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The pew will serve

Church giving tops all other kinds in the U.S.

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Americans give more money to churches and religious groups than any other charity. In 2002, 35 percent of all charitable contributions were religious - and education, the next largest recipient, only 13 percent. That's no doubt the reason why Mississippi is No. 1 on the Catalogue for Philanthropy's Generosity Index, which measures giving in relation to income. No. 2? Arkansas. Income tax returns for 2001 show Arkansans gave a $1 billion dollars to charity in 2001. If the 35 percent ratio holds true, that means $350 million dollars went to churches and other religious organizations. Bring that down to congregation level. A good example: The 2,200 or so families who attend Fellowship Bible Church in Little Rock give $10 million a year to the church. Of that, a goodly sum - $3.5 million to $4 million - goes to its outreach projects. (It raises another $2 million from sales of literature and foundation grants.) Fellowship's Mike Robinson, who describes himself as a "recovering CPA," gave the what the Times found to be rare look - two other large churches with recent building projects turned us down - at church giving. Fellowship Bible, a non-denominational church that began in 1977 with 50 people meeting Sundays in the Anthony School gymnasium, is today a huge operation, employing 110 or so people full-time on a 28-acre campus. (Such growth was unanticipated, Robinson said, by way of explaining why the church property straddles Napa Valley Drive.) It has a budget of $12 million, give or take a half million, or $1 million a month - nearly all of which, of course, comes from its 7,500 active members. Fellowship's occupation of 250,000 square feet in several buildings includes a new three-story, $5 million, architecturally fine office building. But the church never borrows more than 50 percent of a project's cost, and its spending on the new building is close to what it spends on outreach. In March, the church's Urban Strategies Foundation opened the Urban Strategies Center at 1401 Main St. in North Little Rock to house faith-based agencies for inner city kids. It spent nearly $400,000 buying and renovating the building, a former medical clinic. The church gives $80,000 to $100,000 a year to one of those agencies, STEP Ministry, a mentoring project that works in the schools in North Little Rock. FBC will probably spend $50,000 this year on Sharefest, Robinson said. Sharefest is sponsored by a collaboration of churches whose volunteers put in a day - this year, Nov. 6 - painting schools, fixing playgrounds and other buildings, and collecting coats and food and holding a blood drive at War Memorial Stadium. Fellowship's Sharefest focus - it plans to put more than a 1,000 members of its congregation to work that day - is part of its ongoing outreach in the neighborhoods around Franklin Elementary School, and the school itself, south of Interstate 630. The church is sending 40 volunteers to Franklin Elementary to implement the "STEP Encourager" mentoring model to increase literacy and address other needs. Robinson made clear his sincere anguish over Franklin school's problems by producing an instant litany of statistics: Of the 400 students, 97 percent are on free or reduced-price lunches. Seventy percent are from single family homes. Only 10 percent of the parents are involved in some way with the school. The income in the neighborhoods surrounding the school ranges from $4,500 to $14,000 - and if you remove the families that live in the Oak Forest area, that top falls to $6,000. Fellowship Bible volunteers are identifying other neighborhood needs, including fix-ups at the adult center, a small park and the fire station. Other organizations Fellowship's dollars and volunteer manpower support include Aldersgate, Dorcas House and the Crisis Closet at Winfield United Methodist Church. Rice Depot is on their "radar screen." They've sent a management consultant to the Arkansas Foodbank to look at its organizational structure. "Fifty percent of our people will be involved in community service beyond Sharefest," Robinson said. The passion of their giving is directly related, of course, to their faith. Robinson cited the church's theme, "I-squared," as an expression of Fellowship's philosophy. It's based on Matthew 5:16: "Let your light shine before men in such a way that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father who is in heaven." "The church equips people for life and for service," Robinson said, and people must take their light "to the marketplace" to help others. When the philosophy is taken to heart, Robinson said, it's easy to raise the money needed to do good works. It's called, he said, "the final stage of conversion: the conversion of the pocketbook."

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