— -- A small Chicago church that received a $1.6 million windfall from the sale of property it had helped developed in the 1970s surprised its congregation by giving all 320 of them $500 each earlier this month.
The LaSalle Street Church is now trying to determine how to spend the remaining $1.4 million.
The unexpected funds were a godsend for some of the parishioners.
“One lady came to me in tears that she was using it to pay her rent,” LaSalle Street Church Senior Pastor Laura Truax told ABC News.
“Another lady, who is a secretary, emailed me about her long-term friendship with a woman who has a son with mental illness,” Truax said. “With the money, she made a donation to an organization for people with adult mental issues and she said, ‘Today I was able to tell my friend I made a donation in her honor.’”
“For many people, that $500 was the blessing they’ve been praying about," she said.
Truax prayed long and hard earlier this summer when she learned her non-denominational church on Chicago’s near north side would be getting $1.6 million thanks to the sale of a housing development the church had helped develop alongside other churches in the 1970s.
“I felt like we were being called to tithe on the money and the Lord said the people were the ones,” Truax said. “It became very clear to me and then all I had to do was sell my church board on it, and they went with it.”
When the church received the check in August, Truax and the board members decided to give $160,000 to 320 of the congregation’s members who gave “time, talent and treasure” to the church.
On Sunday, Sept. 7, Truax delivered a sermon on the Parables of Talents – the parable that tells of a master who entrusted his property to his servants – and then waited for the congregation to react when she told them they would each be getting a $500 check that day.
“I thought there’d be some Hallelujahs and some Amen’s and some hand-waving, but it was silent,” Truax said. “You could have heard a pin drop.”
“I was already nervous about saying it and I started to sweat and thought, ‘They think it’s ridiculous,’” she recalled. “As a communicator you just say it again, so that’s what I did. I said it again.”
As the news sunk in, the congregation members began to react, some crying and some turning to each other in disbelief, according to Truax.
“By the end of the sermon, nearly everybody was crying,” she said. “The enormity of faith kind of struck us all.”
“What kind of world is it where you wake up and go to church and the pastor says, ‘Here’s $500 go and do God’s business with it,’” Truax said. “That’s the world of grace.”
The church, which has an annual budget of just over $800,000 and was operating in debt this year, is now deciding what to do with the remaining $1.4 million.
“That’s going to be a nine-month process,” Truax said, adding she picked that amount of time because it stood out to her as the same amount of time in which human life is created.
“We’ve got this big idea board where people can just write their ideas in markers,” Truax said.
Among the ideas so far are a group of doctors who want to support Ebola clinics in Sierra Leone; a group of business people who want to open a credit union or trust bank so people with limited means can get loans; and a parishioner who wrote the suicide rates of LGBT homeless youth on the board as a way to raise awareness for supporting that population.
“This was just making real for people the thing that God does every day,” Truax said. “He hands over the world to us and asks us to do God’s business.”
Truax says she is surprised by all the attention her decision to tithe the money to her congregation has received, but that she hopes it moves not just her congregation but all who hear the story to action.
"I hope it inspires others to do something risky and faithful," she said.