Irv Pickler said. "Bryan Crow has taken a lot longer--not had the dollars and cents to do everything. He's gone slowly and surely, and he's hung in there tenaciously. Niche by niche, he's put it all together."

The project is "incredible," said Orange County Supervisor Don R. Roth, whose district includes the site that lies between Gypsum and Weir canyons. "Most people I know are pleased to see Bryan Crow accomplish his dream for the Lord." Roth said.

"It's ambitious, no question," said landscape consultant Rob Pressman, a partner in L.A. Group, a landscape architecture firm based in Los Angeles. Pressman, who lived and worked in Israel for seven years, will be hired to design the botanical garden.

"Whether he can pull it off to the extent he'd like is questionable," Pressman said of Crow. "He'd be at it for a long time. The idea of having the kind of facility where you integrate your religious experience with the natural landscape is wonderful, a fantastic notion.

"Hopefully, it won't be too kitschy."

Cedars of Lebanon

Biblical landscaping will include olive, carob, sycamore, palm and willow trees. "We have a climate and landscape that is similar to the Holy Land. There will be no difficulty in getting those plants to grow," Pressman said.

Crow added that he is trying to obtain some of the Lebanon cedars from Hebrew University in Jerusalem. "They have one of the last existing stands of cedars of Lebanon used by Solomon to build the first temple" in Jerusalem, he said.

Most of the development would not be visible from the freeway, Crow said. But a landmark cross made of telephone poles, and placed on the site by ranch caretakers, would be "dressed up" and lighted to be visible at night from the freeway, he said.

The garden is intended to be open free of charge to the public on weekdays, but reserved for church functions on weekends.

Even though the planned development is quintessential Southern California, and obviously intended to pique the curiousity of the public, Crow promised that "we will never be on Ticketron."

"We want it to be an attraction, but with a purpose: quietness, meditation and education," he said. "We're not building a monument to anybody's ego here. It's (to be) a nice neighborhood church in a nice setting."

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