On the first Sunday of December, the Rev. Ron Foster invited his congregants to step up to the altar to receive the bread and wine of Communion - and to receive a $100 bill.
"Listen to where the Holy Spirit's leading you," he said to the stunned congregation as he distributed a stack of money at Severna Park United Methodist Church, located in a Baltimore suburb. "Listen to the need that's around you, that you find in the community. You may be in the right place at the right time to help somebody, because you have this in your hand."
One hundred congregants walked out into the Advent season, with the money burning a hole in their pockets.
One stack of bills totaling $10,000, dropped off at the church by an anonymous donor, has turned into 100 good deeds in the Severna Park community this Christmas season.
Ginger ale and soup and warm socks for a cancer patient. Snow pants and gloves so a child with a brain tumor can play outside. Christmas presents for children who are homeless, for children whose parents are struggling with drug addiction, for children whose parents have suffered domestic abuse, for children in the hospital. Cash for dozens of grateful strangers, from waitresses to bus drivers to leaf collectors.
One hundred donations goes a long way.
"People have been so thoughtful. The money has just multiplied and blossomed and gone out," Foster said. "There's been so much joy and excitement just spilling over."
The anonymous donor has been tickled pink to watch the fruit of her gift.
She doesn't want her name published. Even her own daughter (who picked up one of the $100 bills at church and chose to send her donation to children in a foreign country) doesn't know that she's behind the big gift.
"I wanted to make it about the fun," she said. "We want to make it about the excitement and the joy of giving, and to give people the experience of giving."
She came up with the idea this summer, when she was distraught over the death of Heather Heyer, who was protesting against white supremacists and neo-Nazis in Charlottesville, Virginia, who walked the streets with torches chanting, "Jews will not replace us."
"I just had that heavy weight on my chest. I just felt bummed out and sad about our situation, about humanity in general," she said. She found herself in a Starbucks, even though her husband makes coffee every day at home. Without really thinking about it, she bought a gift card, and gave it to the cashier. "I want you to use this for everybody who comes in after me, until it's gone. I want you to treat everybody to a cup of coffee," she said.
All of a sudden, her depression about Charlottesville lifted. "My mood completely changed," she said. "It was that excitement, of being able to share with other people."
That's what she wanted for everyone at Severna Park United Methodist Church, the church she and her husband started attending when they moved to Severna Park recently. She had heard about other communities, including her mother's church in Texas, where everyone in the congregation was entrusted with money to distribute. She went to Foster and asked if she and her husband could give $10,000 to make it happen here.
Foster was enthusiastic. The logistics were a bit more difficult than the donor expected: It took three banks to actually gather 100 bills to give out. ("The first one said, 'All we have is 33.' Don't you?! It's a bank! I had that vision of Richie Rich in the back with stacks," she joked.) On the first Sunday of Advent, the bills were waiting. Everyone who wanted one at the church's three services, which collectively host about 550 people each Sunday, was able to take one.
Then the giving spree began.
One congregant took a needy fourth-grader on a shopping trip, where he picked out socks and underwear and shoes, plus a gift he could give each of his parents. The boy said it was the best day of his life.
Many congregants decided to add more money of their own - like the one who filled a cart to overflowing with $275 worth of pet food for the SPCA in Annapolis, and the couple who chipped in another $100 and paid off items on layaway at Kmart so strangers can take home their Christmas wishes.
One couple helped their 7-year-old daughter create bags of socks, hand warmers and McDonald's gift cards. When a man approached their car to ask for change, the little girl opened the window and handed out the first of the gift bags, thrilled. Another congregant heard about a program that gives purses to homeless women, and decided to buy 100 items to put inside the purses - soap, shampoo, maxipads and more.
Many had co-workers they knew needed some financial help. Others waited for a stranger, searching for a serendipitous moment to pass on the $100 bill.
"What was the coolest to me was how I was on 'high alert' all week, looking for people or opportunities to help. That was a great lesson, I think we should always be in that mode, always on the lookout for who God may place in our path, and for things He calls us to do. I am going to strive to be in that spirit more and more, to have eyes to see people's needs more routinely, and to help in any way I can," one congregant wrote on the church's blog. That member ended up giving the $100 bill to a waitress, as did another congregant on another day. "I just trusted that God would put us at the right table, the one with the person He wanted me to give my envelope to," the congregant wrote.
The donor behind it all said one of her favorite ideas was Dave Doss's. He and a friend ordered 10 pizzas and a case of Orange Crush to be delivered to the steps of a Baltimore church where they knew homeless men and women hang out. Then they spent the afternoon having a pizza party with them.
"When you have that $100 burning a hole in your pocket, you're looking around. Should I fill that person's gas tank? Should I buy that person's groceries? What can I do? It's exciting, to have that ability to do that," the donor said. She said that she and her husband have had good fortune - they own a business - and she feels lucky to be able to give, and to enable others to practice giving.
Foster said congregants confided in him that they thought long and hard about how to use their $100, perhaps even more than they would have had they been handing out their own funds.
"That to me is good theology anyway," Foster said. "It's a good way to think about your life, that you've been entrusted with great gifts. And how do you turn around and use them?"
It's an eternal question. This Christmas, his church has 100 answers.
This article was written by Julie Zauzmer of the Washington Post.