The Fruits of Our Challenge

The Fruits of Our Challenge
Rev. Douglas Taylor
4-15-07

Almost six months ago I offered a challenge to the people who happened to show up for church that Sunday morning in October. The challenge was quite simple.  I had nine sealed envelope (I gave three out at first service and six at second service).  All that was required for a person to accept the challenge was the willingness to make a difference and to write a one page about the experience. That’s all the information people had.  I was amazed by how many hands went up that morning.  It was a powerful experience for me to hand out the envelopes.

I later revealed the challenge in a newsletter column.  The contents of each envelope were identical.  Each contained a slip of paper with the parable of the sower and instructions to ‘make a difference by being a philanthropist with someone else’s money.’  Each envelope also contained a one hundred dollar bill.  I want to share with you the response I received from these amazing people who accepted my challenge.  I have edited for length, and have left their names out – but perhaps some of you will be able to guess anyway.

First, [I felt] a rush of adrenaline – being trusted with a $100 (nice crisp bill, no less) for the church with which to do good deeds.  Huge, huge ideas formed, in the initial phase they were mostly superhuman feats spun to really do right by the church.  After the flights of fantasy calmed down, I started scanning our local paper.  I often do not read our local paper, as I have found I am much less depressed without this daily peruse.  This, [however] was an affirming use of the paper as a source of connections in our community.

Then came the most important piece for me: I opened it up to my friends for suggestions. This aspect is truly a growing experience for me.  My life has been so much about surviving on my own.  [It] has been my ‘job’ as of late, to change this aspect of myself.  So this [challenge took me away] from my instinct to ‘do it on [my] own.’  [It was great] to ask [my] friends what they think.  This think-tank approach did produce the idea of the New Years’ brunch.

The New Year’s Brunch was a great success.  This person used the seed money plus fifty dollars of her own money to pay for the food.  She selected three local organizations that were important to her: The SOS Shelter, the Addiction Center of Broome County, and The Animal Care Council.  Not only was the New Year’s Brunch an enjoyable, memorable, and meaningful event for everyone involved, (which in itself is a fabulous accomplishment); it also raised over $250 total for the three charities.  And, as this respondent wrote, “The huge reward for me was the outpouring of energy and help that came from more people than I can say.  I was blessed with healing.”

One person who took the challenge struggled to use the money in some way that was not connected to her work.  But her work has been a compelling way for her to make a difference in the lives of others; she eventually gave up and invested her challenge there – but in a delightfully unique fashion.

In the latter part of October I took a new position as an after school childcare provider [at the YMCA]. In talking to my coworkers at a Holiday Program for the children we began to talk about the need for resources for the teachers so that we could provide a quality program for the children. At the YMCA we teach the children four basic values Respect, honesty, caring and responsibility. Finding ways to teach these things in such a way that would be fun and easy for them to understand was something that we all found difficult.

Finally around the holiday time it came to me to put together a lending library for the teachers at the program. It was quite a treat to be able to do something like this because at the holiday time there is always the feeling of why am I doing this, do they really need this, will it be liked. I had actually found something that I was able to give that answered all of those things in a positive way. I found myself teary behind all of that. It was great fun to put together a selection of books on character education, conflict resolution, and non-competitive games for children as well as craft books that were needed. Those books are now in place and are being used by all the teachers.

One of our respondents was an eleven year old.

When I heard about the UUCB challenge, I didn’t know if I should do it or not. But I did because I like surprise challenges. When I read what the challenge was, I knew exactly what I wanted to do.  [I would use the money to help the Ross Park Zoo.]

In the mail every winter, the Ross Park Zoo sends out a wish list. Every year the list is the same because nobody buys the items, I thought it would be a good idea if I bought some of the items on the list for them. Because I was raising money for animals, I thought that it would be nice if I made something that was related to animals too. I decided to make homemade dog biscuits. After buying the supplies, I made the biscuits and sold them. I sold every one of them.

My mother and I decided that I should get a banking account and a checking account. I did. Altogether with interest and the challenge money included, I had about $117. My mother and I went to Lowe’s and we bought a baby gate, a 3 drawer plastic organizer, and a welding kit. After that, we went to the dollar store and A.C. Moore to spend the rest of our money on kid’s scissors and markers that they had on their wish list also. It worked out perfectly. I felt really good that I was able to donate $117 worth of supplies that they wanted all by myself!

Our next respondent found several ways to creatively double, then triple, and then even further multiply her seed money.

Needless to say I was very surprised to get home and find a $100 bill in my envelope.  I came up with all sorts of ideas.  My thoughts went to how children are really the future of the world and I found the web site for Save the Children.  I decided that I would like to raise enough money to sponsor at least one child for a year thus making a difference in their life and most likely mine as well.

