Palm Sunday has become a cottage industry for a few hundred Tanzanian villagers, whose handiwork enhances the beginning of Holy Week in far corners of Christendom they themselves will never see.
Through a project called African Palms, the Tanzanians sell little crosses that they weave from palm fronds to churches here and in three other countries to help supplement their annual income, which averages about $55 per family.
The U.S. outlet for African Palms is located at St. John's Episcopal Church in Olney, where the sole employe, Virginia McIntyre, is looking forward to the slow season after this Sunday.
"It's a means of helping the people [of Tanzania] help themselves," McIntyre said of her project.
She has not had time to do a full accounting, but estimates she has processed about 3,300 orders this year. Last year, she said, the modest project sold close to three million of the crosses worldwide. Besides the United States, African Palms operates in Great Britain, Sweden and Canada, she said.
McIntyre said the venture was begun in the mid-'60s by an Anglican missionary in Tanzania to give the desperately poor villagers a means of earning some money.
The Anglican Church of Tanzania handles the African end of the business, purchasing the completed crosses from the villagers and filling the orders from abroad. In addition to the money individual villagers earn, whatever profits accrue from the operation here at the end of the year are sent back to Tanzania for educational or agricultural improvements there, McIntyre said.
She said that although African Palms was founded by Anglicans, she gets orders for the crosses, which cost $6 per 100, from all denominations and from every part of the United States, including Hawaii and Puerto Rico, which have their own palms in abundance. "If they take the trouble to write at all" when ordering the crosses, "they say they want to help a good cause," she said.
In addition to orders from churches for the palm crosses to distribute after this Sunday morning's service, McIntyre said, she has received numerous orders from Catholic schools and parish religious instruction classes. Also, she said. "Hospital chaplains like to use them for their patients."
McIntyre works at her task year around. "It gets pretty hairy around here from January through Palm Sunday," she said. The rest of the year, she catches up with record-keeping and other tasks from the previous Palm Sunday and begins preparations for the year ahead.
In the Christian calendar, Palm Sunday commemorates Christ's triumphal entry into Jerusalem, when crowds hailed Him as their longed-for Savior by spreading palm branches in His path.