Churches’ signature products serve the poor and vulnerable

By Pat McCaughan
Posted Oct 16, 2013

[Episcopal News Service] With toffee and coffees, body butters and shower gels, wine and ale, oil and incense, peanut brittle, “Heavenly Hot Fudge Sauce,” and even an occasional ‘Holy Honey’ – Episcopal churches and institutions across the country earmark signature products for good works.

In Nashville, Tennessee, for example, Katrina Robertson survived abuse and life on the streets to become national sales manager for Thistle Farms, a social enterprise ministry founded by the Rev. Becca Stevens which expects to sell upwards of 800,000 natural body care products this year.

“I have a lengthy criminal history, and people won’t hire felons, but I was a resident in the Magdalene program and they asked me if I wanted to come to Thistle Farms and work,” recalled Robertson, 46. “It was perfect. I needed a job. I didn’t want to go back to prostituting.”

The Magdalene program, founded in 1997 by Stevens, an Episcopal chaplain at Vanderbilt University, is a two-year residential program offering options for women who have survived lives of trafficking, prostitution, and addiction. Robertson was 11 when she was sexually abused by a stepfather “and it set up a cycle of dysfunction that made it easy to get on the streets,” she said during a recent telephone interview.

“I needed a safe place to heal. Shortly after I started at Magdalene they asked me if I wanted to come to Thistle Farms and work and it has continued from there.”

Like most of the 40-something other Thistle Farm employees, she helps make, package and market natural care products such as body butter, soaps and shower gels, lotions, room sprays, soy candles and other items. “We take our products out and tell our stories and sell them ourselves,” added Robertson.

“This isn’t your typical church or ministry; we run the company, and the proceeds from sales go to pay our salaries and to purchase raw materials,” said Robertson, who oversees sales in more than 280 outlets throughout the United States and Canada. She is especially pleased about partnering with cooperatives in Ecuador, Rwanda and Kenya, “made by women with histories like us.”

Busily preparing for Thistle Farms’ first-ever national conference, held Oct. 13-15 near Vanderbilt, Robertson said it is sometimes difficult to believe the ripple effects resulting from her involvement with the Magdalene program.

“It’s incredible, and it’s generational. Now, my 23-year-old daughter interned with us this summer and is working on the conference,” she said. “It speaks volumes to how this company and program and community have touched lives. It’s huge, a generational movement. If I hadn’t lived it I wouldn’t have believed it.”

Oil and incense
Altar guilds and sacristans may be tempted to try the clean and green “Alban’s Oil” from St. Alban’s Church in Monroe, Georgia, or aromatic “Angelus Incense” in New Haven, Connecticut.

Wilbur Ward says “Alban’s Oil” is high quality, extremely pure, economical, “will stand up against anybody’s oil anywhere” and is specifically produced for use in artificial candles and torches – as well as for “doing God’s work.”

“One hundred percent of all our proceeds go to support outreach” in a variety of efforts including a local Christian ministry, Faith in Serving Humanity, or FISH, which offers food, clothing, shelter and other emergency services to the underserved as well as a local county jail garden project “where inmates help put in a garden every year.

“We furnish equipment, seeds and all. The inmates furnish the labor and the produce goes to FISH where we use it to feed and to give to low-income people,” said Ward, 40-year veteran of the chemical business and the senior warden at St. Alban’s Church, in Monroe, Georgia, in the Diocese of Atlanta.

Prices vary with larger purchases being more economical, he said. For example, “if you bought four gallons, you end up spending about $20 a gallon.” Shipped from a Louisiana refinery, the oil is repackaged and meticulously weighed before being sent to church customers across the country.

Similarly, the Rev. David Cobb says Christ Church in New Haven, Connecticut has been making and selling incense to other churches for as long as anyone can remember.

The “distinctive blend” floral aroma recipe is a closely guarded secret and has become part of the identity of the parish, located near the Berkeley Divinity School at Yale.

The incense sells for about $25 a pound and is shipped nationwide. He estimated the church sells about five pounds in an average month. Proceeds mostly support liturgical costs, which contribute to student formation throughout the academic year, he said.

“We really feel like worship is mission in a parish like this, where we engage young adults and seekers every Sunday here,” Cobb said. “Young people seem to really be drawn to something with a clear sense of what is transcendent and outside your normal realm of sound and sensory experience, suggest a deeper and more compelling presence in the midst of life.”

ens_101513_goodShepherdCoffeeToffee, Peanut Brittle and Coffee
Some congregations have parlayed sweet cravings and hot and hearty drinks into fundraisers, creative partnerships, global outreaches and local recognition.

