If life gives you lemons, make lemonade. If life gives you cucumbers, make pickles.
That's the tack Southside Abbey took last fall when the Chattanooga Area Food Bank offered the Rev. Bob Leopold three banana boxes of cucumbers it couldn't give away. And now numerous Southside families are reaping the benefits.
They gave away the giant cucumbers -- some nearly 2 feet long -- until the community's capacity to receive them ran out, he says, "until the people said, 'Enough.'"
Yet, Leopold says, they still had 21/2 boxes left.
With skills learned from a pickling lesson with Chattanooga's Nate Flynn of Famous Naters World Famous sandwich cart, he suggested they use the rest of the bounty for pickles. So that's what the Episcopal-related fellowship did, making seven dozen quart jars of sliced cucumbers in two varieties, sweet and spicy and sweet and hot.
The pickling gathering, one of the first events for the burgeoning fellowship that began with a summer 2012 Bible study, drew 10 people over several canning sessions.
"It was a labor-intensive thing," Leopold says.
The empty jars were boiled five or six at a time, the cucumbers sliced and put in jars, the hot pickling juices poured over them, the tops put on and the cans boiled again, he explains. But since the pickles, like the cucumbers, would go to people in need, the event "really set the tone [for members of the fellowship] of justice ministries first."
And since they were canned, they could be given away whenever the fellowship determined. Epiphany, the present season in the Christian calendar following Christmas, was chosen as the time.
The plan, according to Leopold, was to knock on doors in extended parts of the Southside. Even with "the ridiculousness of somebody showing up with pickles," the first delivery, to the Patten Towers Apartments, a low-income senior living facility on 11th Street, went as well as he could have imagined.
For many residents, Leopold says, "it was good for somebody to hear their story," for them to be acknowledged as "a beloved child of God."
Occasionally, he says, they got a turn down, a pronouncement of a dislike of pickles, but often they were invited inside and stayed as long as 30 to 45 minutes. When inside, Leopold says, the group was able to ask residents how they felt about their community, how the group might help them and prove to them the group's visit was "not an attempt to bribe them to come to worship."
The group also visited Alton Park, Fort Negley, Jefferson Heights, Cowart Street and the Westside. In the Westside, the group was joined by the Rev. Peter Kanyi of Neema Resettlement Ministry in visiting several people new to the country.
The immigrants may not have been familiar with the pickles, Kanyi says, but they were happy for the fellowship. "[It was] more important than anything," he said. "Even now, [the group] can come again. It was a matter of courtesy and welcoming."
For one man, says Leopold, it was probably his first pickle.
"I don't know if he liked [it,]" he says, but "it was instant communion. It was sharing a meal."
The pickles, Leopold says, served to open doors, which is what Southside Abbey wants to do. Instead of meeting in a traditional church building, the fellowship meets around a communal table for food and discussion at the Hart Gallery on East Main Street on Friday nights.
"It was just an effort to start a conversation, start a relationship," he says of the Epiphany pickles. "And people love to share their story."