CHICAGO – On a very memorable Sunday, Pastor Laura Truax surprised her congregation with a bold announcement: She was about to hand out money to everyone.
LaSalle Street Church had received a tidy $1.6 million from a real estate deal, the pastor said, and $160,000 — a typical 10 percent tithe — would be divided among some 320 regular attendees. Each would get a $500 check to do something positive.
LaSalle, a non-denominational church, has long been involved in social causes, from feeding homeless families to buying an ambulance for a medical clinic in Niger.
Not surprisingly, many donations will reach far-flung places, including a school in the Himalayas and an irrigation project in Tanzania. Closer to home, some checks are helping needy friends.
Church members, Truax says, are doing just what she'd envisioned when she distributed the checks in September.
"I hoped that they would recognize the power they had to bless others and change somebody's life," she says. "... And that has largely happened."
Jeliner Jordan remembers being young and in debt.
More than 40 years ago, she was a divorced mother of three who couldn't stretch her seamstress earnings far enough to support her kids. She took out a loan of about $4,000 to attend a business college, expecting it would lead to better opportunities — and it did.
But she never forgot the pressure of making payments, then falling behind before eventually settling her debt.
Aware that her granddaughter, Deitra Galloway, was saddled with college loans, Jordan knew what she'd do with part of her church money: She gave Galloway $300, figuring it might cover a month's payment. She was shocked when her granddaughter revealed her school debt was in the many thousands.
A grateful Galloway, 26, used the money instead to help pay a loan on her used car. It was just another example of her grandmother's generosity, including taking her to Paris when she was in college. "I always thought she was rich because she would do these things for me and it never seemed like money was an obstacle," she says.
Far from it. Jordan, now 71, is a meticulous planner who watches every dollar.
"She's a great role model," Galloway says.
Jordan, who had a long career in the insurance industry but still enjoys sewing, divided her remaining money between a local arts program and a nearby elementary school.
"It's not possible to give without receiving," she says. "And what I received immediately is joy."
At first, Jonas Ganz figured he'd go the traditional charity route, helping those with basic needs.
But his friends are trying to raise $25,000 to build the Seven Hills Skate Park in Amman, Jordan, and pitching in to help, he says, seemed "the right thing to do."
Ganz grew up in Amman, spending many hours there on his skateboard.
He says he knows there are more urgent needs in life, but doing good is about more than tending to the essentials.
"This project has the potential to have a lasting impact on the community," he says.
Ganz donated $450 to the park — the rest to World Vision, a Christian international relief agency.
Now a junior at Moody Bible Institute, Ganz, 20, is returning to Jordan, where his parents are helping Syrian refugees. He plans to study Arabic.
Ganz recently had knee surgery for a soccer injury so his sports days are temporarily on hold.
But when he packs up his gear, he'll include a favorite possession: his skateboard.
Kristin Hu was inspired by her grandmother, Irene, who died in June.
When Hu received her $500, she remembered how her grandmother worked until she was 80, giving piano lessons, using her savings to help eight grandchildren pay for college.
As a political science teacher at Lakeview High School, a melting pot of ethnicities, Hu wanted to help some kids who don't have a guardian angel: the Dreamers, those young immigrants brought to the U.S. as children without legal permission, raised here and now going public, fighting to stay.
Hu, 29, was moved after hearing an impassioned speech by Lucy, an accomplished Mexican-born Dreamer in her class, who spoke of how she and others want to attend college but don't qualify for financial aid because of their status.
"They have amazing potential, but our country isn't investing in them the way they should," Hu says. "Many of them are so motivated. ... They've really touched me."
Hu plans to give $500 to a Dreamer organization or start a scholarship foundation for the kids.
LaSalle's program, she says, also made her think about the importance of "paying it forward and giving back."
She credits her grandmother for setting her on the right path.
"I think this is living out her legacy," Hu says. "I'd like to be there for someone else."
Randy Dill was almost in a panic to find the right place for his donation — and do it quickly.
"I wanted a 100 percent return on my investment," he says.
But then he slowed down to conduct a careful search for a place to help the unemployed and those trying to boost their skills to earn more money.
Dill, a 36-year-old supervisor at a suburban Chicago assembly plant, eventually settled on the Jane Addams Resource Corporation. The nonprofit helps low-income people with worker training, financial coaching and other services so they can be self-sufficient.
Dill's wife, Erika, is using her $500 to help needy families at their daughters' public school buy winter clothes for their kids.
"What the money did for us was help open our eyes to some things that we take granted," Randy Dill says. "This was a not-so-subtle reminder how fortunate we are and those things that we have, such as good health, are blessings that are so easy to ignore."
Dill hopes the donations will eventually pay bigger dividends.
"This was a moment that kind of defines the congregation," he says. "I have no idea how this will look five or 10 years from now. I think we're all reading a book and nobody knows how this thing will end."
Sharon Cohen, a Chicago-based national writer, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. National Writer Martha Irvine contributed to this report.