MALBIS, Ala. — On a recent Sunday, members of Bay Community Church each were given envelopes stuffed with cash. Inside was $20, $40 or $100, depending on luck of the draw.
No ordinary handout, the $50,000 gesture was billed as a "faith stimulus." Church members were told to spend it helping others, a novel approach to religious outreach during tough economic times.
Amid the worst recession in generations, religious organizations are taking a variety of approaches to help struggling families and laid-off workers: Food is being grown on church plots, job and home foreclosure counseling are on the rise, and free haircuts and oil changes are offered.
But at Bay Community, a nondenominational church off a busy Interstate 10 exit in southern Alabama, leaders hoped to impress on members some creative one-on-one giving.
While similar cash giveaways have been done before at churches, the congregation seized on attention paid to government-funded stimulus efforts to encourage faith-based philanthropy when needs are especially high.
"We have to get creative to do our part," said Trey Taylor, associate pastor of 2,000-member church.
Taylor said Bay Community members were not expected to give the stimulus money to the "first person you can find," but to take some time to consider how to help.
On its Web site, church leaders wrote, "This is about creating a mindset: We don't ‘go’ to church, we `are’ the church. What can we do to bless our community?"
Can't spend on self, family
The rules for spending the money are: You can't spend it on yourself or your family. You can't give it back to the church. Be creative and make the money go as far as possible.
The approach makes helping "personal, face to face," said Bishop William Willimon of the North Alabama Conference of the United Methodist Church.
"Being generous to people in need can be a real challenge," he said, adding that organizations with track records for helping the needy know that they often need more than just groceries.
That's certainly true in Detroit, where the ranks of the needy have grown during the auto industry meltdown, highlighted by this week's General Motors Corp. bankruptcy.
The Rev. David Eberhard, pastor of the 1,500-member Historic Trinity Lutheran Church in inner-city Detroit, said the project at the south Alabama church is "great if they've got the money."
But he said "handing money out to people you don't know — and you don't know if they have a need — may not be the answer. As soon as word gets out there's money free, everybody lines up. Churches tend to become gullible because they want to do good. They do good, but they don't know what they've done."
'Shoring up what we have'
He said his church has paired employed members of the congregation with the unemployed, encouraging them to take a part-time job if possible, or seek retraining. He said some of the lawyers and bankers in the congregation have assisted those who have lost homes to foreclosure.
"All we're doing is shoring up what we have," he said.
While the Alabama church's "faith stimulus" project is uncommon, it's not unprecedented. In suburban Detroit, Gross Pointe Woods Presbyterian distributed $3,000 to its 300-member congregation — $10 each, to help others — on Easter Sunday. Associate pastor Liz Arakelian said the church's business manager got the cash-sharing idea from another church that had used it.
Other help campaigns under way
Many other recession-help campaigns are under way.
Amy Hoffman Haimann, chief development officer at Jewish Family Service in West Bloomfield, Mich., said her organization has set up a network of 600 physicians who have volunteered their services to uninsured people, ages 19-64, in the Jewish community.
"We are at the center of the storm in Detroit," she said.
In Bartlett, Tenn., Faith Baptist Church offered a free medical clinic, free haircuts and free oil changes for its members. The Rev. Todd Pendergrass, executive pastor at the 3,600-member church, said the church also produced a directory of businesses willing to discount services for its members, held recession workshops and cultivated a community garden on church property with 62 plots to produce food to share.
Paul G. Schervish, professor and director of the Center on Wealth and Philanthropy at Boston College, said the south Alabama church's faith stimulus idea is an exercise in "quiet care."
"Care means meeting true needs," he said. "What the church is doing is providing some money for that, teaching people that realm of philanthropy."
Surprised by the envelope of cash during a Memorial Day service at Bay Community, 18-year-old Trey Wimberley said he was praying about what to do with it. But he was impressed by the unusual approach.
"So many people expect the community to bless the church, but here the church blessed the community," said Wimberley, of Bay Minette.
Jade Smith, 15, of Daphne, said she may spend her $20 in stimulus money to treat a friend, who is home-schooled and one of eight children, to a movie and ice cream.
"They don't have a lot of money," she said.
Mission to Honduras
In a church parking lot, Wimberley and Smith talked while taking part in more traditional church outreach — helping package clothing, toys, shoes, medical supplies and other items for a nine-day mission trip to Honduras.
Other Bay Community members posted their faith stimulus experiences on the church's Web site.
Darwin Myers wrote that he offered the $40 he received from the church to help a friend buy a clothes dryer, only to find that she had just found one for only $15.
"At first I was a bit disappointed but after I thought about it I was amazed. Because of my obedience, God provided a dryer to the family and now I can use the $40 to help someone else," Myers wrote.
Kevin Lammons of Murfreesboro, Tenn., wrote that he was visiting Bay Community, his former church, when the unexpected stimulus money was handed to him. Since he was a visitor, he wanted to give it back, but Taylor told him to help someone in Tennessee.
Lammons said he intends to help a co-worker who lost everything in the deadly Murfreesboro tornado on April 10.
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