What would you do with $50 to invest?
Across Pacific Magazine

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Sunday, December 23, 2007

Pastor's Challenge Surprises Congregation

By Jeremy Reynalds

CHAGRIN FALLS, OHIO (ANS) -- On what would turn out to be one far from ordinary Sunday, the Rev. Hamilton Coe Throckmorton surprised his flock in Chagrin Falls, Ohio, when he followed up a sermon by handing out $40,000 in cash.

The Associated Press (AP) reported that just prior to that, the 52-year-old minister had delivered one of the most extraordinary sermons of his life (www.fedchurch.org/talent). 

First he read from the Gospel of Matthew. "And unto one he gave five talents, to another two, and to another one; to every man according to his ability."

Then he explained the parable of the talents, which tells about the rich master who entrusts three servants with a sum of money, "talents," and instructs them to go and do good. The master praised the two servants who doubled their money. But he cast into the wilderness the one so afraid to take a risk that he buried his share.

Gazing down from the pulpit that Sunday, the AP said that Throckmorton dropped his bombshell.

Like the master, he would entrust each adult with a sum of money - in this case, $50. Church members had seven weeks to find ways to double their money, with the proceeds going toward church missions.

"Live the parable of the talents!" the AP said Throckmorton exhorted, as assistants handed out hundreds of red envelopes stuffed with crisp $50 bills and stunned church members did quick mental calculations, wondering where all the money had come from. There are about 1,700 in the congregation, though not everyone attends each week.

The cash, the AP said Throckmorton explained, was loaned by several anonymous donors.

In her regular pew at the back of the church, where the AP said she has listened to sermons for 40 years, 73-year-old Barbara Gates gasped. What kind of silliness is this, she thought.

"Sheer madness," the AP said retired accountant Wayne Albers, 85, said to his wife, Marnie, who hushed him as he whispered loudly. "Why can't the church just collect money the old-fashioned way?"

In a center pew, Ann Nagy's eyes moistened as she thought about her ailing, much loved father, his suffering, and the song she had written to comfort him near death. She nudged her husband Scott. "Give me your $50," the AP said she whispered. Nagy knew exactly what she would do.

The AP said Throckmorton wrapped up his two morning services by saying that children would get $10. And he assured the congregation that anyone who didn't feel comfortable could simply return the money.
Throckmorton is warm and approachable, the AP said, as comfortable talking about the Cleveland Indians baseball team as he is discussing scripture. At the Federated Church, he is known simply as Hamilton.

But as church members spilled into the late summer sunshine that morning, the AP reported there were many who thought that their pastor was really pushing them this time.

"There was definitely this tension, this pressure to live up to something," said Hal Maskiell, a 62-year-old retired Navy pilot who spent days trying to figure out how to meet the challenge.

Maskiell's passion is flying a four-seater Cessna 172 Skyhawk.. He decided to use his $50 to rent air time from Portage County airport, and charge $30 for half-hour rides. Church members eagerly signed up. Maskiell told the AP he was thrilled to get hours of flying time, and he raised $700.

The AP said that his girlfriend, Kathy Marous, 55, was far less confident about her talents and tempted to return the money back.

And then Marous found an old family recipe for tomato soup, one she hadn't made in 19 years. She told the AP how much she had enjoyed the chopping, cooking, the canning and the smells. With Maskiell's encouragement, Marous dug out her pots and bought lots of tomatoes. Suddenly she was chopping, cooking and canning again. At $5 a jar, she made $180.

"I just never imagined people would pay money for the things I made," Marous told the AP.

Others felt the same way, the AP said. Barbara Gates raised $450 crafting pendants from beads and sea glass - pieces she had made for her grandchildren over the years. Kathie Biggin created little red-nosed Rudolph pins, and sold them for $2.50. Twelve-year-old Amanda Horner pooled her money with friends, stocked up at a fabric store, and made dozens of colorful fleece baby blankets, which were purchased by church members and then donated to a local hospital.

And 87-year-old Bob Burrows rediscovered old carpentry skills, and began selling wooden bird-feeders.

But everyone said it wasn't the money. Members told the AP it was something far less tangible, but still very real. For seven weeks, an almost magical sense of excitement and camaraderie infused the red-brick church on Bell Street, spilling over into homes and hearts as the parable of the talents came alive for them.

In her studio on Strawberry Lane, the AP said Shirley Culbertson felt it - a joyful sense of purpose that she had rarely experienced since her husband passed away two years ago. Culbertson, 81, is a gifted painter and watercolors fill her house. But she discovered another talent during this time - knitting eight-inch stuffed dolls with button noses and floppy hats. She raised $90.

Zooming down country roads clinging to the back of a leather-clad biker, Florence Cross told the AP she felt it too. For the challenge, Barry Biggin had parked his 2006 Harley Davidson Road King outside the church, offering 12-mile rides for $30. Cross was the first to sign up. Never mind that she is in her mid-80's, had never been on a bike, or that her husband of 60 years had to hoist her up.

"Oh, it was such a thrill!" Cross told the AP, her face glowing at the memory. Her friends now call her "Harley Girl."

Martine Scheuermann lived the parable in her Elm Street kitchen, transforming it into an "applesauce factory" for several weeks. The AP said the 49-year-old human resources director would get up at 6 a.m. on Sundays, in order to have warm batches ready for sampling at church services.

