The markets were crashing and Christmas was coming when Pastor Doug
Ferguson stepped up to the pulpit of Houston's Grace Presbyterian
Church with $5,000 in his back pocket. He preached about generosity,
neighborly love and the meaninglessness of worldly wealth. Then he
handed out $100 bills.
His instructions were simple: Use the money to spread comfort and joy.
Show some kindness to strangers. And report back in 90 days on what you
Ferguson hoped the assignment would lift his congregants above the fray
of financial collapse and refocus their thoughts on the real meaning of
Christmas: by investing in people instead of stocks. It wasn't a unique
sentiment from a man of the cloth, but the novelty of his approach
inspired a fresh fervor in his flock.
The Sunday morning challenge unleashed creative and charitable impulses
that some congregants had been hiding under a bushel.
In the weeks that followed, they bought shoes for the homeless and a
plane ticket for a woman who couldn't afford to see her son graduate
from boot camp in the U.S. Marine Corps.
They invited needy children to build gingerbread houses and sent
medical equipment to Third World countries.
But they didn't stop with their $100 bills. Their investments were
fruitful. They multiplied.
Karen Anderson stretched her seed money the furthest: in just over a
month, her $100 grew to more than $36,000, thanks to donations from a
network of friends that ultimately spanned the nation. The 61-year-old
poet and publisher used the money to buy 2,130 winter coats -- enough
for every student at Galveston's Ball High School, and then some.
Labors of love
It's not every Sunday the collection plate gets passed in reverse. But
on the last Sunday in October, Ferguson wanted to make a point.
"I just said that even though your 401(k) has lost 30 percent of its
value, there's a Scripture passage that says we don't trust in worldly
wealth," Ferguson recalled as Christmas neared and the seed money
started to bear fruit.
"We intentionally picked this time of year to do this. This is the
season when you want to encourage generosity and get people more
focused on loving one another."
The $100 bills were a gimmick, Ferguson acknowledges, but the gimmick
Of the nearly 1,500 people who regularly attend Sunday services, only a
tiny fraction -- 55 people, some of whom took IOUs after Ferguson ran
out of $100s -- accepted the pastor's challenge. Some of them had no
idea what they would do with the money. For many, it was the nudge they
needed to start on a project they'd been meaning to get around to.
"Do your shoe thing!" whispered 43-year-old Jenny Graham's husband,
elbowing her as she hesitated to get up and take the cash that morning.
Graham has always been moved by the biblical story of Jesus washing the
disciples' feet, and she knows that foot care is a daunting problem for
the homeless community. She wanted to help. But she's not the type to
wander the streets, anointing feet.
"I'm not a big foot person," she admitted. "I don't like touching
When prodded, though, she took the money. She put together five "sole
care" kits -- each one containing a pair of shoes and socks,
disinfecting wipes, nail clippers and the Gospel of John. Then she
started asking people to sponsor other kits at $20 apiece. She's given
out 11 already, working with Houston's Coalition for the Homeless, and
she has collected another $300 -- enough for about 15 more.
Helping the homeless
The challenge also stirred 51-year-old Geoff Edney's impulse to help
the homeless. Edney, a systems administrator for an oil and gas
company, was homeless himself for several years in the early 1990s. He
has long wanted to help others follow his path off the streets of
downtown Houston, but held back because doing so would mean confronting
haunting memories of the darkest hours of his own life.
That Sunday, he took the $100. He invested it in sleeping bags, which
he's used as an icebreaker to start talking to some of the people
living under overpasses near his west Houston home and in alleys near
his downtown office.
Suddenly he finds that the hope he's fostering in others has eclipsed
his own grim memories.
"I had always kind of stopped short because I thought, 'How do I
approach these people?' " he said. "Now that I'm doing it, I don't know
who's getting a bigger blessing: them or me. I've decided that this
isn't going to be just a 90-day thing. It's going to be ongoing for the
rest of my life."
When Ferguson proposed the $100 challenge, a hush fell over the
sanctuary. No one came forward for so long that he feared he'd leave
church with egg on his face and a pocket full of hundreds.
