For worshipers at St. John's Episcopal Church in Olney and thousands of other congregations across the country, the small palm crosses that they received on Palm Sunday are a potent symbol of the Lenten season and the coming of Easter.
For the villagers who folded the fronds from dwarf palm trees while minding their cashew crops thousands of miles away in Tanzania, the crosses also represent the means to a better life.
Bill Rockefeller, above, unpacks boxes of palm crosses shipped from Tanzania to St. John's Episcopal Church in Olney. Below, the Rev. Benjamin Shambaugh, the pastor at St. John's.
Simple in design, the palm crosses are the symbol of a successful mission run by St. John's that has taken an African product and turned it into "a source of income and humanitarian aid for Africa," church officials said.
In its 29th season, the nonprofit African Palms USA sells 1.5 million palm crosses to about 2,300 customers, including churches, hospitals, prisons, military facilities and church goods suppliers across the nation. The cost of the crosses ranges from 18 to 22 cents each, plus shipping.
"We are a small church doing a pretty big operation," said Patricia Martineau, office manager for African Palms.
The mission buys crosses from seven villages near Masasi, Tanzania, effectively doubling the annual farming income for the families who make them. African Palms returns the net proceeds from the cross sales to Africa through nondenominational self-help grants to development groups, churches and other organizations, said the Rev. Benjamin Shambaugh, pastor of St. John's.
Since the first grant was awarded in 1976, African Palms has awarded a total of $1.5 million to projects across Africa, including those involving AIDS education and prevention; sanitation, medical and public health programs; vocational training; and housing for orphans.
"We're helping the little person, day to day, to live," Martineau said. "Little projects are what is the base of Africa."
African Palms was the brainchild of Alan Talbot, an Anglican priest who served as a missionary 40 years ago in Masasi and who was looking for ways to help villagers supplement their meager farming income. In 1965, he began selling the woven palm crosses made by the villagers to churches in England for Palm Sunday services.
In 1976, the women of St. John's church got involved when Talbot came to Washington and offered African Palms to an international community development mission. The mission wasn't interested in running the program in the United States, but an employee who was a member of St. John's brought the idea to the Olney church.
Church member Virginia McIntyre spearheaded the mission and received her first shipment of 100,000 crosses in 1976, said her husband, Bartley.
Virginia McIntyre, who died in 1987, expanded the sales over the years by advertising in church catalogues and focusing on Palm Sunday. Within 10 years, African Palms USA had sold $450,000 worth of crosses, said Bartley McIntyre, 76, of Gaithersburg.
By 1998, the mission had given away $1 million in grants of $5,000 or less. Between $70,000 and $100,000 is given away each year, depending on sales proceeds, Martineau said.
Grant applications from churches and development agencies from all over Africa are reviewed by a handpicked board of trustees. St. John's church officials have developed close ties with African Anglican church officials and development groups to make sure the grants go to those in need, Shambaugh said.