GOLD COAST — What's the best way to spend $500?
It's a question LaSalle Street Church can't yet answer, two weeks after the church divided $160,000 among its 300 congregants, giving every church member or frequent attendee a $500 check and a request only that they use it for good.
Senior Pastor Laura Truax said her first thought after making the announcement Sept. 7 that congregants could pick up checks with their names on them after the service wasn't an overwhelming sense of faith that the experiment would be successful.
It was, "Holy crap, we might just be squandering 160,000 bucks, which is a big deal because we're not even meeting our budget this year," Truax said with a laugh.
Lizzie Schiffman says the money comes with no strings attached, just the hope that the money goes to a good cause:
Then "it felt a little ludicrous, and it felt super bold, and it felt good."
Donna Smith-Bellinger, a Lincoln Park resident and member of the church for three years, was ushering with her husband at one of the services when the check announcement was made.
"I stopped and looked across the church at my husband, and his eyes were open big, like, 'Did she just say that?' We were both like, 'What is going on?'" Smith-Bellinger said.
Loaves and fishes
Calling them "loaves and fishes" checks — a nod to the biblical parable about feeding many with few resources — the Gold Coast church gave each congregant a three-step directive along with the checks:
"First, do nothing but pray. ... After several weeks of prayer, you will likely have an idea of how these resources are to be used. Put your money to work as you've been led, then talk about your experience."
"My first thought was, 'This is going to be such a responsibility,'" Smith-Bellinger said. "We weren't told what to do with the money. We could do with the money anything we chose."
Some church members formed small groups to discuss donation options, and Truax cleared off a floor-to-ceiling whiteboard in the church community room for members to write down ideas.
Truax said a ministry project in Niger and donations to Ebola treatment initiatives are both gaining a lot of traction among the congregation.
But she and Smith-Bellinger both agree that using the check for personal expenses isn't considered out of line with the project's goals, either.
"I knew that this was going to help send some kids to college, and this was maybe going to keep somebody's lights on," Smith-Bellinger said. "I don't think that the congregation as a body would object to that."
"That's what this was all about. Putting it to work within the community."
An unexpected fortune
The plan came up as suddenly as the resources to fund it had appeared, Truax said. In June, the British Columbia-based Onni Group acquired Atrium Village, a 309-unit residential development funded by Security Properties Inc., Crane Construction Co. and four churches, including LaSalle Street Church.
The churches each owned 15 percent of the property and got $1.6 million apiece out of the $50 million buyout, Truax said. She and the church's board of elders decided to use 10 percent of the money to engage the roughly 300-member church in a giving challenge.
"It's really easy to give the money to charitable causes — you can do that without leaving your desk chair, you know," Truax said of the reasoning behind letting individuals, instead of the organization, decide how to give.
"To really think critically about where the nexus of the world's need and your gift might really be making a difference ... has the potential to be an incredibly transformative experience."
The remaining $1.4 million likely will be spent outside the church, she said.
During the next nine months, church leaders will meet every three or four weeks to evaluate parishioner's progress and identify possible uses for the remaining money.
"It may be that at the end of nine months, I feel like, 'Wow, I don't think we are supposed to spend all of this,'" Truax said. "If that's what happens, that's cool. But I don't want to be the church that just creates an endowment. I may not know what this money is for, but I know it's not just to stick away in a bank."
The nearly 130-year-old church's operating budget is far from flush — one church member said he knows Truax has held back on cashing her own paychecks in the past so that other staff's checks will clear — but Truax said spending the money internally isn't on her mind right now.
"I'm hoping we spend it. I hope we spend it all. But we want to spend it right."
Paying it forward
Molly Knapp, whose husband runs LaSalle's youth ministry, said she and her husband never considered keeping their money, even though she just finished grad school and money is tight.
"I kind of assumed that there would be people who would use it for their own needs instead of giving it away," she said. "I think if that's what they feel like is the right thing to do and they are comfortable with that decision, that's their decision. I personally don't feel like it's my money to keep."
She and her husband immediately portioned off some of their shared $1,000 gift to a fledgling church in North Carolina.
"We know the people who started it, and we've wanted to give money to them and help them get on their feet for a while now, but we weren't able to do that on only one income. The fact that we now have the means to do that is exciting," she said.
Smith-Bellinger's family invested some of their $1,000 into causes related to her day job in economic development for small business entrepreneurs and women.
"The other check is tucked in our Bible at home, waiting to figure out what we're going to do with it," Smith-Bellinger said.
"It's nice to know that if an emergency comes up for a friend or anything like that — sometimes you don't have the money to help someone at the level you'd like to," Smith-Bellinger said. "It's nice to know that that's sitting there, waiting for the opportunity to pop up and fulfill its purpose."
The checks will all expire Dec. 1, forcing congregants to use their money before the holiday season. Truax said the nine-month timeline wasn't an accident.
"I was thinking, about nine months is how long it takes to birth a baby," she said. "I know that's a little ridiculous, but I was thinking about that — it takes nine months to bring forth life ... so nine months just seemed like a good window."
For more neighborhood news, listen to DNAinfo Radio here: