The Cross Man
By Joe Marti
Reda, 78, was born in Blackey, Kentucky and has lived in San Jose since the early sixties. "I think we were one of the only Italian Catholic families in Kentucky. We would have to travel 13 miles to go to Mass." The cross collection started in 1938 when Reda's mother gave him a crucifix to wear around his neck. At the school he attended, he was often asked what it was. Sometimes the questions came in the form of fists. After "about a dozen or so fights," Reda decided to put the crucifix in a shoebox under his bed whenever he feared detection. He would often forget to put the cross back on when he saw his mother again. "She would ask where my cross was, and I would say I lost it somewhere," says Reda. His mother would always have another one to give to him. "I ended up with a boxful of crucifixes by the time I left school," he says.
From such experiences, Reda was aware from an early age that his family was different from others in Blackey. For some, being Catholic meant the Redas were second-class citizens or worse. He recalls the movie theater he opened in a predominantly Baptist town in South Carolina. "No one came," he says, "and there was nothing to do in that town. No one came because they found out I was Catholic." Those early experiences of exclusion and bigotry shaped Reda, and that is how he explains his reason for wanting to open a museum for all religions. "I don't want to leave anyone out. "I'm happy to change even one person's life."
After the theater failed, he sold everything and opened a drive-in restaurant in another town in South Carolina. With his restaurant doing poorly, Reda was kept afloat by friends who loaned him money on occasion. Another friend had a portable roller-skating rink that he began setting up on Friday and Saturday nights outside Reda's restaurant. With this as a draw for local youth, the business quickly became a success, and Reda made friends with the townspeople. It was the hub of activity in the town, the sort of place the town police would frequent in the mornings for a free doughnut and a cup of coffee.
Then one morning, Reda picked up his cook, a black woman, and drove into the restaurant to get the day started. Soon after they opened, a bus full of hungry soldiers came rolling into the parking lot. A sergeant explained that they had not eaten that day and asked if they could eat at Reda's restaurant. "I told him that we only had five booths, so he said fine and sent them in six or so at a time," he said. As they finished up, the sergeant came to Reda and said, "You know, I've got five black soldiers on [the bus]." Knowing what was implied in the question, Reda says he replied, "Well, are they alive?" When the sergeant said 'yes', they were invited in to the restaurant to eat. At that time and place, it was the custom serve black people in the back of restaurants. "I guess that was my mistake," said Reda.
Sitting out in a car in the parking lot were some of Reda's friends and customers who had seen the black soldiers enter the front and order. After the soldiers left, he was confronted by these friends, who asked what he was doing. When he feigned ignorance, the friends rebuffed him and asked him why he had done it. Reda replied, "Look, these are soldiers, they're defending our country and they haven't eaten since last night. What did I do wrong?" His friend replied, "Well, you'll find out."
Reda described what followed as something akin to the Indians circling the wagon train in an old western. "It wasn't twenty minutes before my restaurant was surrounded by people I knew and had helped out or been friends with," said Reda. "They were calling me every name under the sun and started calling my wife and doing the same. The only reason they didn't harm the building is because they knew I didn't own it." During this episode, he says that his cook was on her knees praying and warning that the town would 'tar and feather' him. She was not employing metaphor. This was a time when that was more than a figure of speech.
When he called the police, the same police he had given free food to, they replied, "Yes, we heard you were having a little trouble down there. Well, you got yourself into it, you can get yourself out." The state police were not much help either -- calls to them yielded similar indifference.
After trying to make his case in the town paper and making no headway, his business failed and he decided to pack up and move his family to California. Somewhere on the journey, Reda saw three large crosses on a hillside. He was reminded of a forgotten promise made to God when he was having trouble in South Carolina. He said, "I promised God that if he got me out of this I was going to do something no one had ever done before. I didn't know what it would be, but I promised it. Seeing those crosses reminded me of my promise and gave me and idea for this thing."
Since then, Reda has placed ads, visited flea markets, asked around, and done just about anything else in order to fulfill his dream. The late actor Robert Mitchum gave one cross to Reda. "I received it in the mail with a nice letter from Mr. Mitchum," says Reda, "and the cross he sent me was small and bent into a circle. I had no idea what it was. So I wrote him back and asked what it was. He wrote me another letter telling me that it was a ring that he used to slip on every time he was about to film a stunt scene." He has other stories from crosses received from John Paul II and celebrities like Jimmy Stewart.
Over the years, Reda has received offers to house his collection from such varied sources as Montana millionaires, European nobility, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. To all of them he says no. His vision is of a museum in the Bay Area that will be open to all and exist for the betterment of mankind. To do this, he acknowledges that money must be raised. Subsequently, he admits that donations are gratefully accepted, and ads that any religious item donated will bear the giver's family name forever in his museum. Nevertheless, he needs a financial backer of some heft if his entire collection is to see the light of day in his lifetime. "So many miracles have happened to me from all of this. I just want to share this with as many people as possible," says Reda with a smile.
The Cross Man: San Jose Resident Builds World's Largest Collection, by Joe Marti. Courtesy of the © San Francisco Faith web site - April 2001 article. San Francisco Faith - http://www.sffaith.com/
Photograph of Ernie Redia - © 1999 Ernie Reda - All Rights Reserved.
Background pattern courtesy of the © Iconbazaar.com