Pine church turns parable into project

Members making thousands for charity from $100 'stakes'


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The Aug. 19 sermon at New Community Church in Pine began as a stock lesson on building God's kingdom, using Jesus' parable about a boss who gave each of his managers money to invest in his absence, rewarding those who increased it but firing a man who buried the sum to protect it. Then the pastor asked for volunteers, without saying what they were volunteering for. After they came forward, he handed 100 people a $100 bill.

He told them it was God's money not theirs, that they were to invest it for his work and report back in three months.

"It was risky. But it has so exceeded our expectations," said the Rev. Mark Bolton, senior pastor of New Community, an independent evangelical church with about 750 members.

Some recipients multiplied the money as much as one hundredfold. Someone launched a fund for adoption expenses, others raised money for water wells in Sudan, a man gave hoodies to the homeless in Pittsburgh.

The stories will be told at the 9 and 11 a.m. Sunday services today through Nov. 25.

Doug and Kim Viafora of Moon and their 22-year-old daughter Hannah were among those who went forward and received $100.

They talked over meals about what to do with it. "Our concern was to identify a worthy, compelling cause," Mr. Viafora said.

They asked neighbors for ideas. Soon they identified the Mooncrest Children's Program, tutoring, music and social ministries that the Felician Sisters provide to 150 children and teens in a poverty-stricken, drug-ridden neighborhood in Moon.

The Viaforas visited Mooncrest, then wrote to 160 families in their own neighborhood, asking for donations to add to their $100. They have received more than $1,000 and just sent more letters to their relatives.

Sister Renee Procopio, who runs the program, wept as she spoke of the Viaforas, saying that the ministry depends on donations that seem to appear just when the cupboard is empty.

"It's overwhelming how the hand of God works. Just out of the blue people appear and want to help," she said. "Doug and Kim's appearance was a godsend."

The experience "has given us a larger purpose," said Mr. Viafora, a sales manager. His wife is also a businesswoman, and their daughter is launching a career in retail sales. "We have been very blessed and there are a lot of people who are hurting. This gave us a structured approach to helping people who are truly in need."

Born in California

The project, called Kingdom Assignment, was born in November 2000 at Coast Hills Community Church in Aliso Viejo, Calif. The founding pastor, the Rev. Denny Bellesi, used $10,000 from the mega-church's mission fund to bring to life Jesus' parable about investing in the kingdom. The experiment gained national publicity and became a book.

Rev. Bellesi and his wife Leesa, whom he calls the driving force behind Kingdom Assignment, gave up trying to count churches that have completed the project. It's been done on six continents, he said, with an estimated 500 to 1,000 congregations in the United States alone.

Kingdom Assignment activates passive members, he said.

"In most churches, 20 percent of the people do 80 percent of the work and give 80 percent of the money. I find that, most of the time, the 80 percent are people who don't believe that God can use somebody like them," he said. "People may not know a lot of scripture, but they understand the value of $100."

His favorite result is from the Australian island of Tasmania. A man who hadn't been active in church volunteered. Stymied over how to use $100, he later told Rev. Bellesi that he heard God ask, "What do you enjoy doing?"

He liked to restore junk cars, and had one in his garage. Then he heard about a single mother who had lost her car. He and his buddies fixed up his car and decided to make a personal, surprise delivery. Her gratitude inspired them to continue.

Soon, Rev. Bellesi said, they were getting donations from car-related businesses and training homeless people to repair cars. The Australian government gave them a series of grants, culminating in $1 million to build a state-of-the-art car repair facility at the church. They have given away more than 1,000 cars.

Churches that can't afford $10,000 in seed money customize the program. The First United Presbyterian Church of Crafton Heights is a medium-sized, blue-collar congregation with large ministries beyond its walls. It runs tutoring and recreation programs for neighborhood youths and supports many other missions. In 2005 a neighbor who didn't belong to the church decided to give the congregation about $1,200 to support its outreach. The Rev. David Carver adapted Kingdom Assignment so that everyone who wanted to participate received $10.

Among the results, someone bought seeds and organized neighbors to raise vegetables that they gave to hungry people. Two children made candy, selling it for $51. A group pooled the money and made 85 blankets for nuns displaced by Hurricane Katrina.

