In Recession, Church Multiplies Money For Needy Fair Haven Ministries, a church in a suburb of Grand Rapids, Mich., is taking lessons from a parable — to give away money in hopes that it will multiply and come back. One congregant used $100 to raise money to pay the hospital bills of a child with brain cancer.

In Recession, Church Multiplies Money For Needy

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Today, a bittersweet story about a church in recession-battered Michigan. It's struggling to balance a drop in weekly offerings with a sharp rise in need around the community. So it created its own stimulus package, drawing inspiration from a New Testament parable.

NPR's Barbara Bradley Hagerty reports.

(Soundbite of crowd)

BARBARA BRADLEY HAGERTY: It's a robust crowd streaming out of the sanctuary of Fair Haven Ministries, a 2,000 strong church in a suburb of Grand Rapids. But as Pastor Tom DeVries leads me around the back offices of the church, it's clear all is not well.

Reverend TOM DEVRIES (Pastor, Fair Haven Ministries): So, yeah, this is our Pastor of Celebration Arts office and it's now empty.

HAGERTY: That minister was laid off along with three other church staff members. And DeVries says that's nothing compared to what his congregants are facing.

Rev. DEVRIES: This is about as bad as I've seen.

HAGERTY: Michigan's unemployment rate tops 11 percent, a casualty of the auto industry crisis and one closer to home. Furniture makers Steelcase and Herman Miller, which are the major employers in Grand Rapids, aren't selling much furniture.

Rev. DEVRIES: We're seeing people losing their jobs. We're seeing people get upside down in their homes where they end up owing more than it's worth. And so, it does impact their life and it impacts their giving.

HAGERTY: Which is why Fair Haven has cut $400,000 out of its $2.7 million budget. They've slashed ministries by 15 percent, they've switched to a healthcare plan with higher deductibles, and the staff will take a week of unpaid leave in June.

Fair Haven is hardly alone, says Phil Martin at the National Association of Church Business Administrators. But Martin says churches feel the pinch of recession later than other nonprofits.

Mr. PHIL MARTIN (Administrator, National Association of Church Business Administrators): I think the church tends to be the last place that people who are committed to their faith, that's the last place that they will stop giving charitably.

HAGERTY: Still, nearly 60 percent of his group's members say they are seeing fewer dollars in their collection plates. And so, with more demands and less money, churches are learning to be creative.

On January 25th, worshippers at Fair Haven were greeted with a little surprise. Pastor DeVries preached about Jesus' parable of the talents, where the faithful servants took money given by their master, invested it and brought back more. At the end of the sermon, DeVries stood in front of the pulpit and pulled a wad of $100 bills out of his pocket worth $5,000.

Rev. DEVRIES: I want at least 25 volunteers to make their way on down, okay? We're going to see what God has in store through us and with us.

HAGERTY: The pastor asked his congregants to take the money and multiply it. The money would be used for ministries serving the poor in Grand Rapids.

Rev. DEVRIES: I think at first they were stunned. Then they were fearful because they had to come up front to get it. But as they began to think about it, they came up with all kinds of crazy ideas.

Unidentified Woman #1: We're doing a chili cook-off and a music extravaganza.

Unidentified Man: People can bring their dogs in. We'll wash them, dry them, and then they pick them up later in the day.

Ms. KELLY BOSCH: These are all custom hand stamps on metal, and you pick your favorite Bible verse, so that they're custom-made just for you.

HAGERTY: Kelly Bosch(ph) is making silver necklaces for a $15 donation. She was one of two dozen people displaying their projects at a fair held between church services on a recent Sunday.

Ms. JULIE BORDEWYK: Can you hear me now?

HAGERTY: On the night before, Julie Bordewyk(ph) stood on the spongy floor of Gymnastiks Unlimited. She was trying to get the attention of the 250 kids and parents at the game night that she had put together. But they were too busy jumping on the trampoline, getting their faces painted, or writing down bids for the silent auction.

Bordewyk and her friends spent their $100 on admission tickets. Everything else — food, auction items, the gym itself — was donated.

Ms. BORDEWYK: People want to give. You know, it's such a hard world, and seeing so much sadness, it's nice to be able to do something for God. To have some hope in the world, you know?

HAGERTY: The money raised this weekend will go to Ryan Ter Haar, a 6-year-old recently diagnosed with brain cancer. Bordewyk selected him because she knows the bills will be crippling for his family.

Ms. BORDEWYK: My husband was in the hospital for four days, and we still are paying bills. And, so I can't even imagine what the costs are with a child in the hospital for as long as he has. And I will do anything in my power to help this family for the rest of my life.

Unidentified Woman #2: I'm made at her for making me cry.

HAGERTY: Ryan's parents, Mindy and Todd, tried to hold back tears as the gym filled with more and more people. The gym's owner, Rhonda Wynsma(ph), says she has no idea how much money they'll raise.

Ms. RHONDA WYNSMA (Owner, Gymnastiks Unlimited): We just know that God's bigger than us. He's just, He's such a big God, and I think he wanted to show off this weekend.

HAGERTY: In fact, the $100 investment raised more than $12,000, and that's just for one event. Fair Haven expects to give away more money to the poor during this recession than it's ever given before.

Barbara Bradley Hagerty, NPR News.

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