By Father Bill Kneemiller
Many of you have seen olive wood crosses, statues, crèches and other artifacts made in Bethlehem. How many of you know of the Catholic families who create this artwork and live in Bethlehem? I recently interviewed one of the founders of “Little Bethlehem,” Michael Quonsieh, with the help of my representative on the East coast, Ghassan Shahouri, who translated the conversation from their native language, Arabic.
Michael and his family live only a mile from Nativity Church, the historic site of the birth of Jesus Christ in Bethlehem. I asked him, “What is it like to live so close to the birthplace of Jesus?” Michael said, “I feel the warm love of Jesus next to me. It is a blessing, and I feel the protection of Jesus; and I feel that Jesus is with me at all times. Also, I learn from Jesus wonderful things of my faith; truth, justice, forgiveness and how to fast from bad words coming out of my mouth.”
Since Michael makes thousands of olive wood crosses, I wondered, “How important is it to carry a little piece of the Holy Land with you?” He responded, “The olive wood cross, the little piece of the Holy Land, represents the peace of Jesus. Recall that Jesus prayed in Gethsemane under the olive wood tree. Another traditional belief in the Holy Land is that the Virgin Mary always had a branch of an olive wood tree in her home, which represents peace and safety. We believe that Jesus blessed the olive wood tree.”
Michael and his family pray the rosary. I asked, “How do you pray and live the rosary?” He said, “We pray the rosary for our protection and salvation. Living the rosary takes us to the time of Jesus to be with him and with his disciples. Jesus gives us a long and peaceful life, and the Scripture comes alive. Praying the rosary for me is feeding my soul; it is like breakfast, lunch and dinner for my soul. It clears my vision and resets my connection with our Lord. I usually start the day with praying a five-decade rosary, but sometimes it is only just a decade or two. After our Sunday morning Mass, we will pray a family rosary together.” I quoted Father Patrick Peyton, known as the rosary priest, who said, “The family that prays together stays together.”
I also interviewed Ghassan and his wife, Siham. They are my link to the 60 Bethlehem families referred to as “Little Bethlehem.” I asked what it was like to live in the land of Jesus. Ghassan and Siham lived in the Holy Land for 45 years before moving to the U.S.
Siham said, “Living near the birth place of Jesus you have the peace and love of Jesus. We feel that his love is everything in our life … and we were blessed to live very close to the Shepherds’ Field area.” Ghassan talked about an experience he consistently had when he walked in Shepherds’ Field (where the angels appeared to the shepherds, announcing Christ’s birth). “The air that you breathe in is different; I feel the joy of the angels and Jesus in that area.”
He said, “Shepherds’ field is protected from any houses or buildings being built on that area, which is about 500 yards by 500 yards.” I asked the couple about other holy places and they identify “Milk Grotto,” which is very close to the Church of the Nativity. The Catholic traditional belief is that a drop of the Virgin’s milk dropped there, and subsequently the grotto turned white. Miracles have been reported at the grotto.
As I listened to these stories about life in Bethlehem, I felt I was experiencing another world of the Catholic faith that captures glimpses of the holiness and mysteries of Jesus, the Word made flesh coming into and enriching our world.
Ghassan has told me several times in recent months that the Catholic families in Bethlehem are destitute because of the pandemic and other challenges. I am pledging to purchase as many olive wood crucifixes as I can this year for the Holy Land Military Rosary organization. In the past 16 months, the organization has purchased more than 22,000 crucifixes for our rosaries donated to military chaplains around the world. Please consider a gift to The Holy Land Military Rosary, c/o Father Bill Kneemiller, 6701 Jersey Ridge Rd., Davenport, IA 52807. We consider this effort support for the families of “Little Bethlehem” and military chaplains around the world!
(Father Kneemiller is chaplain at The Kahl Home in Davenport.)