When I was in elementary school an Army veteran named James Craig Jr. had the idea of saving the battle ship USS North Carolina from the scrap pile. His idea caught fire and school children like me in the second grade in 1958 got involved. I was so enthusiastic about the idea that I saved my lunch milk money for an entire week – one dime and a nickel - and gave it to the cause. If you gave a dime, your name would be put on a list of contributors and you could visit the ship one time for free which my family did in 1961. To this day, every time I drive through Wilmington past the battle ship I think of that campaign and the fact that something big came about from the contributions of many.
For a long time now I’ve had an interest in anthropology. I think it started when I was a boy working with my dad, and a mule, to plow my grandmother’s garden in Seagrove, NC. There must have been a Native American burial site somewhere in the garden, because I would sometimes find arrowheads as we plowed. Some were long and skinny likely used to hunt fish; others were broad, maybe used to hunt deer. I wondered about the people who made these pieces of stone and what it was like to have lived so long ago, on the land my family now owned and that I had come to love. These pieces of rock were my connection to the ancient people who predated me.
During my lifetime I’ve had the good fortune to visit the pyramids of Egypt and Mexico. I’ve looked at rock carvings in China, visited temples in Thailand, sat in Roman baths and gazed at the massive pillars of Stonehenge and wondered how the Druids made them. Most all these artifacts shared a common theme – they're made from rock and have lasted a long, a very long, time. There are drawings on the rock walls of caves that have lasted for 20,000 years that let us know and understand bits about what people were doing that long ago. Protected from the elements, it’s as if these ancient people were thinking about us and wanted to tell us something about their own lives.
In recent years, I have often had thoughts about what we as a society would have to say about ourselves to people 5000 years into the future and how we would communicate what we wished to say to them in a coherent manner. What objects would you include in a display that explained what is important to you? I was humored by a recent comic strip from Stephan Pastis' "Pearls before Swine." In it, Rat said “Ever notice how certain archeologists get all their knowledge about certain civilizations from their gravesites?” Goat: “Yeah so?” Rat: “So I’m going to be buried with a chicken and a toaster oven.” Goat: “good for you” Rat: “Did this civilization love toast? Or chickens? Or did the chickens love toast?”
That is about the depth of understanding we have of the beliefs of many ancient people. We can cobble together a sketch of how certain peoples lived, but we don’t always have a depth of knowledge about their beliefs. Symbols and icons help, but we can do better.
It is a challenging problem to think about, but I believe it’s worthwhile. Would you depict sports icons, pictures of family, or pets? I can imagine people looking at a graphic showing a goal post and a basketball goal and wondering if these were agricultural implements or objects of worship. Our ability to communicate more clearly has certainly improved over the last several millennia, but the message and means are what matter the most.
The idea I’m proposing is to carve a chapel out of granite that would seat around 250 people and fill it with art that tells the story of who we are as a people. It would over time become a sacred space much like the wailing wall in Jerusalem. People from all walks of life could come to the chapel for meditation and prayer. They would be able to see creation up close by looking at the rock from which the chapel was hewn. They would feel the stable temperature of the earth and hopefully feel a part of something much greater than themselves. This could be a gift to people now and on into the distant future. I've assembled a team and through innovative engineering, architecture, design, acoustics and sustainable energy practices, we’re creating a sacred space for visitors seeking peace, hope and renewal.
It isn’t that as a society we never think about permanence, it’s just a rarity. We have Mt. Rushmore and Crazy Horse. Churches have been carved out of rock over the last several thousand years in Ethiopia, Turkey, France, Australia and Finland. All of these places attract thousands of visitors. I believe that we need a similar place of both reflection and permanence – a place that tells a story and invites contemplation and quiet.
The idea of Ebenezer Chapel is starting to take shape. The site is ready just across from Umstead Park in Raleigh with a 3000-foot thick layer of granite underfoot. A wonderful local team of architects, engineers and others are collaborating to work on the project, and Xavier Vilalta, a world-renowned architect and TED fellow from Barcelona, Spain has completed the preliminary design. The 6,000 or so square foot space will be entered via a long ramp that will spiral downward so it will be fully accessible to all people from the park above. Corten steel will form a brass bell tower that will be the only above ground marker of what lies beneath. This steel is likely to remain as long as the rock.
The chapel will also have perfect acoustics thanks to an award-winning team out of Barcelona. The chapel will be shaped like the inside of a precisely tuned musical instrument. Art on the walls of the ramp will, like the inscriptions on ancient caves, tell the story without words of who we are and what we believe. An example of one piece of art is a mosaic made of discarded pieces of pottery from Seagrove North Carolina. The potter at Uwharrie Crystalline Pottery is already working on a piece of art for the chapel. Another potter has donated shards from pots that were damaged in the kiln to make a new piece of art.
Excavating 35,000 cubic yards and preparing the site with artwork and landscaping is going to take about two years and cost around $5 million dollars. If I had that much money we would start digging today. As I have thought more about it, I have come to realize that even if I had the money myself this project is much bigger that any individual or group of people. And that is as it should be. It is truly a community project. Having a lot of people who willingly invest in the excavation of that much granite - who invest in all the space it will create to be used and inspired by - will make it a much better and more meaningful project than if I could write a check. It is for all of us - and those who will come after - so why not a multitude of us see that it is created?