Every year on Palm Sunday, Lutherans across America gather palm fronds and wave them in remembrance of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem. At St. Anthony Park Lutheran Church in St. Paul, Minn., a large children’s choir leads this procession, singing and waving palms. It’s a procession that has gained greater meaning for Glenn Berg-Moberg, pastor, as the congregation was one of the first to join the Eco-Palms movement. 

Eco-Palms promotes social justice and environmental stewardship by selling fair-trade palms. Dean Current, director of the Center for Integrated Natural Resources and Agricultural Management at the University of Minnesota in the Twin Cities, was the driving force behind this effort. 

A former Peace Corps volunteer in El Salvador with a passion for Latin America, and a longtime member of St. Anthony Park, Current was sought by the Commission for Environmental Cooperation (CEC) to begin research on palm harvesters in Latin America in 2001. Through his work, he found that churches were the primary consumers of palm fronds, along with florists to a lesser degree. In fact, palm purchases spike on Palm Sunday every year. 

The CEC, a North American group that works to protect the environment, was concerned that the palm populations were declining. Another concern—the communities that harvested the palms were being paid very little, with most of the funds going to middlemen who sold the product to North American florists. Current and his team were tasked with finding out if churches would support a certified palm market that promoted sustainable agriculture, with a focus on profits going directly back to palm-harvesting communities. 

Current’s team surveyed large American denominations and found support for fair-trade palms. The CEC then moved forward with the project, meeting in Mexico with members of the palm-producing community and Lutheran World Relief, an early supporter. 

In 2005, Eco-Palms made its first sale, partnering with palm-harvesting communities in Guatemala. In the first year alone, 5,000 fronds were sold to churches in Minnesota, North Dakota, Wisconsin and Massachusetts. That year, Current did the bulk of the North Dakota deliveries on his own. Arriving home at 3 a.m. on Palm Sunday, he vowed to do it differently the next year. 

In 2006, Eco-Palms, then partnered with Hermes Floral in St. Paul, sold 80,000 palm fronds. The numbers have been growing steadily since then, with slightly under a million sold each of the past five years.  

Current and Berg-Moberg hope to finally hit that 1 million mark—and beyond—this year. 

“We’d like to involve more communities,” Current said. “The need is always great, and we have the capacity to do more.” 

The project promises an additional five cents of income per frond back to the community, translating to almost $50,000 per year. The communities have used that money in various ways: student scholarships, retirement funds for harvesters, teacher salaries, and even a used truck to promote more harvesting back and forth from the rainforest. 

“I’ve worked on many larger development projects, and not many of them have seen results like this,” Current said. 

He is especially proud that increased palm harvesting helps conserve the larger rainforest trees. The types of branches used on Palm Sunday grow near the forest floor and need the cover of larger trees. Providing a market for palm sales ensures that larger trees will be conserved. 

Berg-Moberg said larger tree conservation is part of the motivation for churches to continue to purchase live palms, rather than going to reusable silk leaves. “We’re at the top of an ecosystem,” he said. “And for churches to leave the market would disrupt the ecosystem and the lives of people in local communities.” 

Current estimates that the cost of Eco-Palms is about 25 percent higher than buying conventional palms. An average church order is about 200 fronds, meaning an extra investment of about $10. 

“It’s a big win for churches,” Berg-Moberg said. “We’re going to be spending money on this anyway. I think it’s a great opportunity to do more, and the value far outweighs the cost differential.” 

For Current, working on the Eco-Palms project has been a vital example of vocation in his life. A scientist and academic, he doesn’t always get to exercise his faith at work. Through Eco-Palms, Current can use his expertise to promote his faith-backed commitment to caring for God’s creation. 

“This is one of those wonderful places where vocation and faith work,” Berg-Moberg said. “In the Lutheran sense of vocation … this is really his life and his profession making an impact for the world, and I think that’s the best way to practice faith.”  

For more information 

Interested congregations and organizations can order palms at EcoPalms.org. 

To learn more about the studies and research behind this project, go to the Center for Integrated Natural Resources and Agricultural Management’s website.  

Angela Denker
Angela Denker is an ELCA pastor and journalist. Her book, Red State Christians: Understanding the Voters Who Elected Donald Trump, was published in August 2019 by Fortress Press.

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