On a Sunday early last February, Dr. James Howell, senior minister at Myers Park United Methodist Church, threw out a challenge to his 5,000-member congregation with little notion about how it would respond.
He asked members to give up drinking alcohol for the 46-day period of Lent -- when many Christians sacrifice a vice before Easter. He also asked them to take the money that they would have spent on alcohol during that time and put it in the church's "Spirit Fund."
"The way he framed it was that as a culture we probably drink too much, and that there are those of us who are guilty of using alcohol -- particularly in these financially stressed times -- as a substitute for God," said Kevin Wright, the church's mission minister. "In essense, he was saying that sometimes we turn to the wrong spirit, when we should be turning to the holy spirit."
They have no idea how many took up the challenge. But after Easter, the "Spirit Fund" was spilling over with $29,290.81 -- $5,000 from an anonymous donor.
Thursday, the church cut a check for $25,901.64 and mailed it Hope Haven, the converted motel on North Tryon Street that is an addiction recovery program for the homeless (a room is pictured above). A second check for $3,389 was made out to the Charlotte Rescue Mission, another recovery program, to repair the boiler system.
"It was money just out of the air; it was delightful and exciting when the church called me," said Judy Marshall, Hope Haven's vice president for development. The charity lost $160,000 in United Way money; $60,000 would have been used for family and children programs.
"We're all looking for ways to sustain our services and keep them going at the level that we're used to. It's a challenge that we're addressing and the money from the church sure helps in a big way," Marshall said.
Howell and Wright were surprised at the response to the challenge. In no time, Howell was fielding emails and phone calls from members moved by the gesture.
"We aren't saying at all that alcohol is evil," Howell said. "Although one lovely lesson from this exercise was that dozens of people learned they drink too much, depend on it too much to be social or to have fun, or to cope with difficulties."
A "handful" of members entered recovery programs, Wright said.
Howell told the congregation that he understood that the current economic strife is stressing people.
"But he said if you turn to alcohol in excess, it can go too far," Wright said. "It can have a harmful impact on families and children."
Leigh Ann Smith, 34, and her younger sister, Lynsley Smith, 32, are both church members with a family history of alcoholism.
They took on the challenge. Leigh Ann failed a week before Easter. She'd run a 10K in Charleston, and found herself with friends sitting on the rooftop patio of a restaurant. The temptation was too great. She ordered a glass of wine.
"I've always been very cautious about what and how I drink, so I thought it'd be no sweat to make it through the challenge," said Leigh Ann, who limits her drinking to a couple glasses of wine on weekends. "It surprised me that it was more important to have that glass of wine than to meet the challenge."
Still, she gave $100 to the fund.
Her sister, ever competitive, said Howell's challenge made her proud of the church. She had no problem going 46 days without a drink, even at parties.
Two things surprised her: She found those not drinking at parties has more substantial conversations -- "we cut through the chit-chat" -- and she discovered two friends struggling with alcohol were in Alcoholics Anonymous.
"It created a neat sense of fellowship," she said.
And it's doing some good on many levels.