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What would happen if the Parable of the Talents were tried today?

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Oct. 20, 2009 - In the Parable of the Talents, Jesus tells a story of a rich man who leaves his money with three servants while he travels. Two of the servants invest the money - talents were the coin of the realm - and earn more, giving the total to the rich man upon his return. The rich man is rewarded for trusting them; the servants are rewarded for taking chances. The servant who buried his talent, however, was cast out.

The Bible story resonated with the Rev. Chuck Barthel, pastor of Christ Prince of Peace in Manchester. This spring, he asked the members of his Roman Catholic congregation to help him put the parable into action.

"This is one of those theoretical ideas where I wonder what it would look like if we tried it," he said. "This parable is about the challenges when people are afraid. What if we really tried to live this out?"

Saying that he had money from a donation to work with (though it actually came out of his wages), eight people volunteered and turned $960 into about $4,000 and a series of donations to nonprofit services all over the St. Louis area.

The only requirement was that the participants attend a few meetings to discuss how to put the plan into action. Barthel divided his $960 among two married couples, a father and daughter, and two individuals - for $120 a person. He expected them to meet after a few months, pool the proceeds and decide where to donate it. He told the participants that he wasn't sure if it would work, and if they themselves needed the money, to simply keep it.

"What I initially proposed and what transpired, it had a life of its own," Barthel said. "Their creative wheels went working."

Pat Berger invested in the stock market, earning a 42 percent return over a month. She took that, added some other donations, and gave it to Rebuilding Together, which rehabilitates homes of the elderly and disabled. Emerson Electric matched the donation, making the final amount $540.

Steve Neart helped his daughter Alyssa Runge, an Ursuline student, arrange to set up a table outside the Wal-Mart in Manchester. Over five hours, Runge and a friend collected $273.02. She split the proceeds between Lydia House, a safe house for women who are victims of domestic violence, and the parish tuition assistance fund, which Neart's employer matched. They also returned $120 to Barthel to help fund next year's Parable Project.

One couple - Ron and Nancy Huelsmann - added some of their own funds to the $240 and simply gave it to others in $20 increments to use as they saw fit. Several of them wrote Barthel to thank him. "I ended up getting seven notes, which were just sort of delightful," he said.

The Huelsmanns then started a "Final Four for the Poor," selling chances for $10 each with donated Cardinals tickets as prizes. That raised $1,050. They sent checks for $350 each to two food pantries and World Missionaries of Charity for its North Grand location. A foundation matched one donation.

The two other projects involved things that are dear to many people's hearts: food and coffee.

"We just thought that something involving food would be a good way to get people together, that they'd be willing to spend a little money for, especially if it were for a worthy cause," said Dick Holdener. He and his wife Marie planned a lasagna dinner, which was held at a private home. Almost 50 people attended and wrote checks worth $1,890 for Lifeline Coalition.

Kathy Lottes' fair-trade coffee sales continue.


The project that Kathy Lottes chose continues on the first Sunday of every month: selling fair trade coffee and tea after mass. Lottes spent her seed money on the coffee, and sold out of it after the first mass. She took orders worth $800 that day, and has continued to sell about $500 in product each month. The coffee comes from farmers in Sri Lanka, South Africa, Colombia, Nicaragua and Mexico. The tea is from India.

"I thought it was neat that Father Chuck was letting us think outside the box," she said. "The fair trade coffee, it's not really raising money for community groups, but it's helping to support the farmers in other countries so they can have a better life."

While the individuals in the first Parables group, by and large, made their own decisions as to which charities should benefit from their efforts, the project looks as though it will have a second chapter. Money, in fact, continues to come in here and there.

After reading about the stories in the bulletin, one parishioner gave Barthel $50. And over the summer, after Barthel spoke to a group and told of his project, the group collected $80 and handed it over to him. He consulted his Parables Project group on what to do with the money, and they decided to save it for next year's project.

"I think people got excited by watching what others did," he said.

In a way, the success of the project came home to roost. Shortly after Barthel gave out $960 of his own money to the participants, he was surprised with a check in the mail for almost $1,300 for a hospital bill he had overpaid.

He sees it all as an affirmation of the project that is close to his heart.

"It was just amazement and joy to watch what would happen," he said. "Amazement and joy."

Miriam Moynihan is a freelance writer.