Desert Christ Park was established in 1951 on the five acres where the Evangelical Free Church now stands. The property was originally owned by the Reverend Eddie Garver, a humble preacher who made his way to Yucca Valley with his wife and his two children in 1946. He later established the Yucca Valley Community Church and acquired the land on the southern-facing slope of the valley from the US Government in 1950. Known then as the Desert Parson, Garver’s vision was to establish a Christian-themed park as a light for world peace.
Eddie Garver was introduced to Frank Martin, a sculptor and poet from Inglewood, California. An engineer by trade, who came up with the idea to create statues out of steel-reinforced concrete, Martin’s dream was to place his 10-foot, 5-ton ‘Resurrected Christ’ on the rim of the Grand Canyon to symbolize peace to all mankind. When the state denied his request, due to the separation of church and state, he labeled the statue as ”the unwanted Christ.” Eddie Garver offered a location to place his statue on a hill on his property, so that everyone could appreciate it.
In 1951, one week before Easter, his statue was brought up on a flatbed truck on the desert highway from Los Angeles to Joshua Tree. This event sparked national interest and Life Magazine covered the occasion for their April 23, 1951 issue. Desert Christ Park was dedicated on Easter Sunday and celebrated by the community that embraced it.
In 1952, Frank Martin decided to move to Joshua Tree permanently and create more statues for the Park. He formed a non-profit corporation with the Garvers for the following 10 years. Martin produced several more biblical figures, including a three-story, 125-ton facade depicting ‘The Last Supper.’ The original placement of these statues was in the area of what is now the Evangelical Free Church’s outdoor theater, which was dedicated in 1962 and billed as The Desert Christ Park Amphitheater.
The partnership between Garver and Martin dissolved in the late 1950s, and the statues, which could be moved, were relocated to the present day Park. Garver sold his property to local parishioners, the Brownells, who later donated the land, including their home on the hill, to the Evangelical Free Church. Thus, the original statue, the “unwanted Christ,” the tomb, and half of ‘The Last Supper’ remains on the Church’s grounds. The Garvers moved on to missions in Arizona, and Frank Martin died in 1961.
The Park remained a focal point of Yucca Valley for several more years, and many believed the it belonged to the “church next door.” Today, it’s operated and maintained by the Desert Christ Park Foundation and a governing board of five members. Funding is solely through donations and grants, and all members are volunteers.
I had the opportunity to visit The Desert Christ Park one cool, early morning, a time which makes anything just a little more magical, including a location consisting of large, white, religious statues.
We immediately felt welcomed upon arriving at the Park, even though we were the only people visiting at that time. The area isn’t very big, but the amount of figures is astounding, because it’s in the “backyard” of a church and the impression that it is Christian-based is evident.
I headed first to the hill with its three Jesus figures: one is resting on his back, one is sitting up, and one is on his knees in prayer. My husband, on the other hand, was drawn downhill to where a statue of Jesus stands with the 12 Apostles. That also reflects our personalities; I went to a place that encourages a moment of deep thought, while my husband went to where the action is, so to speak. My three-year-old son was intent on following me up the hill, and by ”hill” I mean a small, steep mountain that is full of cacti, loose rocks and lacks a clear, ascending path. In the end, I decided that it would be best for us all to remain at the bottom and admire those three statues from afar.
We strolled over to the large, white stone wall that depicts the ‘Last Supper,’ through the amphitheater, and then to the Stone Chapel. Although we had a great view from here of the first Jesus statue that was brought to the Park, it was difficult to have an idea of its sheer size from such a distance. However, I had read beforehand that it’s over three tons.
At first glance, the Stone Chapel is a wonderful work of art, yet, sadly, most of it has fallen in disrepair. The front door was broken in half, there was trash on the floor, and pews show the visible signs of neglect. Despite these conditions, a few moments inside made me see the beauty it truly holds.
Upon returning to the Park’s central area, we spent some time admiring all the massive statues of Jesus depicted in different scenes. They are all individual in design, as if a different artist created each one, but they didn’t appear to flow together as one theme. Though there aren’t small signs to explain which each scene represents, I simply regarded them more as art than religious symbols.
I like the idea of the Park in and of itself, but it’s apparent that its condition lacks the necessary attention it needs to be exposed to the harsh weather of the desert. Paint is coming off the statues, and many are missing hands, arms and even legs. One statue was headless and revealed the metal rod used to hold it together.
If you happen to be in the area, the Park is certainly worth visiting. Though of the other folk art I have seen in this area of the Southern California desert, I would say it was my least favorite, and one visit was sufficient.
Desert Christ website
Here is a small video to show what the Christ Park really looks like. 🙂