Coupons and Hope Chests Help Churches Bless People in Need

The observance of Episcopal Relief & Development Sunday during the Lenten season, as designated by the 2009 General Convention, is inspiring congregations to find their own unique ways of learning about and responding to the world’s needs.

At All Saints Episcopal Church in Columbia Falls, Montana, the church’s rector, the Rev. Bradley Wirth was inspired to create a Lenten coupon booklet. Each of the 40 coupons has a reminder of a luxury or blessing enjoyed in the U.S., but that many people worldwide often lack. In thanksgiving and remembrance of those in need, parishioners are asked to put a corresponding amount of change into their Episcopal Relief & Development Hope Chests.

For example, the coupon for March 10 states: “In Liberia, the average national income per capita is $390 a year. In America it is $46,360. Place in your Hope Chest a penny per $1000 household income per year.” The March 21 coupon says, “Imagine not having clean water to get a drink or to brush your teeth. Give thanks for this simple pleasure and put in the Hope Chest 10 cents for each sink in your home.”

The coupon books have been a hit, especially with children. Many people have complimented Father Bradley and are using the coupons along with the 2011 Lenten Meditations devotional. “Our middle school kids loved the idea of the coupon books,” said Cynthia Benkelman, the church’s Christian Formation Minister for Children and Youth. At a group dinner on the first Sunday of Lent, she said, the All Saints Rite 13 group discussed the coupons. “We went through several of them, and used the globe to look up countries that were referenced in some of the coupons.”

One mother told Cynthia that the following day, her child made sure the family took the action on the daily coupon. Another family shared that their 12-year-old showed his younger sisters how to use the booklet, and the kids then raided their piggy banks for coins to contribute.

Father Bradley has been glad to provide a meaningful yet fun way to help All Saints parishioners connect the spiritual journey of Lent with practical action. Noting that the season is often seen as a time of penance and sacrifice, he said, “I wanted to get away from the ‘bad’ view of Lent. We should see it as a time of joy. Taking on the Lenten disciplines together reminds us that we’re part of a community and we’re all in it together.”

At the 2009 General Convention, the first Sunday in Lent was designated as Episcopal Relief & Development Sunday. However, churches are invited to hold an event on any date during the season, or even the year, that fits into their calendars. St. James by-the-Sea Episcopal Church in La Jolla, California, chose to celebrate an event on November 21, 2010—the Sunday before Advent. As Episcopal Relief & Development Parish Representative Judith Ray explained, the church felt the date “provided a good focus on giving and on helping others at the beginning of the Advent and Christmas seasons.”

On the day of the event, Sunday school students received Hope Chests, along with a challenge to put in as many contributions as possible before Epiphany Sunday. Kids also learned about the various ways they could help people in need through Episcopal Relief & Development. The church displayed a mosquito net on the patio, along with information about the NetsforLife® Inspiration Fund campaign to raise funds for the malaria program partnership. Parishioners also received Gifts for Life alternative giving catalogs. All congregation members were encouraged to give alternative gifts through the catalog, contribute to the Hope Chests or directly to the organization, and purchase Bishops Blend fair trade coffee and tea the second Sunday of each month.

When the Hope Chests were presented on Epiphany Sunday, they contained over $680. The Sunday school kids were able to purchase a wealth of Gifts for Life items with the funds: a goat, bees and honey, a flock of chickens, a duck or goose, a pig and 23 mosquito nets and training.

St. James by-the-Sea once again plans to celebrate Episcopal & Relief Sunday just before Advent this year. “We look forward to having this project again,” Judith said.

“I’m pleased to see the creativity and initiative with which congregations are observing Lent and Episcopal Relief & Development Sunday,” said Brian Sellers-Petersen, Director of Church Engagement. “We encourage churches to use these resources in ways that work best for them. We’re very blessed that so many Episcopalians are following the Lenten discipline of almsgiving and caring for people in need through supporting our work.”