The pews were packed one Sunday last month inside the Good Shepherd Lutheran Church outside of Cincinnati, with everyone awaiting a surprise announcement from pastor Heidi Johns. The pastor stood in front of the congregation and asked everyone to send a family member up front to pick out a sealed envelope.
Inside each envelope was a check for $100, $250 or $500, with the "pay to the order of" section left blank.
"I want you to take these gifts of grace and go out and bless the world," Johns recalled telling church members on Sept. 8. "Do something meaningful with these checks. If you can, multiply them — add some money of your own or put in some sweat equity. Think of ways that you can make the most impact."
Johns said every person in the church, located in Kenwood, Ohio, was beaming with excitement.
"When they opened the envelopes and saw the checks, one man described it as a 'happy burden,'" said Johns. "Everyone realized the seriousness of doing the very best they could with the money to make the most difference."
In all, $60,000 was handed out to about 250 families that day to give to any needy person or charity they desired.
The money was a portion of a larger sum bequeathed to the Good Shepherd church by Ruth Grassman, a longtime parishioner with no children who had quietly built up her savings over the years. Grassman died in May 2018, just a few months shy of her 100th birthday, Johns said.
"After the church received the money she'd left us a year ago, I started thinking about ways to involve the congregation in using some of Ruth's generous gift," she said.
Johns recalled reading a story about a check giveaway project, in which the Preston Meadow Lutheran Church in Plano, Texas, gave away cash with instructions to go forth and do good with the money. She decided to do something similar.
"It was so exciting last month to finally surprise everyone with a check and then find out what they planned to do with the money," said Johns, 55.
After she encouraged parishioners to leave stories about their experiences on the church's website, the results soon started flowing in.
"Some people gave their checks to hurricane relief, homeless shelters, care of the environment and animals or food pantries that feed hungry people," Johns said. "Then there were people who know someone close to them who has gotten sick, lost a job or has medical bills they can't pay, so they put their checks to use helping them."
"It was a heartwarming experience to see what everyone came up with," she said.
After drawing a check for $250, Rachel and David Bea decided to match it and spend $500 on toys, books, socks and snacks to create 20 "smile bags" for children in need. With help from their children, Arleigh, 5, and Jaren, 4, they put the bags together and handed them out to kids they spotted at their local park or food pantry who they thought might be able to use them, said Rachel Bea, 37.
"We wanted our kids to learn the impact of giving rather than receiving, and to experience how wonderful it feels to help others," she said. "I had Arleigh make a little card to put in each bag that says, 'Smile.'"
"I felt proud to do it," Arleigh said. "It was a lot of fun."
"I felt really happy," Jaren added. "It made me feel good inside."
"One of the best things about this is that the kids didn't ask once to keep any of the toys for themselves," Rachel Bea said.
Katie and Ron Zink contributed $150 of their own money to a homeless shelter and let their two daughters, Josie, 14, and Sara, 12, decide how to spend their $100 check from the church.
Both girls had made sandwiches in the past at their school for a bag lunch program offered by St. Francis Seraph Ministries in Cincinnati, said Katie Zink, 41.
"They decided that would be the best use of the money, especially since the program helps day laborers who can't afford to buy themselves a lunch," she said. "Most of these people don't make more than $35 a day."
For Bill and Kathy Shuman, there was no question where they would use their $500 check. The retired couple volunteers every week at Cincinnati's William Howard Taft Elementary School, where the majority of the students qualify for free or reduced lunch.
After volunteering one afternoon earlier this year, Kathy Shuman stopped to talk to the music teacher and learned about a special need for rhythm instruments, said Bill Shuman, 72.
"We'd been struggling the past few months, hoping to find a way to help him to realize that dream, and then we happened to get that $500 check," said Bill Shuman.
The pair purchased enough recorders for every student in the third to sixth grades, along with several sets of percussion tubes.
"Playing music helps the kids with academics, helps them establish focus and gives them a positive way to burn off some steam," said teacher Dan Larkin Jr., who has 300 music students.
He said the gift was completely unexpected.
"What a tremendous surprise," Larkin said. "I'm beyond grateful."