ONE Magazine

The official publication of
Catholic Near East Welfare Association

Celebrating 50 years | God • World • Human Family • Church

Made in Bethlehem

Miles of olive groves and the hands of dedicated workers result in a valuable handicraft for the Holy Land.

By the way of tags our daily lives are filled with small geography lessons in the both simple and unique items we use to cook, clean, eat, dress and decorate. But we most often simply pay the price for what we want, thinking nothing else about India, where that shirt was made, or Jaffa, where that orange was grown, or Vermont, where that dish was fired.

I’d like to tell you a simple story about where olive wood products are made and those who make them.

Our story begins in Bethlehem, the birthplace of Jesus. This ancient city of David is a small town just five miles southwest of Jerusalem. It sits 2,550 feet above sea level in the hill country of Judea on the main highway to Hebron and Egypt. Surrounded by deep and narrow valleys with rich olive groves, vineyards, fig trees and pastures, it serves a population of about 100,000. It’s more than a romanticized Christmas village. It is a very real place where for generations Christian families have worked together and raised their children. Many times the city has had to struggle through economic and political difficulties.

Manufacturing religious articles and souvenirs of olive wood is a handicraft that has existed in Bethlehem for centuries. In fact, a large number of families have depended on this cottage industry for earning their livelihood. The same is true today. Every morning young and old artisans sort through yesterday’s wood shavings and go about crafting more crosses, creches and busts. But the present political crisis has discouraged tourism and interrupted the flow of faithful pilgrims to the Holy Land. Thus, the demand for olive wood from local gift shops has diminished dramatically. The hazards of daily life in this West Bank region are threatening the survival of this trade and those who depend on it.

Bethlehemites are hardy people who don’t give up. A close-knit community, church is at the center of daily life. During 1989, one year after the Arab uprising known as the intifada began, local leaders responded to an invitation from Patriarch Michel Sabbah to develop income-generating projects that would help to support local families, many with members who have been unemployed for years.

A year after he became Latin patriarch, Archbishop Sabbah opened the Beit-Art Centre in Bethlehem to sponsor the traditional crafts of the Holy Land. Its first project focused on the support and upgrading of the local olive wood industry.

There had been fear that this vital industry would be lost. Many young people have emigrated, and a dwindling population remains to inherit this ancient Palestinian craft. There are other economic considerations: the seasonal nature of the market for raw wood, the monopoly of a few manufacturers with sufficient funds to both buy and store the wood, and the use of untreated olive wood (which results in cracking). The optimal treatment for olive wood before carving is dry storage for a few years, but civil unrest has resulted in haste, and it has hurt the product. An artist’s pride and progress are both damaged when objects of inferior quality are produced for sale. The anxiety caused by the intifada has itself been a problem.

“Why work at it?” said one artisan. “Who will come to Bethlehem? Who will buy our olive wood crafts?”

But many good things have happened in the past year. Father Adib Zoomot, development director for the Latin Patriarchate, joined creative forces with parishioners and unemployed professionals to breathe new life into the old wood shops. Wood shavings are flying out of old but still useful lathes as 100 families from Bethlehem, Beit-Sahour and Beit-Jala are employed to craft pieces and process orders.

Catholic Near East Welfare Association was able to play a pivotal role in supporting this important project. Our Association placed the first order the Beit-Art Centre received, a request in July 1989 for 100,000 olive wood stars, gratefully accepted by Charles Dabdoub, director of the center. The Association attempted to send the Bethlehem stars to all its members at Christmas as a simple expression of our gratitude and a reminder of Christians struggling in the Holy Land today.

Very little communication was needed thereafter. The order was placed and the stars would he delivered. Nothing unusual about that, except that this project was being processed during months of civil and economic unrest. Roads were regularly closed. And when they might be open, supply shops might be closed. Nothing was definite. Anything was possible.

Nonetheless, the job was done. Last fall a shipment arrived at Kennedy International Airport in New York. All those stars made the journey from the Holy Land to North America for a surprise Christmas distribution to thousands of faithful members and friends of Catholic Near East.

People wrote to Msgr. Robert Stern, our secretary general, from all over the United States and Canada: “Thank you for the star of Bethlehem… I pray for peace and justice in the Holy Land… May the star shine brightly for you… I have an olive wood nativity set from the Holy Land and will add the star to it.”

Many friends wrote indicating that the stars from Bethlehem would hold special places on their Christmas trees. Others called our New York headquarters requesting additional stars. At first it was easy to handle requests for small quantities, but soon the numbers leapt. “I’d like to order 1,000 stars to give to the children of our parish at our midnight Mass,” said one pastor.

“The stars are great. I need 1,500 for our parish,” said another priest. “It’s a wonderful way to unite ourselves with the Christians living in Bethlehem.”

There were some very moving stories as well. One deacon wrote that he was “ministering to a man who is surely going to die any day now. May I have two additional stars – one for him and one for his family.” This request came as we were closing our offices for the holidays, but not before we shipped a very special package to him.

“This is the best Christmas gift I have received in years,” a woman wrote. “May I have six more so I can give one to each of my grown children on Christmas morning?”

It happened. Christians from the East and the West shared something simple, but special, as they remembered the birth of Christ. The sharing and supporting have continued. Many parishes from all around the United States placed orders for small olive wood crosses to he used during the 1990 Lenten season. One Spanish-speaking Catholic group had crosses custom-made for all its members, and then ordered another supply. It would not be an exaggeration to say some people were quite excited about supporting their brothers and sisters in the Holy Land.

The story and the work carry on. There have been continuing production problems for the staff at Beit-Art, as well as the uncertainties in mailing goods. The artisans keep encouraging each other to sustain hope.

Charles, Hind, Jacqueline, Donald, Rafael, Adib, Ann and everyone else have found hope through interest in the olive wood trade and the concern expressed for the Holy Land by Christians throughout North America.

But no story says it better than one told by Brother Donald Mansir, F.S.C., of the Pontifical Mission staff in Jerusalem.

“More important than Catholic Near East’s order for 100,000 crosses last winter was the extra order for 1,500 crosses,” Brother Donald said. “It came at the perfect moment. A poor old woman was unemployed and in great need. She was at the end of her rope, and came for help. She had lost all hope. With the extra order for 1,500, made in Bethlehem, Beit-Art was able to offer her work and support. It brought her hope and new life.”

Joseph Cornelius Donnelly is Catholic Near East Welfare Association’s director of external affairs.

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