Slowly, one by one, the congregants approached the pulpit. One by one,
the pastor peeled away bills, exhausting the $5,000 donation that
funded the experiment, along with $500 a second donor sponsored
Some people gave away their $100 before the day was out; others spent
weeks researching the perfect investment. They have until the end of
January to meet their 90-day deadline.
9-year-old raises $1,000
While Ferguson envisioned the task to emphasize certain biblical
lessons, the variety of responses showed there was no one right way to
spend the money.
Griffin Simpson begged her parents to let her take one of the bills,
but they were reluctant. They told the 9-year-old to give everyone else
a chance first. Finally they relented, with Ferguson's encouragement.
Griffin wanted to donate to pediatric AIDS research and treatment.
"It was the first thing that came out of her mouth," said her mother,
Angela Simpson. "I was surprised because I didn't even know she knew
what it meant."
To stretch her resources, Griffin decided to design note cards, taking
orders from more than 100 friends and neighbors. She raised roughly
"At first I didn't know it was going to be this big. I just thought it
would be nice to help," Griffin said. "This is really exciting."
Congregants seemed more excited about this project than any of
Ferguson's run-of-the-mill calls to community service. They picked
their favorite causes and used their unique talents to make the money
Cakes raise cash
Sharon Collins, a director with BP who dabbles in baking, wanted to
raise money for her favorite charity: Project C.U.R.E., which donates
used medical equipment to Third-World countries. She invested the
pastor's $100 in ingredients and put her culinary skills to good use,
selling her favorite cakes -- fresh apple and Mexican chocolate. At $25
each, she's also raised about $1,000 for the cause.
"This just came to me as I was sitting in church," Collins said. "God
spoke to me and said, 'Cakes! You can make cakes!' "
Since most people want the cakes by Christmas, she's been working a day
shift at work and a night shift in her kitchen for the past six weeks.
"My house didn't get very decorated this year, but that's OK," she said
before setting off to deliver a fresh-baked batch the week before
Some who took the challenge said that as the 90-day end date nears,
they don't see their charity work tapering off.
Some, like Edney, say it's now a permanent part of their lives. Others,
like Collins, will play it by ear.
"We'll see where God takes it," she said. "If I'm supposed to continue
baking cakes, I'll keep doing it."
Anderson, who retired from a career in early childhood development,
working as a parent educator, now finds herself addicted to coats.
She's already outfitted every student at Ball High School. And every
student in the school's alternative programs. If she finds more
Galveston youths who need winter coats, she said, she'll keep going.
Ferguson's challenge gave Anderson a new direction on a day she almost
didn't go to church. She was overwhelmed by the exigencies of her life:
Her son, who lived in Galveston, had lost his home and his job during
Hurricane Ike. Her sister-in-law was in the hospital. Her husband
needed neck surgery. And Anderson had just started a publishing company
and printed her own book of poetry.
But she didn't hesitate when Ferguson held out the stack of $100 bills.
"When I got up to get it, I felt so peaceful," she said.
There was little artistry in her fundraising efforts. She spent the
original $100 on the first six coats, bought through a nonprofit that
offers a discount for children's coats bought in bulk. Anderson then
sent an e-mail to about 70 friends and relatives -- her Christmas card
list -- and asked each of them to e-mail 10 friends. The donations came
in from people as far away as Hawaii, intrigued by the challenge and
moved by Galveston's need. Anderson received three big-ticket
donations, each for about $5,000. But the rest ranged roughly from $10
to $100, and most came from people she had never met.
'Feel like a polar bear'
The week before Christmas, students crinkled and swished through the
Galveston high school's halls in new matching puffy ski coats. Some had
lost their old coats to Ike's brackish floodwaters, and some never had
a winter coat to begin with.
The varsity football team took a break from weightlifting on a gray,
blustery day to pick out their coats from red, green and blue piles
that lined the school's lecture hall.
"I have a letterman jacket, but it doesn't really keep you warm," said
17-year-old Damion Britton "We're grateful for the big coats. They make
you feel like a polar bear. "
Giving the coats away gave Anderson a warm feeling of her own. For that
alone, she said, it was the best $36,000 she's ever spent. Even
congregants who didn't match her fundraising bounty said the giving
project filled their hearts with new riches.
"I figure I don't have to change the world," Edney said, "but if I can
touch someone's life, I can start to pay back for all the wonderful
things that have happened to me."