[To begin with,] my grandson helped me raise an additional $150 by trick or treating for the cause on Halloween.  I was touched by people’s generosity and extremely proud of my grandson for his willingness to help. My second effort involved getting donations from area businesses to hold a raffle.  This entailed a lot more work that I bargained for but I’ve pulled it off.  The raffle [was] held February 26.  I raised $320 on the raffle.  Add to that $150 from Halloween, the initial $100 seed money and another $102 of my own and I was able to sponsor two children thru the Save the Children organization.  I was appalled to learn of the poverty/illiteracy in the US so I sponsored a young boy in Kentucky.  However, I also know that our money goes further abroad so [the second child] I sponsored [is] a girl in Africa.

In retrospect, participation in this project has made me look at my life differently every day. I’ve realized that we can make a big difference just by being compassionate and aware of the needs of others.  Sometimes even something as simple as a smile or a kind word can change a person’s day.

One respondent was caught in the middle of moving to Albany when she accepted the challenge.  She dreamed up several possible ideas for the $100, but writes that “The envelope sat in a drawer for a couple of months.  It wasn’t forgotten per se, but rather was left to grow and manifest an answer to my prayer of finding a meaningful way to use [the challenge].”  Eventually the answer came when one of her students returned from South Africa excited and energized.  This student organized a large community fundraiser in the Albany area to help the Community Hospice Africa Partnership, a support program for HIV positive patients where they are taught to create crafts for sale.  “You will be please to know” this respondent writes, “that your generous donation is on its way to South Africa right now and will make a real difference in the lives of many women.”

“I am sure I am not the only one to tell you about the shock and slight sense of horror at finding a hundred dollar bill in that little white envelope,” begins another one of our respondents.

What have I gotten myself into?! Although I felt I ought to do something right away, I had no idea what to do. So I thought about it a lot. How to make the most of this money? I thought about the myriad of ways to reach out into the world and touch others. It did not take me long to decide to do something to support the Heifer Project, which, as I’m sure you know, is focused on providing resources to people and communities in order to help stimulate renewable growth.  I wanted to involve the overlapping communities of my life in helping people around the world, like the concentric circles rippling out from a pebble thrown into a pond – the church – my broader connections – out to the unknown world.  I just wasn’t sure [yet] how to do it.

Life went on and as Christmas time approached I was involved in other projects – one of which was to compile some of my favorite poems and readings into a little chapbook. That first hasty project really captured my imagination.  [It reminded me of a favorite quote] “If I had but two loaves of bread, I would sell one of them and buy white hyacinths to feed my soul.” (Elbert Hubbard (1856-1915) rephrasing Muslihuddin Sadi, 13th century Persian Poet)  For me, that collection was a white hyacinth – it fed my soul and that was when I realized how I would respond to this challenge.  I would write to those people who have touched my life, tracking down many with whom I have not spoken to in a long time. I would let them know what they have meant to me and that I had not forgotten them.

The $100 was finally spent in producing 60 copies of my little chapbook, envelopes and enough postage to send a 2 page letter, the chapbook and a stamped self-addressed envelope for these far flung members of my community to take an easy opportunity to reach back. Within the letter, I have described the challenge given me and have invited these wonderful people to send out contributions to the Heifer Project either on their own or in the return envelope with a note to me. I offered a direct connection to the Heifer Project – so each person could give or not give guilt free and not necessarily a part of their reply to me.

So I have little to report to you on the return on your investment in me; except to say thank you. It has been and will continue to be a great gift to me and I hope to many others as well. I continue to write letters and send out packages a few each week. Generosity flows and the project continues.

And here I must break confidence, though I do so at the request of this respondent.  Kate Thorpe wrote that she did not include anyone from church on her list, difficult though it was to do that.  There may, however, be people here that would like to take part in her project.  An Incomplete Collection of Favorite Poems and Readings is available this week (or by request) for a donation to the Heifer Project.  Kate will be in the Social Hall after both services this week if you are interested.

Here is what another respondent offered:

The UUCB Challenge came at a time in my life when I was really feeling the need to examine my spiritual life more closely and to make some significant choices. “Am I making any difference with my time here?”  I took a lot of time to ponder the meaning [of this challenge.]  I really wanted to use this $100 to make a difference in our local community, something grassroots and geared toward a population I knew to be underserved.  I thought a lot, spoke to trusted friends; it turned out that going out to lunch with a friend provided the answer for me.

