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Nurturing a Dream : Pastor Sees Hope That His Biblical Garden Will Sprout

Times Staff Writer

If he had stayed in his native Texas, it might never have occurred to him. But Southern California’s Mediterranean climate and unfettered life style “frees you to think a lot of thoughts you normally wouldn’t,” said the Rev. Bryan Crow, pastor of Anaheim’s evangelical Garden Church.

What they made Crow think of 20 years ago was a biblical botanical garden and outdoor church.

Now city permits--and the $1 purchase of 34 acres from an Irvine developer--have made his dream a distinct possibility in Anaheim Hills, on a scale that one official called “incredible.”

The Riverside Freeway humming below, Crow stood this week on a hill pointing to places in a canyon below where in a few years he hopes visitors will find:

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- An Arab-style hillside village with stone terraces and walking trails planted with trees and shrubs mentioned in the Bible and still found in the Holy Land;

- A replica of the Garden of Gethsemane;

- A miniature Sea of Galilee (with waterfall);

- The River Jordan.

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That’s in addition to a restaurant, picnic area, administrative center and three worship areas: a 500-seat amphitheater, a partially covered prayer and wedding chapel to seat 200, and a 2,000-seat, terraced church with a river running through it.

His plans also call for water to be pumped from the 200-foot-long, artificial lake to create a flowing river through the main worship center, Crow said. The river will be heated for baptisms.

Also, visitors will be able to observe services in a 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.”

A Serene Setting

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Unlike religious theme parks, but like Bible Land’s sand sculptures near Banning, Crow’s garden is intended to be a serene place--like a cemetery but with the emphasis on life--"plant life and the empty tomb,” he said.

So far, he has obtained the land for $1 in a land swap with Woodcrest Development Inc. and 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 will move four modular units onto the site next month and then begin planting the hillsides, Crow said. Construction on the main buildings could begin in two years, if city officials approve his plans.

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Announcement Made

Crow announced the project to 400 of his 800-member congregation at an August tent revival on the site, which now is 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 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.

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“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, 54, who started the Euclid Street Baptist Church when he moved from Texas to Orange County 27 years ago.

Community Organizer

Over the years, he has earned a reputation as a community organizer and is president of the Kiwanis Club of Greater Anaheim.

Four years ago, he said he was watching a performance of High Hopes, a group of gifted mentally retarded musicians when he was struck by another idea.

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“I got this idea. 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.

Site Was Sold

Two years ago, that church site was sold “half price” to Hope University-UNICO National College “with the understanding that the developer would make an equal contribution of land to us.”

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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 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.

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The site-based foundation would serve as a vehicle for raising money and managing the village, said Costa Mesa attorney Greg Sanders, who represents the church.

Crow said the fund-raisers’ goal is between $7 million and $10 million. He declined to say how much has been raised so far, only that “we’re struggling to half a million.” Nevertheless, Crow called community support “phenomenal” for his congregation’s development.

“Some of the other pastors have a dream similar to (the Rev. Robert) Schuller and what-not,” Anaheim City Councilman 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 their tenaciously. Niche by niche, he’s put it all together.”

‘It’s Ambitious’

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“It’s ambitious, no question,” said landscape consultant Rob Pressman, 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 to is questionable. 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.”

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.


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