CHICAGO (AP) — On a very memorable Sunday, Pastor Laura Truax surprised her congregation with a bold announcement: She was about to hand out money to everyone.
Not a huge sum, but the pastor said the LaSalle Street Church had received a tidy $1.6 million from a real estate deal, and $160,000 — a typical 10 percent tithe — would be divided among some 320 regular attendees. Each would get a $500 check to do something positive for anything or anyone, including themselves.
It was an unorthodox gesture, but Truax notes, LaSalle is "a gutsy little church" with a history of making waves around socially progressive causes it embraces. In 1972, when it stood in the shadow of the now-demolished Cabrini Green housing project, the church established a criminal defense legal aid clinic for the poor.
Decades later, LaSalle remains an activist church, doing everything from feeding homeless families on Wednesday nights to buying an ambulance for a medical clinic in Niger. The non-denominational congregation is racially and economically diverse: More than 60 percent of members have advanced degrees; about a third live paycheck-to-paycheck.
Not surprisingly, many donations from the congregation will reach far-flung places, including a school in the Himalayas, a health clinic in Uganda and an irrigation project in Tanzania. Closer to home, some checks are going to families and friends in financial trouble.
Church members, Truax says, are doing just what she'd envisioned when she distributed the checks that first Sunday in September.
"I hoped that they would recognize the power they had to bless others and change somebody's life," she says. "I hoped that they would see their connection between their little piece and the bigger thing the church was called to do, that they would feel like they actually had some skin in the game, some prayers in the game. And that has largely happened."
Here's how ...
Jeliner Jordan remembers being young and in debt.
More than 40 years ago, she was a divorced mother of three who couldn't stretch her seamstress earnings far enough to support her kids. She took out a loan of about $4,000 to attend a business college, hoping it would lead to better opportunities — and it did.
But repaying that loan turned out to be hard, and Jordan fell behind, before eventually settling her debt.
She never forgot that pressure.
Aware that her granddaughter, Deitra Holloway, was saddled with college loans, Jordan knew what she'd do with part of her church money: She gave Holloway $300, figuring it might cover a month's payment. She was shocked when her granddaughter revealed her school debt was in the many thousands.
Though her gift to her granddaughter was small, Jordan still felt mighty good. "That's more money than she had in her pockets before," she explains. "Anything I would give would help her."
A grateful Holloway used the money instead to help pay a loan on her 2003 Nissan Sentra. It was just another example of her grandmother's generosity, including taking her on a trip to Paris when she was in college.
"I always thought she was rich because she would do these things for me and it never seemed like money was an obstacle," the 26-year-old says.
Far from it. Jordan, now 71 — her grandkids call her Grandma Jelly — is a meticulous planner who watches every dollar.
"She's a great role model," Holloway says. "She has order and structure and discipline. ... She always makes sure there's adventure. There's never a dull moment with her."
Jordan, who had a long career in the insurance industry but still enjoys sewing, divided her remaining money: $100 to Art on Sedgwick, a neighborhood art center, and $100 to the nearby Manierre elementary school, which the church had supported when it faced possible closure.
Niguel Neal, 13, a budding cartoonist and 8th grader at Manierre who'll likely benefit from both donations, thinks the money will be well spent. "It's good to help people with their dreams," he says.
Jordan is happy to do her part.
"I honestly felt it was God's money for me to pass on to other people," Jordan says. "It's not possible to give without receiving. And what I received immediately is joy."
At first, Jonas Ganz figured he'd go the traditional charity route, helping those with basic needs.
But his friends are trying to raise $25,000 to build the Seven Hills Skate Park in Amman, Jordan — the city where Ganz spent most of his youth — and pitching in to make that happen, he says, seemed "the right thing to do."
As a teen, Ganz whiled away many hours on Amman's Thaqafa Street, darting, weaving and zipping along on his skateboard.
He says he knows there are more urgent needs in life, but doing good is about more than tending to the essentials.
"If I were to put food in someone's mouth for a week, a week later that person would be hungry," he says. "This project has the potential to have a lasting impact on the community. ... It's something they can invest in, have a passion for, cultivate a skill and just enjoy." Park organizers hope to set up a free-loaner program for kids who can't afford skateboards.