In his origami-filled bedroom on Bradley Street, Paul Cantlay also lived out the parable. Surrounded by sheets of colored construction paper, the AP reported the 9-year-old crafted paper dragons and stars and sailboats. He set up an origami stand at the end of his street, charged 50 cents to $5 depending on the piece, and raised $68.

Talents began multiplying at such a rate that the church held a bazaar after services on two consecutive Sundays for people to display - and sell - their wares.

The pretty little village on the Chagrin River falls had never seen anything quite like it. The AP said that everyone seemed to be talking about the talent challenge: over coffee, at the local bookshop on the green, and while sipping drinks at the local tavern. Even members of other churches wanted to talk about what was going on at Federated Church.

"Anyone can open their wallet and give cash," Kris Tesar told the AP. "This was just an extraordinary process of exploration and discovery, and of challenging ourselves. It became bigger than any one of us, or than any individual talent."

Tesar, a 58-year-old retired nurse, discovered her talent in buckets of flip-flops for sale at Old Navy. She stocked up on yarn and beads, and made dozens of decorative footwear that were a huge hit with teens. Tesar raised $550 for the church, is still taking orders and is thinking of starting a business. The AP said now even her children call her the "flip-flop lady."

The AP said that people also got to know the "hen lady" - Gabrielle Quintin, who had bought chickens on a whim 23 years ago when she moved into a 180-year-old house with a barn. Her "ladies," as Quintin calls her backyard flock, provide a welcome distraction from her nursing job in a cancer center.

Quintin decided to put her brood to work for the church. The AP said that for $10, church members could "hire-a-hen," and get three dozen fresh eggs complete with a photograph of the "lady" who laid them.

"It wasn't exactly spiritual, but I had a lot of fun," Quintin, whose husband, Mike, made glass bird feeders, told the AP. "And it was just this great way of bringing everyone together and connecting with the church.""

The AP said that Kathy Wellman quilted. Mary Hobbs knit shawls and penciled portraits. Cathy Hatfield auctioned a ride in her hot-air balloon. Norma and Trent Bobbitt pooled their money with another church member to hire a harpist from the Cleveland orchestra, and host an elegant evening dinner party. People paid $50 each to attend, and the Bobbitts made over $1,200.

And physician Peter Yang took over shifts from other doctors in his partnership (he used his $50 for gas to get to the hospital), and raised $3,000.

The deadline to return the money was Sunday, Oct. 28. The AP reported that some nervous church council members suggested posting plain clothes security guards at services that day. But Throckmorton disagreed.. He insisted that the spirit of the challenge, which had already inspired so much goodwill, would carry them safely through. And it did.

The AP said that organ music filled the church as people silently filed down the aisle, dropped their proceeds into baskets, and gave testimonials about what living the parable had meant to them. Throckmorton thanked everyone for their generosity. Then he started counting.

A week later, he delivered the good news to members. They had more than doubled the amount distributed.

The initial take was $38,195 over the loan, but the amount is still growing. Some people didn't make the deadline, or extended it in order to finish their projects.

The final sum will be divided equally between three charities, the AP reported. One-third will go to a school library in South Africa where the church is involved in an AIDS mission; one-third will go to micro-loan organizations that provide seed money for small businesses in developing countries; one-third will help the Interfaith Hospitality Network in Cleveland, specifically programs for homeless women.

Throckmorton is asked all the time if the talent challenge will become an annual event, but he is doubtful. It was a special time and a special idea, he said, and he is not sure it could be re-created or relived.

Yet in a very real sense, it lives on, the AP said. Church members who never knew each other have become friends. And orders for applesauce, flip-flops and Rudolph pins are still rolling in for Christmas.

There are other, more poignant reminders, the AP said. Like Ann Nagy's haunting tribute to her father, who died of brain cancer on Oct. 11.

Nagy, 44, has always been a singer with a beautiful voice. It wasn't until her father grew ill and moved into a hospice that she started writing songs. She found comfort in the music, and a way of communicating that was sometimes easier than spoken words.

At hospice, patients are taught five simple truths to tell their loved ones before they die: I'll miss you. I love you. I forgive you. I'm sorry. Goodbye.

Borrowing from that theme, the AP reported Nagy wrote a farewell song for her Dad. She pooled her $50 talent money with her husband's share, and cut a CD to sell to church members. Ironically it was finished just an hour before her father passed, on Oct. 11. Nagy stood by his bed and sang it for him anyway.

On Nov. 11 - her father's 72nd birthday - Throckmorton preached a sermon about dying. He invited Nagy to the altar. There, accompanied by a cellist and a pianist she sang "Before You Go."

The AP said that as her voice soared and the congregation wept, the parable of the talents had never seemed so alive.

The web site Get Religion.org praised the AP report as a "fairly solid story of religious and social significance..." However, Get Religion continued, "the only thing missing from this story is an example of someone who failed to make a return on the $50."

Get Religion continued, "I think including an example of a 'failing church member,' while surely difficult to find, would have expanded the story's perspective. (Did) everything in this $50 challenge really end up as rosy as the story tells us?

For more of Get Religion's analysis, go to www.getreligion.org/?p=2987 

For information about the Federated Church go to www.fedchurch.org 

Jeremy Reynalds is a freelance writer and the founder and director of Joy Junction, New Mexico's largest emergency homeless shelter, http://www.joyjunction.org or http://www.christianity.com/joyjunction. He has a master's degree in communication from the University of New Mexico, and a Ph.D. in intercultural education from Biola University in Los Angeles. His newest book is "Homeless in the City: A Call to Service." Additional details about "Homeless" are available at http://www.HomelessBook.com

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