CLEVELAND HEIGHTS -- At first, the congregation thought Pastor John had gone bonkers. Here he was passing out money rather than passing the collection basket.
"I was stunned," said Chessie Bleick, who was at the Sunday worship service in late March when ushers at Forest Hill Church disbursed $15,000 among the congregation, handing each worshipper a red envelope containing a $50 bill.
"Everybody was kind of panicked, saying, 'What am I going to do with this?' "
Their answer came from the pulpit as the Rev. John Lentz told the biblical parable about the master who, before embarking on a long journey, left behind large sums of money for each of his servants.
When the master returned, he discovered the first two servants worked their shares, making more money for him. But the third servant failed to take a risk and simply buried his.
Lentz told his Presbyterian flock: "Let's live this parable. Let's bring it to reality. Use this money to make more. You may do whatever you can do creatively to double or triple your $50."
Lentz calls it his stimulus package. No one is obligated to put the money to work -- or even give it back.
"We don't know what will happen," Lentz said recently.
The money was handed out March 29 and is expected to be returned May 31. The hope is that the original $15,000 will be returned to the church's bank account and there will be a healthy profit for the church's social-service programs.
"It's time to put our creative talents and imaginations to work to help support the missions of the church," said Diana Woodbridge, who is making and selling University of Michigan stadium blankets. "So far, I've doubled my money and I'm going for more."
Many are using their $50 to buy supplies to make food items or arts and crafts to be sold at a church bazaar on May 16. Some pooled their money to buy a big-screen TV to put up for auction.
Keith and Laurie Logan are selling soft drinks and snacks at the local girls' high school lacrosse games.
Julie and Gary Lustic hired themselves out to do yard work, finding more jobs than they can handle.
"It's amazing," said Julie Lustic, who charges between $10 and $15 an hour. "I didn't think there would be such a big response."
Living this New Testament story, known as the parable of the talents, is not a Forest Hill original. Other churches in the area have doled out seed money as well.
Two years ago, Federated Church, a United Church of Christ congregation in Chagrin Falls, handed out $35,000 in $50 bills to its congregation. People went to work with hammers, glue, yarn and thread. A pilot charged $30 for a half-hour plane ride. A biker charged $30 for a 12-mile ride on his Harley-Davidson Road King.
In eight weeks, the congregation returned more than $75,000, paying off the $35,000 loan and making a $41,000 profit.
The money was divided among three church missions: A school in South Africa, a foundation that gives seed money to poor people trying to start businesses, and an interfaith group that houses Cleveland-area homeless people.
"It allowed members to realize the gifts they had and how they could use them to help people," said Federated's membership administrator, Melinda Smith. "It was a real community builder for the congregation."
About 10 years ago, Lyndhurst Community Presbyterian Church handed out $3,000 in $20 bills to its congregation and got back $8,000.
The Rev. Harry Eberts is thinking about doing it again, not for the need of money, he said, but for how it brings people together.
"We need to keep thinking about how we can connect people," he said. "When we did this, the stories about people getting together were better than the money."
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