Portfolio’s Café is a Catholic Charities program which serves as an employment program for young adults with a history of mental health issues.  The Café opened in 1987 and since that time has employed over 300 individuals, many of whom have established a successful job history for the first time and gone on to successful competitive employment.  I have been lunching there for years.  Tips are pooled and when they get enough they use the money (at around $200) for a special night out such as dinner and an activity.

I picked this organization (and added $100 of my own) because I believe those with mental health issues to be an underserved population in society.  Portfolio’s is local, grassroots, and it fosters future independence of the [employees].  Hopefully many lives will be positively impacted by the continuance of this unique and creative program in our area.

Finally, we hear from one more respondent.

So There I was.  It was late in the afternoon of October 22, in the final throes of a birthday party for my oldest son, Daniel, now 25.  Family…friends … all helping us celebrate this milestone in our wonderful son’s life.

At church that morning, I had raised my hand when Douglas offered a challenge.  I don’t normally do that … raise my hand first when I don’t have a pretty good idea what I’m in for. But with my own birthday soon upon me I had already promised myself I would do at least one … new … slightly scary thing each week.  Raising my hand to take on Douglas’ challenge seemed to fit right in.

So there I was, late in the afternoon of October 22, in the final throes of the party.  I suddenly remembered THE ENVELOPE [Douglas had slipped into my raised hand earlier that morning] and I knew it would be the perfect time to open it and have fun doing group-think.  Mind you … I still had no idea what was in the envelope, only that it presented a challenge.

In front of about 20 or so remaining friends and family, I set the stage (such as I knew it at that point). I opened the envelope. OUT FELL A ONE HUNDRED DOLLAR BILL!  I was outrageously proud of my family that no one grabbed for it!  I listened, fascinated, as [my friends and family] dreamt about what they would do [with the challenge.  However,] nothing trumped what had slowly been percolating in my own mind.

This past summer I gathered with my Vestal High School classmates to celebrate our 40th class reunion.  A month later, on August 3, one of our classmates became the victim of a worksite, steam explosion at the IBM Huron Endicott campus.  You [probably] read about it in the newspaper.  Ron Walter, my classmate, was severely burned.  His colleague was killed in the blast.  Because I had just seen Ron at the reunion, it was very real.  Ron was released from Upstate Medical Center on September 22, seven weeks after the explosion, [one month before I sat around my living room with friends, family and a one hundred dollar bill imagining how I could make a difference.]

I learned of a fundraiser being planned for Ron of December 9.  He had already racked up substantial medical bills, had no use of his hands due to the severe burns and was looking at a future filled with physical therapy and more and more bills.  His medical insurance would end on December 31.  I had already bought a ticket to the December 9 event and donated a few dollars beyond.

But with the ONE HUNDRED DOLLAR BILL, Douglas’ challenge moved me to a different place.  I realized that with it, I could make [my seed money multiply like] loaves and fishes.  It was fun and incredibly gratifying to plan it out with [Ron’s] daughter.  We selected raffle items which included gift certificates to restaurants and the Oakdale mall.  We figured that winning a $50 gift certificate to the Oakdale mall – just two weeks before Christmas – would be pretty compelling for people, encouraging them to buy more and more raffle tickets.  By my ‘ponying’ up some funds toward other gift certificates, I convinced two other local businesses to double the dollar amount.

The fundraiser did occur on December 9, and hundreds of Ron Walters’ family, friends, and total strangers attended.  The gift certificates I had gleaned were among [the] many to be raffled.  But they were included among [the larger $5-per-ticket items.]  Trust me, that paper-bag with entries for the $50 gift certificate to the Oakdale Mall easily had at least a hundred tickets in it.

At the event I purposely did not introduce myself to Ron’s daughter – she and I had only communicated via e-mail; she didn’t know who I was.  So [that day] I was just one of the many event planners, workers, and well-wishers [among the crowd.]  In the end I realized that my contributions were really to and for her.  I so admired the way she had shouldered her family troubles.  She was incredibly gracious, but funny with her dad at the event.  She has earned more than my respect … she has won the love and admiration of a total stranger.  And that is her gift to me.  One hundred dollars worth of giving? No … priceless.

While it is difficult to calculate based on a few of these, I can confidently tell you that those who accepted this Generosity Challenge raised over $2000 for worthwhile causes both locally and globally.  They thought long and hard about their choices, and many drew on the resources of friends to meet the challenge.  While a great many strangers have benefited from the generosity here displayed, those who accepted the challenge also benefited, being spiritually deepened by this work.  I am now in their debt for they have taught me much.  And each of us today, hearing these stories, are now challenged to find new and creative ways to make a difference in the lives of friends and strangers around us.  Until our next challenge, may we each find the means to live well.

In a world without end

May it be so.