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Church Invests in the Needy

One Thanksgiving, Denny Bellesi asked for volunteers to join him at the altar of the Coast Hills Community Church in Aliso Viejo, California. He didn't say what they would be volunteering for. When just a few people came forward, the pastor got down and trolled the aisles, pointing at parishioners. "My biggest fear," says Glen Pickren, "was that he was going to ask us to dance."

Actually, Bellesi had an even bigger challenge in mind—to stage an adjusted-for-inflation version of the biblical parable of the talents (Matthew 25:14-30), in which a master entrusts three servants with a few coins, hoping they will invest the money in a way that will profit him. In this case, the pastor handed crisp $100 bills to 100 church members (drawn from the church treasury). Their task was to enrich God by investing in the needy.

"I dumped a huge responsibility on them," says Bellesi. "But it turned out to impact more people than any of us thought possible."

The good works funded by Bellesi's offering cover a wide range in terms of both scale and geography. Take the case of Internet employment-agency executive Michael Rodriguez, who e-mailed old schoolmates for matching funds and wound up giving $8,000 to cover medical and funeral expenses for a couple whose two daughters died of a rare blood disorder. Or take Steve L'Heureux, a software-company owner, and his wife, Cathy, a homemaker, whose only child, 6-year-old Alex, died suddenly in January 2000 of unknown causes. In her memory, the couple planted an artificial Christmas tree in a neighbor's yard and decorated it with cards requesting holiday gifts for three destitute families. Some 90 donors matched the L'Heureux's $100 with $8,000 worth of toys and grocery certificates.

"God allowed this little ragtag church to grow," says Bellesi. Bellesi and his wife, who helps run the church's youth programs, first thought of reenacting the parable of the talents 15 years ago. But even they have been surprised by the resourcefulness of parishioners like homemaker Terry Zwick, who told friends at a party about the pastor's challenge and left with $1,700. That sum helped an acquaintance of an acquaintance—Lisa Panzica, 33, a single mother of three who had recently moved out of a homeless shelter—buy groceries and pay the rent.

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