Pastor Richard Greene stands before the ark he's been working on since Easter, 1976, in Frostburg, Md.
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FROSTBURG, Md. -- The steel skeleton occupies a sun-drenched hillside along Interstate 68 in the mountains of western Maryland.
Reaching three stories high, its concrete foundation stretching the length of one-and-a-half football fields, the structure is an oddity -- as incongruous as, well, a boat on a mountaintop.
Yet despite its titanic scale, a high-visibility perch, a pithy, unambiguous sign -- "Noah's Ark Being Rebuilt Here!" -- and a grindingly slow construction eked out over 30 years, the structure remains a mystery to the thousands of motorists who drive by it each day.
In Frostburg, the Ark is a long-standing source of both amusement and irritation, a kooky roadside landmark that over the years has come to be closely identified with the former coal mining town of 8,000 people -- now better known as home to Frostburg State University, the only four-year institution of higher learning in Maryland located west of Baltimore.
To Richard Greene, the man who has made it his mission in life to complete the Ark, its purpose is clear. Someday, these red girders will be part of the framework for a Biblical-scale replica of the boat which Noah is said to have constructed in order to escape the cataclysmic floods unleashed by God. It is a sign of the End of Days, the second coming of Christ, a warning for sinners to repent before it's too late.
The Ark is not functional; it will not float, and Pastor Greene will not be taking it to the sea. He is waiting for the sea to come to him.
A long time coming
Pastor Greene, who is 69 years old, says God instructed him in a series of disturbing night visions to build the Ark, and he has pursued the task with single-minded zeal. Those that mock the enterprise only fuel Pastor Greene's fervor.
"They laughed and mocked at Noah, but the flood still came," he said.
Over the years, curious film crews have come to Frostburg from foreign countries; reporters have written about the Ark in national publications, calling Pastor Greene a "modern-day Noah." He has developed a radio program and a TV program, traveled to Europe, Asia and Africa to spread his message, and promoted the Ark on the Rev. Pat Robertson's "700 Club." Donations have trickled in from around the country.
"When it's done, it's gonna be humongous," said Pastor Greene. "There's a picture of me standing in front of it -- I look like a peanut!"
But no one, not even Pastor Greene, can say just when it will be done. Ground was broken in April of 1976 -- before the interstate was built. Now 30 years later it is still just a shell, and some of its earliest supporters have died, waiting for its completion.
"There has been like a stillness here for a while," said Lottie Greene, who has been married to Pastor Greene for 51 years and fully supports the project. "Hopefully [when it's finished] we'll still be young enough to usher people into the Ark."
Meanwhile, the world has built up around it in a sort of time-lapse photography: Industry waned in the former mining town. Plants went dark. Main Street emptied out. Buildings were built, razed, then built again. Then, more recently, prisons came to Allegany County, bringing some jobs. Restaurants popped up, shopping centers were erected.
The housing boom in Washington, D.C. and Baltimore created a tidal wave that has just washed up on the shores of Frostburg. Across the road from the unfinished Ark, construction crews have broken ground on the 400 homes of the upscale Prichard Farms development.
There are no such construction crews working on Pastor Greene's Ark. Author Timothy Beal, who devoted a chapter of his book "Roadside Religion" to the Ark, described the site as a "work in progress without progress."
"It reminded me of one of those scenes from left-behind type movies in which everyone had been taken up in the Rapture, leaving all their projects unfinished," Mr. Beal wrote.
The last three decades have not been quite so peaceful. Mr. Beal's book alludes to "alienation from the community leadership of the town of Frostburg" and "accusations of financial mismanagement." According to Pastor Greene, false rumors have been circulating for years that he took the money for the Ark and ran off to California with his secretary. In 1981, he split with his Church of the Brethren in a dispute over the Ark, a painful episode he has said was "like a divorce."
Frostburg Mayor Jim Cotton was on the city planning commission during the 1970s when Pastor Greene was just beginning work on the Ark.
