(Published this week in the Medford Patch and Medford Transcript)
The Congregational Church of West Medford (CCWM), an Open and Affirming congregation of the United Church of Christ (UCC) is turning over a new leaf for Palm Sunday. Along with congregations from every major denomination, the West Medford congregation is switching to fairly traded eco-palm fronds for their annual celebration of Jesus’ arrival in Jerusalem in the days before his crucifixion. According to tradition, Jesus rode into Jerusalem on a donkey as followers spread palm branches in his path, indicating that a dignitary was arriving in triumph.
When planning for the celebration, the congregation’s new pastor noticed that the church was using Fair Trade Coffee for fellowship time and asked if they might consider switching to Eco-Palms despite the higher cost. It was an easy sell because the congregation believes that it’s the right thing to do.
“God created all that is and we believe that it is our responsibility to care for creation, to preserve it and sustain it as best we can,” said Rev. Wendy Miller Olapade, the pastor of the church. “This is a small decision that is consistent with our progressive Christian values and our commitment to support social and environmental justice. More than 300 million palm fronds are harvested each year for U.S. consumption alone — most of them for Palm Sunday, but also for floral displays for church-related events. Many people do not realize that some forms of harvesting the ‘strip palms’ that we are used to seeing on Palm Sunday actually damage the trees. There is also a history of overharvesting palm fronds driven by the low wages being paid to the workers. The purchase of these eco palm fronds, which are harvested in a manner that protects the forest, insures that they will be available for years to come.”
Rev. Miller Olapade continues, “Moreover, we are committed to the ideals of fair trade – we want to support paying the people at source of the product chain enough to feed their families and send their kids to school. Our commitment to purchase eco-palms, combined with that of congregations all over the country, plays a role in protecting forests, local jobs and sustainable livelihoods in the harvesting communities. Yes, that is an easy sell in this faith community.”
Eco-palms are purchased directly from the communities where they are grown at five to six times the normal payment per frond. Families are able to depend on a more stable source of income and benefit from additional value-added processing that takes place within the community.
The University of Minnesota’s Eco-Palms program ensures the leaves were harvested in Mexico and Guatemala in an environmentally sensitive manner by workers getting paid a fair price, and organizers say they are getting more orders than ever. The project grew from a 2001 study on the effects of the North American Free Trade Agreement to a 2005 pilot project that today has become a multimillion dollar business. In 2012, when Christians begin Holy Week celebrations, 4019 U.S. congregations in about a dozen denominations ordered Eco-Palms ensuring that over 808,000 palm fronds were harvested sustainably. That’s a steep increase from the 5,000 stems ordered by 22 churches in 2005. For more information about this project, see the web site www.ecopalms.org.