By Neva Rae Fox

Facing a second pandemic year of no procession, no palms, no in-person worship, Christians worldwide nonetheless are preparing for Palm Sunday on March 28.

For St. John’s in Olney, Maryland, an international outreach ministry is helping many face a shortage or a lack of palms in their churches through its relationship with African Palms.

Johnna Benson Gilchrist is part of the St. John’s team that coordinates with African Palms, USA, selling and shipping hand-woven palm crosses that were designed, styled, prepared, and shipped from Tanzania. She pointed out African Palm crosses are an alternative for congregations as the pandemic prevents the availability or delivery of palms for 2021.

The African Palms website heralds its purpose: “Improving life, one village at a time from the sale of Palm Crosses. Our organization returns proceeds from Palm Cross sales to villages, of all denominations for clean water, schools, and medical facilities.”

Gilchrist said the ministry began in the 1965 when the Rev. Alan Talbot visited Tanzania. “He saw Anglicans and Muslims living together in peace,” she said. “He saw the extreme poverty and wanted to do something to help.”

Talbot’s idea for a ministry started when he saw villagers weaving baskets and other arts and crafts with palm leaves. He brought back the crosses and the rest, as is said, is history.

St. John’s rector, the Rev. Henry McQueen, is enthused about the churchwide involvement in this ministry. “The congregation is involved in doing quality control of the palm crosses, unloading shipping containers, and spreading the word of our work,” he explained. “There seems to be a real sense of pride from everyone about this ministry, even with those who are not actively involved.”

He also addressed how African Palms allows the congregation look outward. “One of the wonderful aspects of this ministry is that the congregation continually looks beyond the walls of the church,” McQueen said. “The view from St. John’s spans from Olney, Maryland to Masasi, Tanzania. As a result of this expanded view the parish sees the work that is needed in the town, county, state, and beyond and is willing to step in and find a way to participate. The ministry of African Palms has expanded the horizons of St. John’s. And above all, the congregation supports the people of Tanzania.”

Although palms are naturally associated with Palm Sunday, African Palm Crosses are offered for other uses, including Sunday school, vacation Bible school, and other life events.  Gilchrist said the St. John’s women’s group, which became involved in 1976, donates them to “funeral parlors, nursing homes, wherever support is needed, wherever a sign of God’s love is needed.”

She added that sometimes the youth decorate, color, or put beads on them. Some years a poppy is added for Veterans Day. Gilchrist said this pandemic year, the African Palms are an element in many Palm Sunday packets being prepared and sent home to congregants throughout the church.

St. John’s does not keep any proceeds. “All profits are sent back to Tanzania in the form of grants meant for the entire community,” Gilchrist said. “It’s not just a Christian thing, it’s a humanitarian thing.”

McQueen added, “Two years ago when I mentioned that the Diocese of Masasi was going to send a group of women for theological education, the congregation very quickly came together and contributed the needed funds to pay for their transportation, books, fees, and tuition. There is interest in these women and the people of Masasi, they are our sisters and brothers.”

The rector addressed the impact of the pandemic on the ministry. “They are in a country whose government has denied the pandemic and stopped reporting data related to the pandemic last spring. We know from some of the medical facilities that we work with that in the big cities entire hospitals have been dedicated to Covid-19 treatment, and that the needs of the other patients are somehow met by other less equipped facilities.  And even with all of this I know that if we were in Tanzania right now, we would be treated as a welcomed guest, their hospitality is overwhelming. Christian or Muslim, they are a people of deep faith; a faith that supports them with joy each day.”

“While the global pandemic has hit this ministry very hard,” Gilchrist said, “we continue to have faith that these Palm Crosses, reminders of God’s love, will pull this ministry through in order to send much needed grant money to our brothers and sisters in rural Southern Tanzania for clean water, new schools and very important medical needs.”

Recognizing that Palm Sunday 2021 plans are still underway for many, Gilchrist said African Palm Crosses are available for this year.

Palm Sunday, McQueen assured, “will, as it does every year, involve Palm Crosses.  We think that a palm procession in our cars around the community and culminating at the church for a curb side service might be in order. We will, like everyone, celebrate in new and creative ways while still holding on to our tradition of Palm Crosses from Masasi Tanzania.”