McALISTERVILLE - The palms used this Sunday in a handful of Juniata County churches are a little truer to the ones used in Jesus' day.
They are hand picked with care for the sole purpose of being used for worship services on Palm Sunday.
More than a dozen local churches buy palms through the Eco-Palms project, a social and environmental justice ministry that the Rev. Graham Fowler from Lost Creek Presbyterian Church in McAlisterville takes charge of distributing locally.
Fowler said he noticed Eco-Palms in a denomination news e-mail and thought it could be a positive way local churches could help other countries.
"The good news of Jesus Christ, his death and resurrection, is not just about getting to heaven," Fowler said. "God's love can be seen in the community through this project."
Before Eco-Palms, contractors would hire villagers in Mexico and Guatemala to cut palm branches from the forests and pay them for the number that they picked, he said. This practice resulted in a lot of low quality branches and stripped palm trees, for which the workers were paid a "pittance," Fowler said.
At sorting centers, the companies would sort through the palms and throw away as many as half of the crop, he said.
Eco-Palms changed the process by placing the responsibility for quality on the villagers. Workers are taught how to cut the palms without damaging the trees or harvesting too many low quality leaves, he said. In the villages, the palms are sorted and packaged before being sent to the U.S. for distribution, he said.
"Typically, they earn four to five times as much through Eco-Palms," Fowler said.
Since Fowler began organizing the local distribution in 2008, the Eco-Palms project has grown with Juniata County churches.
Last year, 15 congregations, including one from Mifflin County, purchased their Palm Sunday palms through the project, Fowler said.
The cost is about 30 cents per palm, and Fowler usually receives the shipment the Tuesday or Wednesday before Palm Sunday.
"This is a project where these people are doing a job, but we are making it possible for these people to get more out of it," Fowler said. "We as Christians should do our best to make God's world visible, to share how the good news of Jesus Christ can help their lives."
In Carmelita, Guatemala, the villagers have used their Eco-Palms money to improve working conditions, fund scholarships and help the elderly in their community, he said.
Eco-Palms is run through the University of Minnesota. Partnering religious entities are the Presbyterian USA, the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, Catholic Relief Services, the Episcopal Church and the United Methodist Committee on Relief.
To learn more about the Eco-Palms project, visit www.ecopalms.org.