After receiving an unexpected windfall of $1.6 million, a small Chicago church took a giant leap of faith earlier this month: it choose to give a chunk of the money away to congregants, with little more than a modest request for how it was to be spent.
Members of the the LaSalle Street Church in Chicago's Near North Side were shocked when Pastor Laura Truax told them during services September 7 that each "actively engaged" member of the church would receive a check for $500. The money came with no conditions, but recipients were encouraged to use it for good works.
"It feels like a faith experiment more than a social experiment," Truax told The Huffington Post. "We say we trust the Gospel, we say we trust each other. But I was wondering, 'Is this going to be a waste of money?'"
Church elders deliberated for months over how to spend the money -- an unexpected windfall from a real estate investment made in the 1970s -- mulling options that included a housing investment and an Ebola clinic in Africa. They agreed that while they'd eventually determine how to give all the money away, 10 percent would go to the congregation up front. In all, the church wrote 320 $500 checks to members deemed "actively engaged" with their "time, talents or treasures."
Invoking the Biblical parable of Jesus feeding multitudes with nothing but a small amount of food, the money quickly became known to the social justice-minded congregation as the "Loaves and Fishes" checks. And church members immediately started thinking of ways the money could make a bigger impact in the world.
One church member, John Bakker, wants to use his $500 to help the non-profit World Vision create an Ebola education campaign in West Africa by leveraging social media the way the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge did so successfully.
"We need to act fast," said Bakker, whose family has a 64-year-history of missions work in Nigeria. "Every 15 days, the number of people living with the virus doubles.”
Though Truax was anxious, admitting that "our little church has a budget hole of its own," she'd put her faith in the congregation before: two years earlier, using $1,000 of her own money, Truax taped $100 bills under some of the pews to illustrate a parable about undeserved grace.
She later learned most of the 10 recipients used the cash to help someone else.
"Jesus is an unconventional guy. And he’s risky. And he’s bold," Truax said. "It struck me in all this that he never bothers to write down his own story: He gives his followers incredible freedom to write down what he says. Jesus could trust it all. He trusted people would listen as they were going to listen and follow as they were going to follow."
Only 13 members of LaSalle's congregation were around when the church first bought into a residential complex in the neighborhood back in 1978. Worried poorer residents were being priced out, LaSalle and several other area churches bought stakes in the property to set aside affordable housing units. But when the covenants expired and the new primary developer wanted to sell, the churches negotiated for more affordable units in the new development. In exchange, they had to relinquish their shares in the property; each church walked away with $1.6 million.
“Pretty good for a deal you did back in 1978, huh?” Truax said.
Immediately after checks were issued, Truax said half of the congregation signed up to pool their money for high-impact projects, plotting ideas on whiteboards in the church's basement.
"A few guys want to start a credit union after seeing the poor get hurt by predatory lending; another group is looking at a program for LGBT youth," Truax said. "If you can dream it up, it’s down there on that board."
Former LaSalle elder Paul Hettinga said he plans to pool his $500 with checks from a group of other members, to create a "dream fund" that can help struggling entrepreneurs get small business loans at low or no interest. They plan to couple the fund with job training to help members of the community be more successful in getting a job or running a business.
“One of the things I’ve noticed over the years, especially at LaSalle: Once you start living creatively and generously, it’s contagious," Hettinga said. "Once you do a little of it, you’ll be looking to do more of it."
Member Rob Austin-Williams and his husband both received checks. Along with donating to local efforts like the anti-violence group CeaseFire, Austin is considering how their money can best support at-risk or homeless LGBT teens in Chicago: "My husband and I have both been blessed with families that have been nothing but supportive, but not everyone has that."
Nestled in Chicago's tony Gold Coast neighborhood, just blocks from where the infamous Cabrini-Green housing projects once stood, the LaSalle congregation is a diverse mix of members who range from the homeless to the well-heeled, according to Truax. Needier members who chose to use the money on themselves were not violating the spirit of the experiment, she said.
"I know one woman for sure who needed it to pay rent. She felt sheepish about it, but I assured her that sometimes these are the blessings we’re seeking," Truax said. "We’re praying ‘How am I going to make rent this month?' and this [gift] is what we’re seeking."
When a homeless congregant was taken in by a scam and lost $100, Truax was matter-of-fact.
"We talked about it. He feels embarrassed, but this is part the story," she said. "Sometimes we get hoodwinked. Sometimes we gather with others. Sometimes we go it alone. We have an entire array of the human experience here."
"Our fundamental belief is that everyone in the neighborhood matters and that our diversity in the neighborhood is an asset -- and that asset can be enhanced if we interact with each other,” said member Charlie Branda, who used her $500 as seed money for a fund-matching campaign benefitting Art on Sedgwick. The young arts organization is geared toward uniting the neighborhoods economically and racially diverse residents.
The $500 sums make the congregations' good deeds quantifiable, but Truax said she hopes the "Loaves and Fishes" checks show congregants to power of giving not merely money, but self.
"We've been granted so much power to bring forth light -- to love and to give," Truax said, stressing the importance of human kindness compared to cold hard cash. "How much more good could we effect if we used our lives? [This experiment] might help people see, 'Man, I have such great capacity. I have such great power in my life. I'd like to use it for good.'"