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Honeybees and heifers on the Christmas gift list


In these tense times, we search for uplifting news to counter the terrible collapse of the twin towers Sept. 11. We seek fragments of hope, like clues in the ground zero rubble, to help us to construct a semblance of meaning from the disaster we experienced that day. It has been suggested that our feelings of grief and loss illuminate our solidarity with others worldwide who regularly suffer from violence and terrorism.

For many, this inclination to identify our common human suffering has prompted a desire to reach out to others around the globe in acts of giving; we want to make things right. The Heifer Project International, a faith-based nonprofit organization with roots in pacifist war resistance, offers one opportunity to satisfy such leanings by supporting sustainable development in poor communities throughout the world.

I learned about The Heifer Project last year, from a catalog in my mailbox. It pictured beautiful children from around the world with animals they were helping to raise, along with stories about how the children and their families sell milk, eggs, meat, honey, or wool from these animals, enabling them put food on the tables and a roof over their heads -- not to mention sending the children to school. I’ve since learned that the organization has been around for more than 50 years, quietly appealing to faith-based groups’ biblical sense of justice. The Heifer Project board is composed of representatives from each of its 12 “covenant agencies” including the National Catholic Rural Life Conference.

The Heifer Project began in the wake of another tumultuous era. During World War II, conscientious objector Dan West, a member of the Church of the Brethren, did alternative military service as a relief worker in Spain, distributing powdered milk to hungry children. The meager rations seemed to West an affront to their dignity and a poor substitute for real milk. He resolved upon his return home to take the bull by the horns and organize an effort to create sustainable means of income and food production in communities such as those he had encountered in Spain. His dreams led, a few years later, not to a bull, but to three donated heifers, which he named Faith, Hope and Charity. He, in turn, donated the heifers to a community in Puerto Rico in 1944, the organization’s first grassroots project.

Today through The Heifer Project International local residents in communities around the world -- including Afghanistan and refugee villages in Pakistan -- receive one or more animals, anything from an alpaca to a yak, a hive of honeybees to a heifer, a goat to a guinea pig. The organization trains recipients to care for the animal, and they contract with Heifer Project to “pass on the gift” by sharing their animal’s female offspring with other families in their area. Those first three cows have multiplied almost as fast as the legendary loaves and fishes. Last year, China marked its millionth animal descended from its first Heifer Project donation, according to Rosemary Larson, the organization’s Chicago office director.

Donors in the United States and around the world support this “expensive and long-term” work, Larson said. All told, the project has helped an initial four million families worldwide -- that doesn’t count the families helped through “passing on the gift.” The World Bank, she claims, describes The Heifer Project as “the golden standard in international development.” It is, of course, her job to offer such spin, but it seems hard to dispute such a win-win proposition.

My friend Anne and her family in White Bear Lake, Minn., are on the donor side of the equation. Last year, as she considered Christmas gifts for her mother and her husband’s father, both in their 80s, she came across a Heifer Project catalog and made her choice. “I knew that neither needed anything,” explained Anne. “I am concerned about people and hunger in third world countries, I am uncomfortable with spending a lot of money on gifts when so many people are needy, and I loathe shopping and this was much, much easier.”

“When I saw that they had honeybees, I knew we had the right gift for [my father-in-law]!” said Anne. “He has always had a giving attitude about those who are hungry.” Furthermore, she continued, he loves honey and had raised bees himself some years ago. “I painted a beehive in watercolors and on the back, explained the gift of the bees. As he read it, he got tears in his eyes,” she reported. For the less artistically inclined, The Heifer Project supplies informational cards about the gifts.

The Heifer Project also promotes various donor plans and educational curricula to schools, churches and religious education programs as a way to put faith into action and raise social consciousness and global awareness among parishioners or students. The organization markets many plans for involvement, as well as the requisite complement of books, tapes, cards and t-shirts.

This year as we celebrate the coming of the Prince of Peace, it seems more fitting than ever to be mindful of ways we may extend our celebration to our brothers and sisters in our global village. If you’re looking for a holiday gift, think about a gift abundant in spirit, and one that truly keeps on giving.

For more information about The Heifer Project, call (800) 422-0474 or visit the organization’s Web site, www.heifer.org

Kris Berggren lives in Minneapolis.

National Catholic Reporter, December 7, 2001