Wrapped in each was a crisp bill, ranging from $2 to $50, along with a reply card. In all, 1,100 bills were handed out over three services, totaling $10,000. And while the congregation - which no doubt included some newcomers - was asked to put the money to good use, there was nothing to stop someone from, say, pocketing the cash or buying a thick stack of Lotto tickets. "I was very nervous, to tell the truth," said Park Community Senior Pastor Ray Carter. "We're not a gimmicky kind of church and we're not trying to manipulate people. ... It's not about trying to raise offerings."
Rather, it was more about raising spirits, a timely exercise during this post-Sept. 11 holiday season. "We took that $10,000 and said, `Go into the city and do whatever you want to do with it,'" Carter said. "We wanted them to enrich the city, to see the incredible good a church can do--to demonstrate the outrageous generosity of God. But it's got to be more than throwing the money at some homeless person. At least sit, talk with them, have lunch."
The church's goal was to teach a lesson in financial stewardship that transcended the usual Sunday sermon. Or, as Carter put it, "We did a living experiment, a demonstration, and we expected people would be uncomfortable."
Indeed, it seems quite a few folks are still hedging over what to do with the dough. Since the Nov. 4 service, Park Community has received about 300 reply cards back indicating how the money was spent. No matter the final response, church staffers insist success in this case cannot be measured in numbers. One college student reported that she anonymously helped her roommate get a plane ticket home to Sweden for the holidays, following a family member's death. Another Park member used the $5 to send thank-you letters to positive role models. Many wrote that the exercise reminded them how blessed they were.
Consider 11-year-old Alex Burgeson, whose mother, Becky, is an administrative assistant at the church. Alex was one of the lucky few who plucked 50 bucks. "My first reaction was how many toys I could buy; I was so excited, I could get so much stuff for myself," he recalled. "Then my mom told me I still had to listen to the rest of Ray's message."
When Alex realized the object was to use the money for a greater good, he literally followed the nose of his beagle, Lucky. He walks Lucky in Lincoln Park, where fellow dog walkers always stop to say hi. "Sometimes they offer to buy me something," he said. "So I decided to buy them some coffee and pastries and repay them." That left Alex with $42, and a nagging sense that buying five more rounds of joe wouldn't do. Then one Sunday while helping with church setup, the outgoing boy chatted up another church member and learned that she helps care for two Mexican boys in a local orphanage. "I thought that was really nice and I decided to give the rest of my money to her to do something for them," Alex said. "My mom thought that was nice, too, and she pitched in her $10."
Sara Western, 36, multiplied her $10 like the proverbial loaves and fishes. "It's over $500 now," said Western, a marketing manager for a local law firm. "I was telling my sister about this project and I said, `I've got $10 and I think it would be great to buy gloves, hats and scarves for the Chicago homeless, but what can I buy with $10?' She said, `I'll match your $10.' Then I sent an e-mail out, and she forwarded the e-mail to everyone she knew, and it just took off from there."
On top of that, Western has hounded local suppliers to get the winter clothing at a discount. She has cut deals to buy about 170 hats or pairs of gloves, "so I'll be stretching my dollars by paying manufacturer's cost rather than cleaning out the local Walgreen's," she said. "Besides, I hate to shop, so this is one-stop shopping for me."Western hopes to hand out the clothing at Chicago locations such as Inspiration Cafe, Interfaith House and Breakthrough Urban Ministries. "I promised people the giving would be done locally," she said. "After the whole Sept. 11 thing, it's great to give to the needy far away. But there are a lot of people locally who aren't being given to, so this is one way to balance that out." She believes the experience has taught her plenty. "It's a way of God's surprising me in terms of seeing how willing people are to help," she said. "After I started getting a lot of responses in the first week, I thought, `Wouldn't it be cool to get to $500?' And that's exactly where I am. The people who donated the money are very excited too. They must trust me. But I've got to get this done soon, so I can give them the good news."
Park Community, a non-denominational evangelical church with an annual budget of around $1.5 million, started mulling the giveaway several months ago. Park found itself in solid fiscal shape, with no building campaigns or major fundraisers on the horizon; "I thought we were at a healthy place as a church," Carter said.