May 5, 2019
The Third Sunday of Easter
Sometime in 2011 I came across an article in the Washington Post about a Palestinian American named Nasser Abufarha that set my life in a new direction. The article reported that one day in 2003 Nasser, as a doctoral candidate at the U of Wisconsin, was drinking a cup of coffee at Starbucks when he noticed the Fair Trade label on his cup. He thought to himself, “I should be able to go back to my village in the West Bank (Palestine) and organize the impoverished olive farmers, into cooperatives, offer them an above-market fair trade price for their olives, teach them organic farming practices, and sell their olive oil as fair trade and organic to outlets in Europe and the United States.”
The article went on to describe what happened over the next 6-7 years.
As soon as Nasser got his PhD, he sold his restaurant in Madison, Wisconsin, which had financed his education, and with the money went back to his home village in the West Bank, purchased a high-end Italian olive press, and set about the work of convincing Palestinian olive farmers that he could offer them a price for their olives above the market price, a fair trade price. Needless to say, the farmers were skeptical of Nasser’s offer, which sounded like a scam. A price for their olives above the market price? But because he was one of them, not a foreigner, and because he had great persuasive power, many of the farmers signed on. Now, several years later, the newspaper article reported, the olive oil produced by Nasser’s cooperative was being sold in Europe and the U.S. (You can find it at Whole Foods in Silver Spring.)
The really eye-popping fact in the article was that it said Nasser’s cooperative olive oil enterprise had succeeded in lifting entire villages out of poverty in the space of a few years.
I resolved to meet this man. And I did.
It was during the olive harvest, and as I watched the olive farmers bring their harvest to the olive press at Canaan Fair Trade, the company Nasser founded in his native village near Jenin in the West Bank, I was struck by the joy and goodwill of the farmers and their families – and Nasser. At lunchtime over a delicious lamb stew that Nasser prepared, I asked him what he needed. Access to bank loans, perhaps? He said, no, finances were not a problem.
And then it struck me: Nasser, I said, do you want someone to make a film about what you and your community of olive farmers have created here? And Nasser said yes, I want the film to be for an American audience, so that they can see the true face of Palestinians and how we are helping to transform the way the world produces food so that humanity can thrive.
What does this have to do with our faith journey?
What I discovered when I met Nasser was that he, like Jesus in our reading from John’s Gospel today, knew how to generate abundance in the midst of scarcity. You’ll recall from the Gospel that the disciples had spent all night fishing and were returning to shore empty-handed when they saw a figure standing on the beach, who called out to them to ask whether they had caught anything. They said no, whereupon the figure on the shore, who is Jesus raised from the dead, tells them to cast their net to the right side, and when they do, they catch more fish than the net can hold. The fishing expedition becomes an experience of abundance, mirroring Jesus’s miracle at the wedding at Cana, where the hosts had run out of wine for their guests until Jesus transformed jugs of water into wine; and the twelve baskets of food left over at the feeding of the 5,000, which began with a total of five loaves and two fish. In today’s Gospel reading the nets that had been empty when used under the disciples’ own power are filled almost to bursting with a word from the risen Christ, who then prepares them a meal. The experience on the shores of the Sea of Galilee once again transforms a moment of deprivation and insufficiency into a feast, with unexpected blessing made available for all.
Scarcity – Abundance.
The West Bank is a land that for Palestinians is pockmarked by scarcity – the numerous checkpoints, the Israeli settlements, the corrupt and inefficient government. And yet Nasser has opened a gateway for poor olive farmers to reconnect with their land and to translate the ancient practices of regenerative cultivation into a sustainable and satisfying livelihood in a very challenging 21st century setting.
Scarcity – Abundance.
As we look at our own lives it’s all too easy to recognize scarcity, loss, woundedness, obstacles to realizing our dreams – and to stop dreaming altogether. But as Christians Jesus is calling us to create a new story of fullness – not figuratively but literally. This new story will look different for each of us – there is no ready-made script. We must create it in our imaginations – the same place where we create the stories of lack, pain and suffering – out of the fabric of who we know we are in our hearts, and live into it.
We must recognize who is saying yes to us in our lives, because none of us can do this alone.
And when we find ourselves empty-handed in our life’s journey, we must help each other to remember Jesus’s guidance to cast our net in a different place.
(Introduce Maggie, director of the film. Maggie shows images and talks about her experience of the land, Nasser, and the new stories being lived out by the people who are part of Canaan Fair Trade.)
Thank you, Seekers, for supporting the making of this film about people joining together to create abundance in the midst of scarcity.
I want to close with the opening lines of the poem “Beginners,” by Denise Levertov:
But we have only begun
to love the earth.
We have only begun
to imagine the fullness of life.
How could we tire of hope?
—so much is in bud.