It was like a collection basket in reverse.
Instead of collecting money to help the church’s outreach programs, Pastor Anne Benefield of Geneva Presbyterian Church in Potomac put money and a challenge in the hands of her parishioners.
At the end of her Sept. 8 sermon, each adult parishioner was handed $50 in honor of the church’s 50th anniversary. Each child received $5. In all she gave out $6,600.
The money came with a charge: use it within 90 days to help the community and report back.
“I want you to use this money to the glory of God. I want you to make our next 50 years about mission. And I want you to use this money in a way that you have a personal attachment,” Benefield said in her sermon.
Time’s up, and parishioners recently reported their deeds, fulfilling the quest both locally and internationally.
Church members have given money to county neighbors and humanitarian organizations and sent donations around the world, truly becoming “the answer to someone’s prayers,” as Benefield charged them in her sermon.
Close by, some of the churchgoers donated cash to panhandlers and newspaper peddlers, Manna Food Center, Gaithersburg Help and The Lord’s Table at St. Martin’s Catholic Church in Gaithersburg.
“Our 2nd $50 went to ten $5 gift cards from Safeway,” Jane Campbell, who with her husband, got two $50 bills, wrote in an email to Benefield. We give these out to panhandlers, since we can be fairly sure it will go to food. Feeling less helpless in the face of panhandlers is an answered prayer.”
Sheri Sankey, a math teacher at Watkins Mill High school in Montgomery Village, gave her $50 away more than once and still has it, she said.
“I took $20 of it and added $20 of my own and gave it to the Fashion Club at school for their coat drive,” she said. “Then I took $15 and added $15 and bought $30 of canned food for the Key Club canned food drive.”
The last $15, she said, she uses for students who need snacks or bus fare.
“We have a lot of kids on FARMS [Free and Reduced Meals] and a fair amount of homeless kids,” she said.
Being a math teacher, that should have used up all of Sankey’s money plus, so how does she still have it?
“I taped the $50 bill on my refrigerator and it is still there,” she said. “It’s to remind me of my blessings and to pay it forward.”
Robin Kough and two others pooled their money, planning to donate it to one cause, and hoping the $150 would have a bigger impact than $50. It took a while for them to decide what to do, Kough wrote in her email to Benefield, but they finally decided to donate to St. Paul’s by The Sea Episcopal Church in Ocean City.
The church was the site of a tragedy Nov. 28 when a homeless man, John Raymond Sterner, lit himself on fire, went into the church and caught the structure on fire, she wrote. The pastor of the church, Rev. David Dingwall, and Sterner both died as a result of the blaze and a volunteer opening the church’s food pantry was badly burned. The food pantry, which fed close to 50 people three days each week, was destroyed.
“I sent them a $150 donation from the three of us ... along with our prayers. ... I have hope and faith that the support of the community will pull them through this tragic event,” Kough wrote.
The money also helped some church members see others differently.
One woman said she spoke with a man selling papers at a Metro station, wondering about his situation. She decided to give him her $50. Now, she said they say hello each morning as she begins her commute to work.
Stephanie Balian, mother of triplet boys in first grade, said the money started a wonderful dialogue about people in need.
“It’s really been a good conversation for our family,” Balian said. “The boys go back and forth about what to do.”
Sankey’s daughter Sara, like her mother, got a double whammy from her donation. She gave it to Community Ministries of Rockville, an interfaith community services organization, for that group’s Christmas party for children, and she went to the party to help with the festivities.
Benefield said she was able to surprise her members with the charity challenge using money that was donated for her to use at her discretion.
She gave the money to everyone who was at the service that morning, even visitors, and also to regular members who were not there. In all she said, she gave out 130 $50 bills and 20 $5 bills.
“The purpose was to get everyone directly motivated in mission,” she said. “It isn’t just the person receiving the gift that benefits, it’s the one giving it too.”