"There may have been some people who thought it was a silly idea," said Mr. Cotton. "It's been going on so long, people are aware of it, but they don't pay too much attention to it."
The assistant pastor at Pastor Greene's nondenominational ministry God's Ark of Safety regularly performs the invocation at city council meetings, said Mr. Cotton, and city officials "get along with them fine from that standpoint -- there's been no problem in the last 10 to 15 years."
However, the sight of the steel bones of the Ark on the hillside has caused some consternation with potential buyers of Prichard Farms' high-end homes, said sales manager Liz Cain.
"I lost a sale this weekend to a very prominent person who really didn't want to look at it from his back deck," said Ms. Cain, who came to Frostburg from northern Virginia 6 months ago to sell the homes. "It really is not appealing to people."
You hear the stories and the jokes all over town, said Ms. Cain.
"People say, 'Stupid ark, when's it gonna float away?' " she said. "I'm sure they don't understand -- it's not their religion! They think he's a lunatic."
Ms. Cain peered out the window of her sales office and read aloud the ever-changing sign in front of the God's Ark of Safety ministry.
"Nothing Worthwhile Ever Happens In a Hurry," she intoned.
Drawing in the curious
When Pastor Greene first pulled into town with Lottie and their daughter Connie in 1973, he thought Frostburg would just be a quick "stop-off place" until he could find missionary work. Having left their home in Pontiac, Mich., and a lucrative job with General Motors, Greene accepted a pastorship with a tiny church in Frostburg.
But in the spring of 1974, he began to have a recurring dream that interrupted his sleep, night after night, for three months. In it, Noah was building the Ark with his family as wicked passersby taunted and ridiculed him. Then he saw the flood, which pulled at the crowds of people.
"They were pounding on the door of the Ark, yelling, 'I'm sorry! I'm sorry!" he said. "Their hands were scratching at the wood. Then I saw them drifting off into the waters. It was one of the most traumatic things I've ever seen."
The second part of his dream involved crowds flocking to the Frostburg hillside and the modern-day Ark in motor homes and tour buses. Greene intends to make a film of his flood dream and show it to the masses on a large IMAX-type screen.
The Greenes believe that society is again as it was in the days of Noah. Before they were swept away by the floodwaters, Pastor Greene said, Noah's neighbors were "eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage" -- in other words, obsessed with the pursuit of food and sex -- not unlike today's society, with its high rates of obesity and divorce. They point to global wars and natural disasters as harbingers of Judgment Day, as well as the increasing number of prisons and restaurants in the local area.
According to Pastor Greene, the past 30 years have been a series of signs and miracles: generous donations of steel and land; architects showing up on his doorstep, unsolicited; curious reporters poking around the big steel arrangement on the hillside.
"You think it was curiosity," said Pastor Greene. "But it was really God."
He said he originally thought the whole job might take three to four years.
Today, the ministry occupies a large metal building adjacent to the Ark -- a former Chevy dealership that went bankrupt. It still has the "Heartbeat of America" welcome mat at the front door.
Inside, his office is filled with Noah's Ark novelties, and photographs from his mission work. God's Ark of Safety supports 20 missionaries around the world, said Pastor Greene; he has held "crusades" in Nigeria and helped to establish a nursing school in Ghana.
Where, then, is the humanity or the sense in raising over $1 million to build an Ark that doesn't float? Many years ago, said Pastor Greene, a British evangelist said to him, "Building an Ark? Only a crazy American would do that!" Another pastor friend of his, upset that donations were being spent on steel, concrete and construction wages, rather than hospitals and orphanages, pressed him for an explanation.
The Ark is just a tool to draw in the curious. Curiosity makes people stop, look, and wonder; it also gives Pastor Greene the chance to counsel these "lost souls." Hundreds of people have stopped to meet with him over the years, said Pastor Greene.
As for the incredibly slow progress, Pastor Greene is patient, and shrugs off the jokes and rumors.
"There's nothing in the Bible that says how long it took [Noah] to build it," he said.
Caitlin Cleary can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-2533.