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?”
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.”
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.
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.