A passion for olive oil. A career in food retail and consulting.
Perhaps an unlikely blend of ingredients for ministry. But for Nazarene Theological Seminary alumna Emily Lycopolus, this recipe yields opportunities to share faith with customers and business contacts.
As a ministerial entrepreneur since 2012, Lycopolus draws daily on her NTS degree, which informs her work as a calling and a platform from which to reach people with God’s love.
How it ‘olive’ began
Hailing from Canada, in 2007 Lycopolus enrolled as an international student NTS. She brought with her a bachelor’s degree in science, and a plan to become a medical missionary. Following her graduation in 2009, Lycopolus and her fiancée, Stephen, married and accepted an assignment to help open and manage a coffee shop in Frankfurt with Kirche in Aktion (KiA), a Nazarene-led urban outreach in Germany.
While in Europe, they visited Stephen’s family’s olive grove in central Italy. During harvest time, Lycopolus witnessed how the olives were picked, how the oil was extracted in the mill, and much more.
After several years of ministry with KiA, she and Stephen returned to Victoria, British Columbia, to work and settle down. But Lycopolus was baffled that the olive oil on sale in her local grocery store tasted nothing like what she had enjoyed in Italy.
Propelled by a growing fascination, and perhaps tantalized by a frustrating lack of literature and resources, Lycopolus set out to learn all she could about olives and olive oil.
The couple dreamed of opening a retail shop to import olive oil and other locally hard-to-find European ingredients. With Awake, KiA’s coffee shop ministry, as their model, they imagined a space where they would connect with people around food and cooking, build relationships, and walk the faith journey with those who expressed interest.
In 2012, they were both suddenly laid off from their jobs in the same week.
“That’s when we decided to dive in and start our own business,” she said.
They went bank to bank with their business plan, but every door shut. Then, a loan officer from Turkey took on their vision. She helped them get loans and government grants and connected them with investors. When they identified the perfect space to open their shop, the landlord wrote all the renovations they requested into the lease agreement.
“God, you’re obviously doing this because there’s no way we could have done this out of our own accord,” she recalls praying.
For the next eight years, the couple intentionally shaped Olive the Senses Gourmet Foods Ltd. as a space where they could build trusting relationships with people they met through their work. They hired Christians who would advance the faith-based ethos of the store, which was “people first.”
“We could care less if they bought something. It wasn’t supposed to be about us, but about creating and fostering community,” she said. “We wanted to create a safe space for people, even connecting with producers and people we were purchasing from … as well as our customer-based relationships. The food was a vehicle for those connections.”
Lycopolus recalls one customer whose grandmother was a woman of deep faith, but the customer herself had turned away from that heritage. As the staff befriended her, she began asking questions about God and scripture. They journeyed with her until she was ready to try attending church, and introduced her to a congregation that could participate in what God was doing in the woman’s life. Eventually, she joined the staff at the store.
Another time, the team was working late after closing to get the store ready for the Christmas season. On a whim, they posted on social media that customers were welcome to stop by and hang out with them. Four people showed up. They ordered in pizza to share and helped them finish their Christmas shopping late into the night.
“We got to know each other and those are still people we connect with and are friends with today,” Lycopolus said.
Her degree in Intercultural Studies from NTS and the classes she took have shaped her ministry over the years.
“I draw on my NTS experience daily, honestly,” she said. “All of the things I learned from Dr. Selvidge and Dr. Wesley, and a lot of the intercultural studies classes, especially being in Canada right now, we have such a huge diversity of cultures and people. All of the knowledge that I learned at NTS created a really solid foundation that I can use in my daily life.”
In 2018, the couple sensed God leading them to close their store.
“While we were developing and fostering all of these amazing relationships, we weren’t able to grow beyond that established base that we created. We decided to close the doors and change our mission to being more outward focused. I was really shocked at the support we received. Staff and customers understood why we were making the shift, as well. I’ve never felt more supported, and a lot of them have become friends or started coming to our church.”
Lycopolus has pivoted to serving as a consultant for retailers around the world, writing full-time, including publishing cookbooks and taking people on culinary tours to Europe.
Branded as the Olive Oil Critic, she has written and published six cookbooks with more in the works. Four are each focused on an olive-producing country and its distinct cultural cuisine, such as Syria and Greece. In researching the cookbook on Syria, Lycopolus became acquainted with the large community of Syrian refugees in British Columbia. She also spent four months traveling the Atlantic provinces of Canada to collect stories from regional farmers, artists, and other producers, discovering developments around the regional cuisine. The stories and findings will become her eighth book.
The culinary trips to Europe are on hold due to the coronavirus pandemic, which is allowing the couple some breathing space with their baby, Myra, who was born in December 2019.
Lycopolus thinks back with amusement at her teenage years when she planned on being a medical missionary, and how differently her life and ministry has turned out.
“God has the plan and we just have to be open to it and say yes, and He’ll guide us,” she said. “It’s not about figuring it out and stressing about what the plan is. It’s about being open and saying yes.”
Learn more about studying at NTS at www.nts.edu/info.