A divine sign

When New Community Church leaders chose to do the project, its senior pastor emeritus, the Rev. Hollis Haff, raised the seed money from 10 donors. "He said it was the easiest $10,000 he ever raised," Rev. Bolton said.

Rev. Bolton knew that something special was happening within 12 hours, when he received an email from a college freshman who said she had been wavering in faith and had given church one last try that morning.

She hadn't volunteered, regretted it immediately, and told God that if she received more than $100 in tips while waitressing that night she would use it for a kingdom assignment.

As her shift was ending she had made $70 and her last table had only a $35 tab. But the couple left her a $50 tip.

"So here I am, in awe again of our God's power. How could I ever have doubted him?" she wrote.

Well before the formal reports that begin today, Rev. Bolton began to hear of projects. One group pooled money to support the drilling of water wells in Africa. They bought water bottles, got a booth at a local festival and asked people to forgo soda, put the savings in the bottle and donate it for wells. A man with an ice cream and game parlor opened it for two days for free, asking only for donations to buy hoodies for homeless people in Pittsburgh. It yielded $1,370.

"People gave more than they would have because they got so engaged," Rev. Bolton said. A company gave him a break on 137 top-quality zippered hoodies, which he distributed through homeless ministries in Uptown and on the South Side.

The project corrects the idea that the Kingdom of God is in an ethereal future, Rev. Bolton said.

"Jesus said 'The kingdom of God is in your midst,' " he said. "He isn't' just promising a good forever but talking about making the here and now better."

A month before the Kingdom Assignment, Christine Avallone of Pine accompanied her daughter on a mission trip to repair homes in West Virginia. She was disturbed by the desperate poverty of the recipients, and appalled to learn that the couple who ran the organization had an open septic system, an air conditioner that spewed coolant and a dishwasher that was flooding their floor. They had bought their new home from a builder who went bankrupt, leaving work incomplete and warranties void.

She decided to leverage her $100 by organizing a spaghetti dinner and auction to help the couple. She and her friends solicited donated food and auction items. When it appeared they would be short of meatballs, she asked for prayers at her Bible study and was flooded with a surfeit of donated meatballs.

"I got to have God moments," Ms. Avallone said. The dinner raised more than $10,000.

"We're not allowing this to be a one-time thing," she said. They would continue raising money for the housing ministry. "God's plans are going forth. He doesn't need me, but he wants me to see what he can do in our lives."

'You experienced a miracle'

Vicki Carlson didn't go forward on Aug. 19 because she's on the church staff. But she had already vowed to put her own $100 into a Kingdom Assignment. After one false start, she learned that a friend was struggling to organize a soccer tournament to raise money for help with adoption expenses for Pittsburgh-area families.

"I felt God's nudge to jump in," she said.

Lagging registrations jumped to 75. Goods and services were donated. The Riverhounds supported it. Former Steeler Jeff Hartings agreed to speak about his family's adoption experience.

There was a storm the day of the event.

"But a bubble formed around us and the weather went north and south. It was unbelievable. Parents would come saying that a mile away it was pouring rain, but it's not raining here. The rain held off until 9:30, which is when we were done," Ms. Carlson said. About $9,200 was raised, and people asked for an annual event.

"I put my kids to bed that night saying 'You experienced a miracle right there,' " she said.

Karen Eastburn of Pine, a mother of four who works in sales for a biotech company, pooled her $100 with others to help a local family in need and to provide 300 Thanksgiving meals to needy people.

The project was in its early stages when she was interviewed, but she said it had already changed her life.

"This Kingdom Assignment has opened my eyes to how we should be looking at life as a whole. Our constant kingdom assignment in this life is to look outward," she said.

"There are so many needs out there. There are people who are starving and homeless and in need of hope. Often people lose their faith wondering why God doesn't help them. But that is why we are here. God puts us here to help those in need."

She kept the bill she was handed in church, substituting her own money.

"I will never give that bill away. It will serve as a symbol of why I am here and what my purpose is," she said.

neigh_north

Ann Rodgers: arodgers@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1416.


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