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Teachable moment - Religious groups see federal stimulus checks as opportunity to raise money for faith projects
Teachable moment - Religious groups see federal stimulus checks as opportunity to raise money for faith projects

MILWAUKEE - Budget cuts to Rod McLean's church youth group jeopardized a summer mission trip to Washington state. As he wondered how he could help them meet their $13,000 budget, he remembered the upcoming federal tax rebate. He decided to donate his stimulus check - and persuade others at Lake Edge United Church of Christ in Madison, Wis., to do the same.

"I thought, 'What a natural,' " said McLean, a 67- year-old retiree. "If a lot of people can give 10, 15, 20 percent of that, it's not like digging into their normal budgets."

He told church leaders of his idea and the "Share the Windfall Fund" was born. This weekend members of the church will present their checks at a potluck and help decide which missions, including soup kitchens and homeless shelters, they'll support.

The church of about 900 members in Wisconsin's capital city isn't alone. From United Church of Christ members, to Lutherans and Quakers, religious groups are asking people to donate at least part of their checks to their groups or other charities.

The federal government hopes to stimulate the economy with the $110 billion it's returning to taxpayers this spring and summer. But many see the extra money as an opportunity for charity.

"It's an unbelievable amount of cash that people of faith or people of conscience could choose to say, 'You know, we could get along without this. We could put this money to use,' " said Ken Sehested, co-pastor at the Circle of Mercy church in Asheville, N.C.

His congregation of about 50 adults, which is affiliated with the United Church of Christ and Alliance of Baptists, voted to give at least 10 percent of their checks to charities.

Sehested said many parishioners are still waiting for their rebate, so he's not sure how much they'll donate or where it'll go. He and his wife plan to give their entire $1,200 check to their church's partner congregation in Cuba. The "Tax Rebate for Peace" effort by the Friends Committee on National Legislation, a Quaker lobby group, has received more than 30 such donations so far, averaging $100 each, spokesman Jim Cason said. The group promotes peace and diplomacy, including boosting spending for the State Department and United Nations.

Religious groups traditionally receive the most donations in the United States. In 2006, the most recent year data is available, some $295 billion was donated in the U.S., according to Giving USA Foundation, with research from the Indiana University Center on Philanthropy. Of that, nearly one-third went to religious groups. The nearly $97 billion they received is more than double the next most-popular segment, education, which received nearly $41 billion.

Sandra Enos, a sociologist at Bryant University in Smithfield, R.I., who specializes in nonprofits and philanthropy, said donations to food pantries and other local charities can benefit the economy just as much as spending on a new TV or vacation.

"Boy, if you're feeding local people who are hungry, it's like locally spurring the economy, so it's a wise economic choice, it seems," she said.

At McLean's church, if all members give 10 percent of their rebates, the congregation could raise $40,000, said senior pastor Paul Shupe. The congregation's charities include mission work for the homeless and hungry, and the youth group's trip to the Pacific Northwest later this month.

"We're using it as a teaching moment for us, an opportunity to think about our wealth and our resources and our responsibility," Shupe said.

While charity is important, church leaders must also make sure that members who need the money know it's OK to keep it, said Bishop Paul Stumme-Diers of the Greater Milwaukee Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. He recently urged ELCA leaders at a national conference to ask congregants to donate - but only if people can afford to do so.

"This is not to lay a guilt trip on people, but rather it's an invitation for those who are really able to give beyond the usual amounts because of this unexpected windfall," he said.

The Jewish Council for Public Affairs, an umbrella group for the nation's 125 Jewish community relations councils and national agencies, is grappling with similar concerns.

The council doesn't want to issue a mandate on donating, especially if people are in need, but hopes that those who are financially able will consider giving, said Rabbi Steve Gutow, the council's executive director.

McLean and his wife are planning to donate at least 10 percent.

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