First-time visitors to Good Shepherd Church in Town and Country, Missouri, for instance, receive a free bag of coffee beans, and the church will even grind them, says the Rev. Pamela Dolan, rector, during a recent phone interview.

“We always tell visitors the first bag’s free; after that you have to buy them,” chuckled Dolan.

The decision to sell coffee, comparable to high-end specialty brews, began with a “close-the-budget-gap” campaign several years ago. Since then, it has aided communities in Rwanda and Costa Rica, where the beans are purchased at a fair price, has sparked other creative ministry possibilities and distinguished Good Shepherd locally “as the church with the really good coffee,” Dolan said.

With the congregation’s affirmation, Pamela Evans developed the partnership with Kuva Coffee, a St. Louis microbrewery. Kuva founder Tim Drescher roasts and delivers the beans weekly, which sell for $15 per 12-ounce bag.

“It’s great to be able to partner with somebody,” said Drescher, during a recent telephone interview. “It all comes together because they’re using our product for a higher purpose.”

Other possibilities have emerged, including using proceeds to help establish a community garden to help provide fresh vegetables for peace meals at a local Episcopal Church ministry and another venture, new this holiday season – chocolate covered coffee beans, Evans said in an e-mail to ENS.

“What better way to change lives and evangelize than having a conversation over a cup of coffee?” she said. “So, our tag line is: ©Changing lives one cup at a time.

Additionally, saying yes to Evans’ idea has empowered the entire community, Dolan said. “It’s so easy, when somebody comes to you with an idea to think of all the ways it might not work and all the things that could go wrong. I was so glad to see people at the parish getting behind Pam’s vision. It feels good to say ‘yes’ to somebody and have their dreams come true.”

With the holiday season fast approaching, teams are assembling to transform treasured recipes into sweet creations for both an Iowa and an Ohio church.

St. Thomas Church in Sioux City, Iowa, began making and marketing “Hazel’s Own Toffee” a few years ago after a series of epiphanies, according to the Rev. Torey Lightcap, rector.

The congregation participated in an Episcopal Church Building Fund workshop on the recasting of building assets, which “brought us to an awareness that we were not using our facilities throughout the week in a way that made for very good stewardship” of resources, he said.

That’s when a parishioner’s memory of a treasured English toffee recipe led to new directions. “She approached somebody and sure enough like many Episcopal churches we had published recipes books in the past and in one of them was a recipe for toffee we’d found from Hazel, who had died a few years before,” Lightcap said.

The recipe was tried and tweaked, sampled and voted on until perfected and “Hazel’s Own” was born, he recalled. Marketing the sticky sweets for $5 a quarter-pound has since blossomed, from a church bake sale, to diocesan conventions and other area events, to online sales and, now expanding to local businesses and other possibilities.

Meanwhile, energy levels are “through the roof,” Lightcap said. “We have learned a lot about things that a church might not normally spend a lot of time thinking about … and helped to turn the narrative of our parish in the community. We are the place with the community garden and that sells the toffee. When people hear about us, they usually say ‘oh right, the toffee church.’”

Orders are already coming in at St. Andrew’s Church in Washington Court House, Ohio for “Famous Peanut Brittle” and parishioners like Claudia Coe are teaming up to bake the crunchy treat.

“We’re so well-known for the peanut brittle, that people ask us if we’ve begun to make it and one customer has a standing order for 50 pounds,” according to the Rev. Gayle Hansen Browne, vicar. “He has a small business and he gives it to employees as part of their Christmas present.”

Using a recipe handed down over generations, teams of parishioners sign up to make batches, sold in $5 half-pound bags, totaling about 200 pounds yearly.

Proceeds are typically used for buildings and grounds improvements, indirectly furthering the church’s mission, including an ecumenical outreach ministry with 32 local congregations to assist areas underserved, she said.

Coe said teams work in three-hour shifts making – and breaking up – the peanut brittle. “It’s a lot of fun. It’s created a lot of good fellowship, here and out in the community. We’re known locally as the church that prays and the church that does peanut brittle.”

