By GRETCHEN KEISER, Staff Writer | Published May 24, 2007
On a typical Sunday in a typical parish, the envelopes filled with money go into the collection basket.
At St. Matthew Church last October, anyone who wanted one received an envelope filled with money and then was sent out to do good with it, no questions asked.
The pastor and the whole parish are now in the process of waiting to discover what happens when over 400 families take $30, $40, $50 or $60 and spend a year putting the funds, and their God-given talents, to work to make it fruitful.
In April, halfway through the 12-month “Adventures in Stewardship,” the process seems worth its weight in spiritual gold to the pastor, Father Victor Galier, and Deacon Bill Hampton, who initiated it with the support of St. Matthew’s stewardship committee.
“It just warms my heart to hear what people have done with their gift,” Father Galier said. “You couldn’t buy a program that would teach people this much.”
Seed money came from an anonymous family who gave about $16,000 to launch the program without depleting parish funds. Father Galier and Deacon Hampton learned of the approach at a national stewardship conference in 2005 where some Catholic churches described what their parishes gained from it.
After members of St. Matthew’s stewardship committee were told of the idea, they spent nine months reflecting and planning. While they prayerfully considered if, when and how to try it, they kept it private, even from their spouses, so that when it was announced it would be completely fresh to everyone in the parish.
Father Galier announced it on Stewardship Sunday at the Saturday vigil and Sunday Masses, after preaching on the Gospel parable of the talents.
Most people aren’t aware of many of the talents they have, he said. Some people recognize some of their gifts but don’t see how they can be used for others.
“If I can’t recognize the gifts I have been given or find an application for the people of God, I am really missing great opportunities,” he said.
Anyone who wanted an envelope received one. The amount inside, from $30 to $60 per envelope, was a surprise. Over $16,500 was distributed, Deacon Hampton said. “All we ask is you take this money and at some point make a return to the Lord. Use your talents. We all have talents, and many times we are afraid to recognize them. Many times we are afraid to use them. We asked them to use their talents.”
Pamela Kinzly, a Fayetteville High School math teacher, says she was surprised and intrigued. “It definitely surprised me. You are used to giving money to the church. It was interesting to have money given to you.”
Pairing up with an English teacher in the parish, Christine Brand, they offered an SAT preparation class at St. Matthew’s this spring and will offer it again in September.
Several boys in the youth group came to the spring class. Kinzly and Brand donated their knowledge and teaching experience. Except for what they spent on materials, everything earned will rebound to the stewardship fund.
Kinzly said helping the parish teens was meaningful and a new way of linking her profession and her faith life. “I never thought my daily life would relate as much to my parish life. It brought that together.”
“They all thought it was useful,” Kinzly said of the course participants. “It was nice to provide that service for the teenagers. … It is definitely a service that is needed in the church. It would be very easy to do every year.”
Phil Consolino, a stewardship committee member who heads up a cleaning supply business, took his $30 and bought olive oil, tomatoes, pasta and cheese and cooked up his favorite spaghetti and meatballs. Then he froze it as individual meals and sold it to parishioners for a quick lunch or dinner. A business supplier donated the freezer containers when he learned what Consolino was doing.
“I play drums in the choir,” said Consolino. “I decided to go to my other God-given talent, which is cooking Italian meals. Spaghetti and meatballs, linguini with clam sauce, fettuccini alfredo.”
He’s been so successful he was up until midnight recently cooking, as he reinvests whatever he accrues back into more pasta, tomatoes, olive oil and cheese and creates more frozen meals. All of what he makes will go to stewardship at St. Matthew’s when the adventure ends in October.
“The $30 I was blessed with is now up to $700. I expect to go over $1,000 in May,” he said recently. “I made 48 meals the other night. … I will sell all of those out in 30 or 40 minutes (at the church) and take orders.”
He laughingly says he has no interest in running a restaurant, but if he ever starts a takeout business, he’ll permanently tithe from his profits to the parish for launching him.
