From Columbia Journalism School: Meet the Muslim man who rents crosses in Jerusalem

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Long, long ago, back when I started writing my "On Religion" column, I worked at The Rocky Mountain News (RIP) in Denver. That meant getting to know quite a few editors and leaders in the whole Scripps Howard News operation. After I left the newsroom, it was natural that some of those ties and friendships remained.

Then, when I began teaching journalism -- especially in Washington, D.C. -- it was natural for me to talk to some of the movers and shakers in the Scripps Howard Foundation, especially those linked to the news bureau that existed for many years just off K Street.

To make a long story short, I was very happy when the foundation asked for input on starting an seminar on religion reporting at the Columbia University School of Journalism in New York City. They said the faculty member they wanted to lead this project was Ari L. Goldman, formerly of The New York Times, and I said: Oh. My. God. Yes. (or words to that effect). Goldman is now the veteran director of the school’s Scripps Howard Program in Religion, Journalism and the Spiritual Life.

All of that leads to this: Our colleagues at The Media Project website are going to start running, on occasion, pieces written by students in Goldman's "Covering Religion" seminars, which include hands-on reporting work overseas -- with past visits to India, Russia, Ukraine, Ireland, Italy, Israel, Jordan and the West Bank.

So check out this feature, with reporting and photography by students Isobel van Hagen and Vildana Hajric. The headline: "A Muslim Man's Sacred Job Renting Crosses in Jerusalem."

Here's the overture:

JERUSALEM -- Tall, built and gangly, Mazen Kenan, a 46-year-old Palestinian, towers above everyone in just about any setting. But his height is particularly commanding in the tightly packed streets of Jerusalem’s Old City, where he maneuvers easily despite the five foot-long, 50-pound wooden cross he bears on his shoulder. His dexterity is not surprising because he’s been shuttling crosses through the city for nearly two decades.
Every day, Kenan walks the Via Dolorosa, the Way of the Cross, a route sacred for Christians around the world. With a smirk on his face and a cigarette in his free hand, he smoothly moves through the crowds of tourists and shop owners. But hauling the cross around Jerusalem in the path that Jesus walked is not a sign of devotion for him. The procession and the rental business are merely transactional trades for Kenan, whose family is Muslim. But despite his religious background, he’s the go-to guy pilgrims visiting Jerusalem rent their crosses from.
Christian pilgrims from around the world visit the Old City, a place rife with key historical Christian monuments and Biblical references. Israel reported a record number of visitors last year, with nearly 80 percent of the more than 3.6 million visitors stopping in Jerusalem. More than half of Israel’s tourists were Christian and 25 percent of those were visiting as pilgrims.

A few other details from later on, to whet your appetite:

Kenan makes all of the crosses himself, mostly out of olive wood. He has around 50 and keeps the majority of them at his home in Jerusalem. Every day, however, he brings a few to the first station of the Way of the Cross and rents them out depending on daily demand. Though demand fluctuates throughout the year, the past couple of weeks have been particularly busy for him due to the Easter holiday. But when asked how many crossed he had rented out that day, he held up a single finger. “One.”
The business has been in the Kenan family for nearly seven decades. His father, who passed away about three months ago, started it back in 1951, according to Kenan. He took it over in 1999, helping to transform it into what it is today. Pilgrims can rent the cross for $50.

By all means, read it all. And look for similar features on the future.

IMAGES: Edits from one of the main photos by Isobel van Hagen, Vildana Hajric of Columbia University

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