Ganz, whose Swiss-German parents were teachers in Jordan and now help Syrian refugees there, also likes what this program says about his church. "They're putting their money where their mouth is," he says. "It really demonstrates the level of trust the leaders have in us."
Ganz donated $450 to the skateboard park — the rest to World Vision, a Christian international relief agency.
Now a junior at Moody Bible Institute, Ganz, 20, is returning to Jordan this winter to study Arabic.
His athletic days are temporarily on hold; he recently had knee surgery for a soccer injury.
But when Ganz packs up his gear, he'll include a favorite possession: his skateboard.
Kristin Hu was inspired by her grandmother, Irene, who died in June.
When Hu received her $500, she remembered how her grandmother worked until she was 80, giving private piano lessons, using her savings to help her eight grandchildren pay for college.
As a political science teacher at Lakeview High School, a melting pot of ethnicities, Hu decided she wanted to help some kids who don't have a guardian angel: the Dreamers, those young immigrants brought to the U.S. as children without legal permission, raised here and now going public, fighting to stay.
Hu, 29, was moved after hearing an impassioned speech by Lucy, a young accomplished Mexican-born Dreamer in her class, who spoke of how she and others like her want to attend college but don't qualify for financial aid because of their status.
"They have amazing potential but our country isn't investing in them the way they should," Hu says. "Many of them are so motivated and such leaders in the school. They've really touched me."
Hu plans to give $500 to a Dreamer organization or start a scholarship foundation for the kids.
LaSalle's program, she says, also made her think beyond this one donation.
"Why can't I contribute more to the causes I care about?" she says. "What's holding me back from being a more generous person? What about next year? There will be the same need then. There's always going to be a need. ... It's important to remember the responsibility of paying it forward and giving back."
She credits her grandmother for setting her on the right path.
"I think this is living out her legacy," Hu says. "I'd like to be there for someone else."
Rosemary Baker stashed her $500 check under a book at home, trying to decide who should get it.
"It felt like just such a big burden to do the right thing," she says.
Baker and her husband, Erik, who had his own $500, were looking for a large charitable organization with a noble cause. "We didn't even want to think about something close to us. We felt it might be too small."
Then two crises changed everything.
One involved a woman Baker calls "my little sister,'" a former student she'd mentored while teaching at a Catholic elementary school.
Baker watched as her friend, now in her 30s, depleted her banking accounts to pay for her grandmother's funeral and worried about the pressures she'd face now that her extended family would be turning to her for support. "I was trying to help her understand not all the responsibilities were hers," Baker says.
Her friend always puts her family first and neglects her own needs, so Baker made her promise to use the $500 to take care of herself. "I felt it was God calling me to give her the money," she says. "She couldn't really deny that."
The Bakers' other $500 went to another friend who'd recently lost his marketing job and has been trying to support his family working at a car-sharing service. "They're really private and didn't want any handouts. ... We kept telling them this isn't our money. It was a gift."
Baker says helping those close to them was the right decision.
"It was powerful just to be able to be the gift-giver," she says, "be part of that moment and see that the impacts of seemingly small gestures were huge."
Randy Dill was almost in a panic to find the right place for his donation — and do it quickly. "I wanted a 100 percent return on my investment," he says.
But then he slowed down to conduct a careful search for a place to help the unemployed and those trying to boost their skills to earn more money.
Dill, a 36-year-old supervisor at a suburban Chicago assembly plant, eventually settled on the Jane Addams Resource Corporation. The nonprofit helps low-income people with worker training, financial coaching and other services so they can be self-sufficient.
Dill's wife, Erika, a human resources manager, had recommended the nonprofit after she'd recruited machinists from there. He visited the program and liked its all-encompassing approach to keeping people out of poverty.
His wife had another idea for using her $500: to help needy families at their daughters' public school buy winter clothes for their kids.
"What the money did for us was help open our eyes to some things that we take granted," Dill says. "This was a not-so-subtle reminder how fortunate we are and those things that we have, such as good health, are blessings that are so easy to ignore."
And that return on investment?
Dill hopes the hundreds of church donations will eventually pay bigger dividends.
"This was a moment that kind of defines the congregation," he says. "I have no idea how this will look five or 10 years from now. I think we're all reading a book and nobody knows how this thing will end."
Sharon Cohen, a Chicago-based national writer, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. National Writer Martha Irvine contributed to this report.