August 28, 2009

Garden for the poor at St. Matthew Parish provides harvest of food, love and friendship

Tim Jerger, left, and John Naddy lead a parish garden at St. Matthew the Apostle Parish in Indianapolis, which supplies food for the poor and the hungry. (Photo by John Shaughnessy)

Tim Jerger, left, and John Naddy lead a parish garden at St. Matthew the Apostle Parish in Indianapolis, which supplies food for the poor and the hungry. (Photo by John Shaughnessy)

(Editor’s note: “Spreading Hope In Neighborhoods Everywhere” (SHINE) is a social ministry renewal that will be launched on Oct. 1, 2009, by the Archdiocese of Indianapolis. The following is part of a series that highlights how the ministry of charity is taking place in parishes, schools, agencies and other institutions throughout the archdiocese. Catholic Charities is leading the planning. To learn more about SHINE and how you and your parish can become involved, log on to

By John Shaughnessy

The stories that Tim Jerger and John Naddy can tell are like ripe red tomatoes waiting to be picked from the vine in late summer.

Their stories provide one more bountiful harvest from a parish garden that supplies food for the poor and the hungry—a harvest that overflows with lessons in love, friendship, humility, concern, and God’s grace and guidance.

For a delicious start, reach into the overflowing basket of stories and choose the one recalling how Jerger first became involved with the “Harvest for the Hungry Garden” at St. Matthew the Apostle Parish in Indianapolis—a garden that produced more than 230 bushels of fruits and vegetables in 2008 for people in need throughout Indianapolis.

That story of spiritual inspiration begins in 1994, three years after the parish garden for the poor was started by parishioner Tony Happell and others.

Having grown up on a 400-acre farm in southwestern Indiana, Jerger was a country boy at heart who moved to Indianapolis because his college sweetheart was a city girl at heart. He found a job as an engineer, and he and his wife, Stacy, found a spiritual home at St. Matthew Parish. The thought of becoming involved in the parish garden appealed to him, yet when he saw a parish bulletin note seeking help for Happell, his shyness kept him from responding to it.

“Then one Sunday morning, prior to the beginning of the Mass when we are asked to introduce ourselves to our neighbor, the man standing next to me said, ‘Hi, I’m Tony Happell, welcome,’ ” Jerger recalls. “It was like getting hit across the head with a 2-by-4 by the Holy Spirit, saying, ‘Get involved! What’s the matter with you?!’ ”

The seeds of a friendship

Now reach into the basket of stories again and pick the one where Jerger became friends with Naddy, a friendship that began a few years after Happell died in 1998. Their friendship has bloomed into a strong bond where they will do anything for each other, and where they keep searching for new ways to increase the bounty of fruits and vegetables for the poor and the hungry.

“We met during the first fish fry at St. Matthew’s,” Jerger recalls. “We started talking about gardening and it went from there. People call us two peas in a pod. We’re always bouncing ideas off of each other. It’s a great friendship, and we make the garden a little bit of a sport: How can we get more people involved, how can we get more yield, how can we make it better this year?”

The number of bushels from the half-acre garden on the parish grounds has increased each year since 2000 when they numbered 70. This year, the goal is to surpass last year’s yield of 230 bushels.

“We have an awful lot in common,” Naddy says. “We know what needs to be done and we do it. We also find it therapeutic to be out there. When you work in an office all day long, it’s pretty soothing when you get to work in the garden.”

Still, there are times when the garden has faced droughts and the spirits of its main caretakers have been parched.

“About three or fours years ago, I got burned out,” Jerger says. “I was busy at work and not spending much time in the garden. My wife was making a delivery to one of the places we help. She was delivering turnip greens and Swiss chard and tomatoes. She walked in and people were lined up waiting. This woman said, ‘Oh, my, those are beautiful turnips and Swiss chard! I haven’t had Swiss chard in ages! This is my lucky day!’

“When my wife told me that story, it really touched me. It dawned on me that we made her day. Right then, I said I need to spend more time at the garden. I try to do some deliveries myself, too—to see where it’s going and how people respond. The response has always been enthusiastic. It’s about helping people, making their day and making their life better.”

Turnips, onions and the Last Supper

Parish volunteers deliver tomatoes, beans, peppers, onions, cabbage, corn, cucumbers, zucchini, yellow squash and sugar snap peas to places that include Seeds of Hope, the St. Vincent de Paul Food Pantry, the St. Augustine Home for the Aged, and The Lord’s Pantry at Witherspoon Presbyterian Church, a site for food distribution to the poor that was started by Lucious Newsom, the late Baptist-minister-turned-Catholic-advocate-for-the-poor.

One of Jerger’s best stories involves a request from Newsom, who always wanted the food he distributed to be properly presented to the poor.

“When we first started delivering to Witherspoon, we would take turnips, onions and other root vegetables, and deliver them the way they were pulled out of the ground,” Jerger recalls. “They had dirt and the roots still on them. Being from the farm, of course, everyone knows you take off the roots, wash off the dirt and they’re great.”

The people from the city didn’t know that routine. Newsom even asked Jerger’s wife if they could wash off the dirt and take off the roots before bringing the vegetables.

“I grumbled about that,” Jerger says. “Then, on Monday nights, I got in the habit of washing off the dirt and pulling off the roots in my garage. I got my kids to help me. They asked, ‘Why are we doing this?’ I said, ‘Well, we’re washing feet.’ They said, ‘Huh?’ I said, ‘You know the foot-washing story of the Last Supper where Jesus washes everyone’s feet?’ They said, ‘Yeah.’ I said, ‘In this day and age, that’s not practical, but we’re doing something that’s hard and dirty that’s going to improve somebody’s day. So think of it as washing somebody’s feet.’

“We got even more positive feedback. So there was a lesson there in really putting your all into it. It really cheers people up.”

Strengthening the roots of the garden

That approach is why the parish garden has made a difference to so many people in so many different ways, says Patricia Witt, the pastoral associate at St. Matthew Parish.

“You can see the interaction among parishioners, parish organizations, and outside groups and organizations,” Witt says. “The parish community takes great pride in what the garden says about the people of the parish. It is definitely a group effort. The garden involves many, many folks, some with small roles, and others like Tim and John who keep us all on this journey of sharing.”

Witt’s words lead to one more point from Jerger.

“It’s one thing to have a successful gardening operation,” he says. “The other thing that’s made this important for me is to get people together at the parish—to socialize and work together.

“If I had 12 people come on a Saturday to weed, and if I gave them each an assignment in a different part of the garden to work, it would get done. However, if we all work together in the same area, and talk and socialize, the work gets done and it’s a more pleasant and meaningful experience.”

Jerger looks at the garden and its bounty.

“Here’s the root of all this: You have your God-given talents and you have to use them when you’re called,” he says. “It’s the whole Tony Happell story. You do what you can—and what you’re good at—to help others.” †

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