Palm Sunday goes eco-friendly

With Eco-Palms are (from left) the Rev. David Tatgenhorst of St. Luke United Methodist Church, the Rev. James McIntire of Hope United Methodist Church, the Rev. Lydia Munoz of Plumbline United Methodist Church, the Rev. Steven Lawrence of White Rock Baptist Church, the Rev. Hal Taussig of Chestnut Hill United Church.
With Eco-Palms are (from left) the Rev. David Tatgenhorst of St. Luke United Methodist Church, the Rev. James McIntire of Hope United Methodist Church, the Rev. Lydia Munoz of Plumbline United Methodist Church, the Rev. Steven Lawrence of White Rock Baptist Church, the Rev. Hal Taussig of Chestnut Hill United Church. (AKIRA SUWA / Staff Photographer)
Posted: April 14, 2014

Each year from the time she was young, Joanne Miles would take the tall, yellowish-green palms that were handed out on the Sunday before Easter and transform them.

Miles, 54, folded, twisted, and tucked the dry stalks into shapes of crosses, turning them into lapel pins and decorative symbols marking the holiest period of the Christian calendar.

But for the last six years, that symbol of a historic arrival in Jerusalem has given way to the sustainability movement.

The palms have gone all green.

At Miles' congregation, Hope United Methodist Church in Havertown, where she lives, congregants have traded in traditional palms for "Eco-Palms," fanlike gatherings of fresh green leaves attached to a central stem and imported from Guatemala and Mexico.

Eco-Palms are harvested and marketed in sustainable ways that help preserve the rain forest and provide an economic boost to palm workers and their communities, said program founder Dean Current, director of the Center for Integrated Natural Resource and Agricultural Management at the University of Minnesota.

Hope United Methodist works with six churches that order Eco-Palms together, including St. Luke United Methodist in Bryn Mawr and Chestnut Hill United Church in Philadelphia. First Presbyterian Church in Springfield and St. John's Lutheran Church in Melrose Park also are among local churches that order Eco-Palms.

"It's a justice issue," said the Rev. Jim McIntire of Hope United Methodist. "Eco-Palms are harvested in an ecologically friendly way, and the workers are paid for the work they are doing."

Churches spend about $4.5 million annually on all palm purchases, according to Current's group.

The Eco-Palms program sold 995,000 fronds to 4,684 churches in 49 states this year. The palms are obtained from communities that follow sustainable standards.

To preserve the palm population, workers harvest only one region of the plant crop and then leave it for nine months to regenerate.

The quality of the palm is a factor in the pricing, which discourages overharvesting.

Workers also are paid certain premiums as incentives to use sustainable practices, said Dave Wilsey, program coordinator for the master's in development practice program at the University of Minnesota, who worked with Current on the palm project.

Because palm plants need the shade of the forest's tall trees to survive, maintaining a palm crop also encourages villagers to protect the forest as a whole, Current said in a phone interview from Nepal, where he is teaching a course.

In 2000, Current and his research team began working with the Commission for Environmental Cooperation, a research group created to study the effects of the North American Free Trade Agreement on the environment. Current's goal was to assess the potential for developing a market for green products.

The research team traveled to Central America and Mexico to help develop a palm market based on sustainability and free trade. It decided to target Palm Sunday and church purchases because of the bump in palm sales in preparation for the holiday.

The research team then teamed with denominations and other groups, including the Episcopal Church, Lutheran World Relief, and the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) to encourage churches to participate.

Congregations order from the Eco-Palm website. The average order is 200 fronds per church at 25 cents per frond. The long strips tend to be cheaper, about 10 cents per bunch, Current said.

The palms are transported by truck from Guatemala and Mexico to distribution points in Texas, North Carolina, and Minnesota. They arrive at the churches by mail.

"To know that the farmers will be compensated fairly for their work makes our worship more meaningful," said the Rev. Donna Wright, interim pastor of St. John's.

But the green palms aren't always welcomed warmly. Some congregants are loyal to the long, yellowing stalks they grew up with.

"There were a few who were disappointed because it was a tradition to make crosses out of the palm fronds and take them to the grave sites of their departed," said Jeanne Richards, a member of the worship commission at First Presbyterian Church in Springfield.

Amy McKeon, an administrative assistant at United Christian Church in Levittown, typically orders both - the long stalks and Eco-Palms - to satisfy everyone in her congregation, but this year she missed the Eco-Palms ordering deadline.

Many of the area's Catholic churches order from the St. Jude Shop in Havertown. Most stick to the traditional yellowy stalks. Traditionally, the palms eventually are burned for use as ashes for Ash Wednesday. But other churches, and churches around the country, order the several varieties of green palms the shop offers. Its supply comes from farms in Texas and Florida.

On Sunday, a Palm Sunday procession at St. Luke in Bryn Mawr will start outside the church as congregants march in waving Eco-Palms, with the choir and children leading the way.

A similar procession will go down the center aisle at Hope United Methodist.

For Miles, the waving of the green leaves feels more authentic.

"When the kids walk down the aisle waving the palms," Miles said, "I can close my eyes and see Jesus coming into Jerusalem on a donkey."


kholmes@phillynews.com

610-313-8211

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