Across the U.S., more than 1,000 PC(USA) congregations celebrate Palm Sunday with Eco-Palms
By Rich Copley | Presbyterian News Service
LOUISVILLE — Like many churches across the country, Irvington Presbyterian Church in Indianapolis celebrates Palm Sunday with people in the congregation waving palm fronds to commemorate Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem shortly before his death and resurrection.
But at Irvington, and in many other churches, there’s more to those palms than their utility in the celebration to start Holy Week.
Earlier this decade, Irvington started buying its palm fronds through Eco-Palms, an ecumenical fair trade program in which the palms are harvested by farmers in Guatemala and Mexico to be shipped to congregations around the United States for Palm Sunday.
“We have a history of being more sustainable and trying to help out smaller communities through our various mission projects,” says Jennifer Heimach, who helps organize Eco-Palms and other fair trade and sustainability programs at the Indiana church. “That’s where Irvington’s heart is.”
That’s where a lot of Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) congregations’ hearts are, according to Jessica Maudlin, Associate for Sustainable Living and Earth Care for the Presbyterian Hunger Program.
“Presbyterians have consistently been among the largest orderers,” said Maudlin. “Since I started working with the project, more than 1,000 congregations have ordered every year.”
In the past year, the Hunger Program has worked to promote Eco-Palms, having some of the people who import, harvest and package the fronds at General Assembly and other gatherings to tell their stories.
It’s the story of how such a simple object can have a huge impact.
Launched by the University of Minnesota Center for Integrated Natural Resources and Agricultural Management (CINRAM) and the Rainforest Alliance TREES program, Eco-Palms have ecological and economic benefits in the communities that harvest them.
Harvesting of the palms helps protect the forests they are in from logging and other interests, and they are sustainably grown and harvested to ensure they continue to support a healthy environment. The Eco-Palms communities are certified sustainable by the Rainforest Alliance’s Smartwood program, according to the Eco-Palms website.
Farmers participating in the program are paid up to six times more than they otherwise would be paid for their work. It’s work done by the entire community.
“Most of the harvesters are men,” Maudlin says. “But when the quality control and packaging warehouses were set up, the women were able to do that work. Even then, though, the men were still in management. After some time and training, the women realized that they could run the facility and have been doing so ever since. This project isn’t just about fair trade, but it’s also about caring for the Earth and empowering women in new ways.”
Income from Eco-Palms has allowed farmers to improve their lives in numerous ways, including sending children to college.
“Just as we support the Presbyterian Coffee Project through the purchase of Fair-Trade products through Equal Exchange, we see our purchase of Eco-palms as a way to support small farmers and entrepreneurs,” said the Rev. Robert Heimach, Jennifer’s husband, of Irvington Presbyterian. “So, for this church, it is a logical and natural extension of our desire to use our purchasing power to support those who need it most.”
And it’s an easy program to work with, the Heimachs say. The palms are shipped directly to the church, and there is not much to do after receiving them except to let them air out after shipping.
“We have also gathered in several other churches in our community to use Eco-Palms — an American Baptist congregation and a Disciples of Christ congregation,” Rev. Heimach said. “They provide us with how many palms they need, and we add them to our order. When the palms arrive, the other churches pick up what they ordered. It is a win-win project for everyone, and now an ecumenical project too.”
And the association has grown to other times of the year. Jennifer Heimach says this past Christmas Irvington ordered wreaths through the Rainforest to Rainforest Program, which is managed by Eco-Palms distributor Continental Floral Greens and benefits the Eco-Palm communities in Guatemala. An additional charge added to the cost of each wreath sold at the church went to support its annual summer mission trip.
To Heimach, its falls right in with selling fair trade coffee and chocolate, easily raising money to support good causes.
There’s just under a month left to order palm fronds, with a March 22 deadline approaching. Palm Sunday is April 14. Maudlin is hoping to hit a big goal this year of 1 million fronds sold.
“It’s been so close, like 960,000,” Maudlin says. “I hope this is the year they can do that.”
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