Unique shop brings Holy Land art here, sustains Christians there

Popular Bethlehem Handicrafts opens store in Aurora

Roxanne King

It’s the only one in the United States and it’s located in the Archdiocese of Denver. The well-known and respected Bethlehem Handicrafts, which imports carved olive wood items from the Holy Land to sell here at parishes and mall kiosks and internationally online (bethlehemhandicrafts.com) opened a store April 2, Easter Monday, in Aurora.

Located at 4114 S. Parker Road, the well-stocked store offers an array of exquisite olive wood items ranging from religious statues, crucifixes and rosaries to jewelry and kitchen items crafted by over 400 Holy Land artisans, providing them with a means to support their families.

“We are the only store in the United States that does this,” said George Bannoura, 40, a co-owner of the family business.

Bethlehem Handicrafts was born 15 years ago when Bannoura, a native of Beit Sahour (Shepherds Field), which is located just east of Bethlehem and is home to the largest Christian community in the Holy Land, brought goods from there to sell in Denver to keep his family and fellow artisans from poverty after tourism tanked due to escalating violence in the Middle East. The vast majority of Christians living in or near Bethlehem depend on tourism for their livelihoods. Their numbers have steadily declined due to unrest and lack of work.

We are proud to be considered part of the living Christian heritage of the Holy Land. Our local Christians go back to Christ’s time. We are the first believers of the Lord.”

“Twenty years ago in the city of Bethlehem, Christians were 85 percent of the population. Now, we are only 15 percent of the population,” said Bannoura, whose family still maintains both their workshop and homes there.

Numbers for the larger Holy Land are even more telling. In 2014, Israel had just over 8 million people, the Palestinian Territories 4.5 million and Jordan 6.5 million. Christians were estimated to make up from 2 to 3 percent of those totals (2-plus percent in Israel and Jordan, and about 1.25 percent in Palestine).

“Our main mission [at Bethlehem Handicrafts] is to help ourselves as a community,” Bannoura said. “We want to help our livelihood so Christians can stay there. I always ask, If there are no Christians left in the Holy Land, what will happen to the sacred sites?”

Archbishop Samuel J. Aquila, recognizing the importance of a Christian presence in the land where Jesus walked, has periodically sent letters to parishes urging prayers for Holy Land Christians and support for Bethlehem Handicrafts.

“Our faith was born in a land that is both holy and often in turmoil,” he wrote last April. “Our brothers and sisters in Christ who live in the Holy Land undergo many hardships to practice their faith, but they remain committed to the land where Jesus lived, preached, died and rose from the dead…. Your parishioners’ support of the Bannoura’s business can help maintain their presence in Bethlehem.”

Father James Spahn, pastor of St. John Paul II in Thornton and Immaculate Heart of Mary in Northglenn, has visited the Bannoura family’s workshop in Bethlehem.

“They use the olive wood from the area and carve religious items from it,” he said. “[The work] helps the Christians there who have a hard life with very little opportunity and it brings beautiful religious items here for people’s homes and for our parishes. It’s a win-win situation.”

To be a Christian in the Holy Land facing the circumstances they do today has been described as a vocation and as a mission. The Bannoura family has embraced that vocation and mission wholeheartedly.

“We are proud to be considered part of the living Christian heritage of the Holy Land,” Bannoura said. “Our local Christians go back to Christ’s time. We are the first believers of the Lord.”

Committed to offering the highest quality wood and artistry possible, Bannoura said the family opened their store because they can only take a limited number of their 800-plus items to display at parishes and at seasonal mall kiosks. And while people can view items online, it’s not the same as viewing them in person.

The newly-opened Bethlehem Handicrafts storefront in Aurora features hand-carved statuettes and crosses made our of olive wood from the Holy Land. (Photos by Andrew Wright)

“We recently added hand-painted ceramic items, olive soap, icons, kitchen utensils and silver jewelry,” Bannoura said, motioning to shelves lined with colorful plates and cups, fragrant soaps and eye-catching jewelry. “A good number of women make the rosaries and bracelets.”

Bethlehem Handicrafts also leads pilgrimages to the Holy Land, which Blessed Paul VI called “the fifth gospel,” to enliven one’s faith, and to support and encourage Christians there. Bannoura said he’s always asked if such journeys are safe. Despite hotspot instability, pilgrimages to the Holy Land are remarkably safe and have recently seen increased numbers.

“If it weren’t safe,” Bannoura declared, “I wouldn’t take my wife and children there.”

Reflecting on the newest venture in the family business, opening the store, Bannoura said he is filled with gratitude for his home here and the warm support the Catholic community has given to Bethlehem Handicrafts.