The Rev. David Peck (right) and Chad Rieker, head brewer of Iron Hill Brewery, Lancaster, Pennsylvania,  raise a glass of their St. James Brown Ale. Photo: Richard Hertzler

The Rev. David Peck (right) and Chad Rieker, head brewer of Iron Hill Brewery, Lancaster, Pennsylvania,
raise a glass of their St. James Brown Ale. Photo: Richard Hertzler

Ale and wine
There’s no disputing the relationship between churches and wine, but the Rev. David Peck, rector of St. James Church in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, is claiming it for ale, as well.

“Most of my life and ministry has been in England where historically wine-making and brewing have been led by the church and in Europe it still has very deep connections,” Peck said during a recent telephone interview.

So, when a parishioner became a master brewer and landed a job at a local restaurant and brewery, he offered up his maiden effort and dubbed it “St. James Brown Ale” as a “thanks be to God,” said Peck, who blesses the oats that go into the seasonal brew each year.

St. James Brown Ale is a popular local brew but the church does not directly benefit from sales, Peck said. Instead, the brewery hosts a Lenten soup program and proceeds, about $4,000, are donated to a 30,000-meal-a-year ministry to economically vulnerable people.

“It’s a very good and deep connection with young wait staff, who experience social ministry, the church’s ministry, and their own fundraising efforts,” Peck said.

Peck says he gets year-round inquiries about the ale, brewed in November and December. “We’ve had people meet and get married through the beer. It communicates a place that is open and accepting and fun, as well as holy.”

In Agoura Hills, California, members of the Church of the Epiphany realized their biblical garden wasn’t complete without a vineyard. So, a few years ago, they planted one.

They now have about 420 vines of Zinfandel, Cabernet and other grapes, eventually to be harvested, crushed, and bottled, according to the Rev. Melissa McCarthy.

In the meantime, the church established the Red Door Vineyard ministry by creating its own blend of communion and other wines via a local winery and offering them to subscribers. Initially, a close-the-budget-gap measure, “the ministry functions as a cooperative and “we’ve just finished our second bottling, which will be ready later in the year,” McCarthy said during a recent telephone interview.

She hopes to use the wine to evangelize. Already, community members have joined the ministry, which emphasizes fellowship and working together to cultivate the vineyards and garden.

“It’s been a way for people marginally related to the church, to find their way back in,” she said, “and it’s been a place where people new to the church have been able to plug in and build relationships.”

Hot Fudge Sauce and Holy Honey
Jeff Colburn of St. Thomas Church in Croom, Maryland, really figured out how to turn lemons into lemonade – and the result was “Holy Honey.”

It all started when a bell tower damaged by an earthquake couldn’t be repaired because a swarm of honeybees had taken it over. “There’s a history of bees taking up occupancy in the church over the years, they’ve been trying since the 1970s to get them out and they’ve always come back,” he said.

So Colburn, a beekeeper, went to work, vacuuming bees safely into a container and removing their honeycomb. “All the honey we pulled out was about 100 pounds. We bottled the “Holy Honey” and sold it at the local farmer’s market,” he said.

The Rev. Debbie Brewin-Wilson blessed the honey, the bees and the beekeepers; “Holy Honey” giveaways were offered to a few visitors. The church sold out of the honey, said Christina Manucy, a parishioner.

Although the bees were back this year, the ministry is short-lived because they weren’t as productive. Said Colburn: “There was no Holy Honey this year even though we removed the bees.”

At various times throughout the year, by the Rev. Aaron Gerlach’s own admission, St. James Church in Piqua, Ohio, “becomes a fudge-making factory.”

The results are tempting treats such as chocolate, peanut butter and mint “Heavenly Hot Fudge Sauce,” bottled and sold, ready to eat with ice cream and desserts.

It sells for $5 a pint and the money is used to fund various mission projects of the parish. “One of the major mission projects we have is we host one of the larger food pantries for Piqua,” Gerlach said during a recent telephone interview.

The fudge sauce has also “given the parish an incentive to be connected; it’s energized them” to interact with the community at local city festivals by staffing booths at diocesan conventions and local events, he said.

–The Rev. Pat McCaughan is a correspondent with the Episcopal News Service. She is based in Los Angeles.


Comments (3)

  1. Rhonda Muir says:

    This is the way forward……like the monasteries of old. Those on the edge and those called coming into community that threads through their entire lives…..and in making a living, tell the good news to others!

  2. Fr. Michael Neal says:

    Fun article………………………….:)

  3. In the meantime, the church established the Red Door Vineyard ministry by creating its own blend of communion and other wines via a local winery and offering them to subscribers.

Comments are closed.