First Parish in Weston, MA, has long had a custom of picking an all-parish project to engage in at the start of the fall worship year. Senior Minister Tom Wintle says that the congregation’s charge has been to “find, fund, and finish a project that can change us and change the world.” This imperative grew out of the congregation’s last strategic plan, said Wintle, and was intended to involve all ages and generations.
Wintle continued, “This year we decided we wanted to do something about the recession. There are not only individuals hurting, [but] philanthropic contributions are down as well, affecting agencies in our area. And we realized there were so many agencies out there, how would we decide on just one?
“We decided instead to take $5,000 out of our new projects fund, which developed from our last capital campaign. We named our project Neighbors Helping Neighbors, and we put random amounts of money in envelopes—ranging from $5 to $500—and the numbers on each envelope were recorded by our bookkeeper. Before the fall ingathering service, we threw the envelopes up in the air so that no one would know where the big bucks were.” When the congregation gathered in September the envelopes were distributed, and families were asked to decide, in some democratic fashion, who they would help.
The reading for that morning’s worship was the “Parable of the Talents” (Matthew 25, 14-30), which relates the story of one man who is able to put his money to work and build on his investment, and another who invests poorly and loses his initial investment. The day’s sermon, Wintle said, was about freedom: how a liberal church allows us to make choices about what we do, and how freedom allows us to choose but also calls us to make difficult decisions. Both reading and sermon helped to introduce Neighbors Helping Neighbors to the congregation.
The decision-making started as soon as the envelopes were distributed: how could parents help their children think about making a difference in the world; what could be done that would really change peoples’ lives?
Soon the church staff began to hear what had happened with the envelopes they distributed. Two parents decided to match what the church had given them and directed the money to assist services for the homeless in Boston. Another family conferred and decided to gift their money to the New England Home for Little Wanderers—a suggestion their children had made. Another family sent money to the Friends of Weston’s Council on Aging, and again, the people making the donation doubled what they had received from the church. Still another family wanted to help the Leland Home in Waltham. The family members combined their amounts, added more, and sent it to bring in musical entertainment for the residents. One person was inspired to go on the Alzheimer’s Association Memory Walk, where she contributed her envelope plus more. And a family with three children—one of whom had received $500—are talking about pooling their funds and putting on a pancake breakfast to raise an even larger amount for charity. Wintle said,“This program will pay dividends for months.”
First Parish in Weston’s generosity is part of a long-standing commitment to social justice and generosity. The congregation has made a practice of giving away over $50,000 a year to social change agencies. “We donate over ten percent of our budget, like a tithe,” said Wintle. The church’s Outreach Committee has the responsibility of investigating who should receive this money. Outreach is considered in four categories: to aid victims of violence, support the developmental needs of infants and children, combat homelessness, and for miscellaneous purposes. Each agency the church supports is assigned a member liaison in the church to stay in touch and find out if they need volunteer help.
Rev. Dr. Terasa Cooley, Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) Mass Bay District Executive, enthusiastically supports projects of this nature. She said, "I know that many congregations are really struggling right now in a way that easily leads us to 'hunker down.' I think the action taken by First Parish in Weston helps us reexamine some of the assumptions that may constrict us and open ourselves to a new understanding of who 'we' are."
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Last updated on Friday, June 17, 2011.
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