“I just think it is a phenomenal program. I have heard a few exciting stories of what people are doing. I know we have couples working together, families working together,” he continued. “When we approach the final turn-in date, people will be scurrying about.”
A Kris Kringle marketplace was set up during Advent so parishioners could display and sell whatever they created. The response was overwhelming, Deacon Hampton said.
“Our narthex, our conference room, the hallways, every nook and cranny we could find, we had things everywhere,” he said, from homemade bird houses to jams and jellies, sweets, plants, handmade rosaries, and Christmas ornaments.
Children in the parish school of religion have ordered in bulk and sold in the parish Fair Trade coffee, tea and chocolates distributed through Catholic Relief Services. Eighth-graders led each of nine circles of children in the project. High school students ordered crafts from CRS and sold them at the Advent market.
“The older kids have learned leadership, something about economics, something about the church’s social teachings and kind of how to get people working together for the same goals,” said Deacon Gayle Peters, who is director of religious education. “At the same time, sort of in the background of this, we are trying to educate the kids about the basic premises of Fair Trade, that people who do the work are entitled to a fair return.”
Deacon Peters, whose wife, Sally, created homemade strawberry jam and strawberry syrup, and who will himself bring in vegetables this summer from a garden he has planted, has been astounded at the response to the program.
“I think it has been amazingly successful. I was absolutely amazed at the creativity, the ingenuity and the energy the parish families exhibited.”
Grandmother Jean Waddle says the experience has been “really cool.” Walking by faith is her everyday experience since she returned to church when she was 38.
“I opened my envelope, and I got $50. I said, ‘OK, Lord. I don’t do crafts. … This is your $50. You are going to have to put into my head and my heart what I am going to do with it.”
She invested it in her homemade blue cheese dressing, which she sold at the Kris Kringle market. However, she realized the dressing didn’t appeal to everyone. So she took her return and began making pecan and peanut clusters. Now she’s sold out twice and started adding gift tags and decorative boxes.
“They loved my candy,” she said. “I had repeat buyers. It is very easy. … It’s been fun.”
She looks forward to an upcoming market in September and sees the adventure in stewardship as emphasizing something she already believed—that everything she has comes from God.
“I have never accepted anything I have as being mine. I have always seen it as something to be used while I am here on earth. … I give back what I’m given. It just kind of enhanced my faith on top of that, working for the Lord and doing more for the Lord.”
Father Galier said the heart of the project is not about increasing the financial return to the parish but helping people discover what God wants of them.
“One guy got $50. He and his buddy went to Publix and got sandwiches, water and chips and fed a bunch of street people in downtown Atlanta,” Father Galier said. “Will I get that $50 back? No, but I’m not worried about that. For this young man it is spurring on his desire to serve the poor. … He and I e-mail all the time now about missionary opportunities and what he can do. He is jazzed about it because we gave him that 50 bucks, and he found out God wants him to serve the poor.”
Another family used their money to buy groceries for a neighbor in need, Deacon Hampton said. “Did they make a return to the Lord? Absolutely.”
The culmination will come in October when parishioners are invited to make their financial return to the Lord and to write something, if they choose, of what they experienced.
The adventure, they hope, will be passed on, as St. Matthew’s tithes from their return the seed money to start the process in another parish. St. Matthew’s will also take the return and plow it into the parish building fund and charities they have chosen.
While they won’t repeat the program anytime soon, as it is meant to be a one-time experience, they hope the lesson of making a return to the Lord has been imprinted on them.
The pastor thinks it is vital for the community to live generously.
“As a person of faith, as someone who has been baptized into the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, to be given so many gifts, and to think they are just for my greater good is incredibly selfish,” Father Galier said. “What we have been given is not just to end at our arms’ reach. It is meant to go much further than that.”
“All my gifts can be used for the greater glory of God,” he said.