“We love Denver, we love Colorado,” he said. “This is my second home. I thank Archbishop Aquila, Bishop Jorge Rodriguez, Bishop Michael Sheridan, Bishop Stephen Berg and all the priests and faithful who have been great supporters of us.”
Bethlehem Handicrafts
Store: 4114 S. Parker Road, Aurora, CO 80014
Hours: 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Monday-Friday; 9 a.m.-noon Saturdays
Online: www.BethlehemHandicrafts.com
Phone: 720-201-7193 or toll free 844-999-4659

COMING UP: Q&A: Outcasts documentary a call to action, producer says

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Q&A: Outcasts documentary a call to action, producer says

Film shows suffering of the poor in five countries, hope brought by Franciscan Friars of the Renewal

Roxanne King

Powerful. Disturbing. Beautiful. Inspiring. That’s how viewers are describing award-winning Outcasts, the latest film by Joe Campo, owner and producer of Grassroots Films.

For mature audiences, Outcasts documents the hard, dark struggle of the poor living in New York and New Jersey, Nicaragua, Honduras, England and Ireland, and the light and hope of Christ brought to them through the ministry of the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal (C.F.R.). Seven years in the making, it won “best film” at the Justice Film Festival last fall.

Campo, 65, a Third Order Franciscan, also runs St. Francis House in Brooklyn, N.Y., a home for young men in need of a second chance.

“The film company comes second, the guys come first,” Campo, whose’ Grassroots Films was also responsible for 2008’s award-winning The Human Experience, told the Denver Catholic.

The home Campo oversees was established by his friend, the late Father Benedict Groeschel, C.F.R., who co-founded the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal order in New York in 1987. The friars live in poor neighborhoods around the world and have a two-fold mission: to care for the physical and spiritual needs of the destitute and homeless, and to evangelize.

A July 13 screening of Outcasts at Light of the World Parish in Littleton drew 400 people. Campo recently spoke to the Denver Catholic about the documentary.

DC: Why did you make Outcasts?

JC: I’ve been with the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal since 1988 and I know the work that they do and their great love for the poor, which I share. I thought it would be a call to action — that people would see this film and their hearts would open up. Hopefully, through this film, people will experience things about working with the poor that normally they would never be able to see their entire lives.

DC: What is the film about?

JC: It’s really about the poor. It’s more about the poor than it is about the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal. The friars don’t do any preaching in this film, the poor do. You see the friars, but you don’t hear them. The words of people speaking about God are from the poor: the destitute, the drug addicts, those suffering from HIV.

DC: The trailer features a voiceover from Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator, which is incredibly moving juxtaposed against scenes of people suffering. What was the inspiration for using that speech?

JC: We actually had another trailer for Outcasts, but we ultimately couldn’t use it. We were fortunate to be able to get Charlie Chaplin. It was a comedy of errors, really, which proves that God writes straight with crooked lines.

DC: What do you hope people will take away from the film?

JC: An understanding of the poor. I hope that as people are introduced to the friars through this film their hearts and minds would be changed toward those who are poor or destitute and that they’ll see that these people are victims. When you talk with the poor and experience their lives you begin to realize three things: 1) That it could happen to anyone. 2) None of them planned for their life to turn out this way. 3) All they want is to be accepted — not for what they do, the negative stuff, but as people.

Outcasts producer Joe Campo (center) with some of the Fransiscan Friars of the Renewal who appear in the film. (Photo provided)

A lot of people don’t realize this: the poor will always be with us (Mk 14:7, Jn 12:8, Matt 26:11). So, it’s really our duty — and it should come from our hearts — to help those we can help.

Too, there’s not one person that doesn’t need to find a way to forgive someone or to be forgiven. That’s where we start in all of this — in our families and we go from there.

DC: How would you describe this film?

JC: It’s really a work of evangelization, but we never say that in our films. The world is always telling people: don’t age, don’t die and don’t suffer. But we all experience suffering. And we learn from the poor, from people who are suffering, how to suffer.

DC: The screening of Outcasts at Light of the World in Littleton drew a full house. What was that like?

JC: First, I want to thank Kathryn Nygaard [LOTW communications director], Dakota Leonard [who fundraised the $4,000 screening cost], the pastor Father Matthew Book, [parochial vicar] Father Joseph LaJoie and all the people who attended. I was tremendously overjoyed.

The questions people asked at the Q&A after the screening were fantastic. People could sign up for different ministries after seeing the film: Catholic Charities, [Christ in the City] homeless ministry, prison ministry, [Light of the World parish ministries]. Some did. I was overjoyed. You always want your films to be a call to action.

Outcasts

To view the trailer or to schedule a screening, visit: outcaststhemovie.com