How much good could you do with a $5 bill? In the holiday season, when many of us are thinking of charity and the less fortunate, a few dollars may not seem like enough to do much of anything.
But that small amount was at the heart of an experiment that Reverend Nathan Detering tried with his congregation in Sherborn, reversing the tradition of church offerings to send the money out rather than bring it in. The story is part of WBUR's Kind World.
REVEREND NATHAN DETERING: I decided that it'd be really a cool thing and a great thing to be able to send people out to do good things in the world. We distributed about 150 envelopes, there was $1,500 total, so anywhere between $5 and $20 denominations. You could hear the gasps; my son actually said, "Dad, are you giving away our money?" And I assured him that no, this is from the discretionary fund that the church gives me.
My charge was very, very simple: "Use this gift for good. Share the fact that it came from your church. Return and tell the story." In my job, I so often have the opportunity to help folks in need with resources the church provides me. So I really get to see the difference that can make, such a simple thing—you know, $20 to help somebody with a food bill or something. But most people don't get to see that impact that they have.
And it felt like it would be almost selfish for me to keep that to myself.
CATHY LEONARD: My first thought was, "Cool," you know, "we really get to do something out there ourselves." And then my second thought was, "I have absolutely no idea what I am going to do with this money."
CATHIE HEALY: We were all feeling the same way.
REVEREND DETERING: I expected people to be a little bit paralyzed by it, frankly.
LEONARD: I took both my money and my husband's, we doubled it.
HEALY: An incredible amount of talking and thinking and planning—what could we do and what could we do together?
LEONARD: I waited, awhile.
REVEREND DETERING: I did expect that people would pool it together. I expected that people would sit on on it for a long time. And I really wanted to have conversations happen at the dinner table. And all of that really happened.
SUSAN WEAVER: I'm a social worker and I work at a local hospital. And I put the envelope in my folder that I carry with me. And within a few days, I was meeting with a patient, just a lovely lady that's struggling with a lot of medical issues and needs a little help and encouragement.
And she was at the hospital all day for doctor's appointments, told me she'd used the last of her cash for the ride, and had no food and no money for lunch. And I just took out my envelope and gave it to her. She was very surprised and very grateful, and she was hungry.
JOHN WEAVER: I kept it in my briefcase. I went to visit a family friend that was having issues psychologically and with substance abuse and was at in-patient facility. And I went to visit that person who was very dear to my heart, and we were talking about our families and our lives and our beliefs, and I said, "Well, I have an interesting story to tell you about my church; you've told me things about your church, and our church created this reverse offering. And I know you don't really need money, per se, but I would like you to have this."
It was symbolic in the sense that there are a lot of people out there that care about him, and I was just able to be a vehicle through which that was displayed. The good news is, this individual is doing very well right now.
REVEREND DETERING: That small amount of money was given a large meaning. And I really wanted people to appreciate that. It's not the number on the bill that can make the difference, often it's the intention behind it.
Somebody had folded up their $5 bill in their wallet, and they said they were walking through their life with a different kind of vision for the need that was around them. It was only $5, but the money helped them grow new antennae for the world around them. For five bucks, that's a priceless thing.
This program aired on December 3, 2013. The audio for this program is not available.