- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 16, 2003

There are 1.5 million palm-branch crosses sitting in boxes at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Olney, with volunteers hoping to convert them into money to help impoverished villagers in Africa.

The church is a home for African Palms USA — a nonprofit, nondenominational organization whose members sell palms woven into crosses to churches across the country.

The profits are turned into grants to provide or improve medical care, public health, disaster relief, clean water and education.

This is a busy time of year for the volunteers, who are trying to complete their work before the holiday season.

The woven crosses arrived from Africa in September. Since then, volunteers have been coming to the church once a week from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. to sort, package and mail the palm crosses to churches in all 50 states.

The story behind the crosses makes them “so much more meaningful,” said the Rev. Benjamin Shambaugh, head pastor of St. John’s.

The project started in 1965 when a mission worker, the Rev. Alan Talbot, noticed how impoverished Tanzanian villagers were sitting under hyphaena coriacia trees all day to keep baboons from eating the nuts.

Mr. Talbot suggested that they spend the time also weaving the trees’ palms into crosses for churches to use in their Palm Sunday services.

The weavers got busy, and within two years had sold 1 million palms in Europe. The organization expanded, and St. John’s became the U.S. arm in 1975. Within two years, St. John’s had made a $1,500 profit to return to Africa.

To date, African Palms USA has sent $1.3 million in “self-help” grants back to Africa.

Wayne Cross, grants chairman for African Palms USA, said the project is a business as much as it is a mission, which is a good way to provide financial support.

“We are not just relying on the generosity of others,” he said.

Church officials also buy the crosses for their clergy to hand out at events such as baptisms, funerals and Sunday school classes.

“They turn up in funky places,” Mr. Shambaugh said. He has even seen them on Elvis Presley’s grave and at a memorial for one of the Washington-area sniper victims.

St. John’s has about 20 volunteers working on the project.

“Some of our volunteers are retired, and it gives them meaning to life,” Mr. Shambaugh said.

St. John’s officials also want to pass along the values of volunteering to another generation.

“The biggest challenge is finding people to pass this work onto,” said Patricia Martineau, office manager for African Palms USA. “I have been doing this for 11 years [and] cannot think of a more meaningful job.”

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