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The following story is part of Lake Institute’s story collection, The Faithful Generosity Story Shelf, which highlights congregations and other religious organizations who have sought to use their assets and resources in creative—and sometimes surprising—ways as an expression of faithful giving.

Each entry in our Story Shelf is short enough to be read and discussed during a committee meeting or other group gathering. Our hope is that these accessible vignettes will spark new questions, conversation, and imagination among clergy and laity about what might be possible with the funds, buildings, land, and other resources in their care.

A Howard University senior hugs Alfred Street Baptist Church senior pastor, the Rev. Dr. Howard-John Wesley.
A Howard University senior who received financial assistance for his education hugs Alfred Street Baptist Church senior pastor, the Rev. Dr. Howard-John Wesley. Photo from Faith & Leadership (Leadership Education at Duke Divinity).

By Starlette Thomas

A monthlong fast led a church to step up to the plate for thirty-four unsuspecting college students. Located in Alexandria, Virginia, and dating back to 1803, Alfred Street Baptist Church, one of the oldest African American faith communities in the state, has a long history of giving back to its community. 

During the Civil War, the church collected the “Poor Saints” offering. In the 1920s, it had a “lending library,” which offered a collection of sixteen hundred books to African American residents. Since there was no school for African American children, then pastor Rev. Andrew Warren Adkins assisted in founding the Parker Gray High School. He even served as a high school teacher.

The church established the Alfred Street Baptist Church Foundation in 2002, which regularly provides college scholarships to high school students. Showing support from start and now to finish, it’s an expression of the church’s mission. Members are also encouraged to start their own “Legacy Scholarship” through the foundation, ensuring that educational opportunities are passed down.

The church’s current pastor, Rev. Dr. Howard-John Wesley, invited members to fast not only from food but also from social media and unnecessary spending. It was 2019. At the beginning of the year, New Year’s resolutions are common, expected even as persons set goals to be a better version of themselves than the previous year. 

Leading by example, the pastor cut his $4-a-day coffee expense and donated the money instead. It all added up, and what they gave in return, recipients like Mya Thompson, a twenty-five-year-old senior at Howard University in Washington, D.C., didn’t see coming.

Churches in the United States have a long history of offering financial support to students seeking to pursue postsecondary education. No matter their size, faith tradition, or geographic location, churches have sought to meet the spiritual as well as social and personal needs of their communities.

Pooling resources and sharing the burden of others, the members of Alfred Street Baptist Church continue a practice started by the early church members (Acts 2:44; 4:32). It is what Christians have done for centuries.

“We said we would pray as a church to what the Lord was telling us to do [with the money] and that we would donate it 100 percent outside of the church,” Wesley said. It turned out to be an answer to prayer for those stuck between student debt and a graduation date.

The church had hoped to reach a goal of $25,000, but it far exceeded their expectations, not doubling but more than quadrupling to $150,000. 

Mark Lavarin and Elijah McDavid, the pastor’s assistants, came up with the idea to donate the money to historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs), and the congregation wasn’t let in on the surprise until after the money had been donated.

“The entire congregation was just moved to tears,” said Wesley. “In this time . . . we feel it is important as a body of faith that we exemplify what it means to take care of strangers.”

Howard University received $100,000; and Bennett College in Greensboro, North Carolina, a college for women, received $50,000.

Wesley worked with officials at Howard University to identify students in need. These students were ready to graduate but would not have been able to without the church’s assistance. The debt was preventing them from graduating. For Thompson, it was $2,500.

Wayne A. I. Frederick, Howard University’s president, said, “It will teach them about paying forward and teach them about the responsibility to the community around them.” Mya Thompson certainly feels this sense of responsibility.

“What Alfred Street did for me, I feel like next semester or next year as an alumna of the university I can come back and do something nice, maybe pay for their books or pay for their graduation fee,” she said. “I feel like it’s my duty to do that for students of my university,” Thompson said.

Sources

Alfred Street, History, accessed October 18, 2022, https://www.alfredstreet.org/about-us/church-history/.

Alfred Street, Newsroom, accessed October 18, 2022, https://www.alfredstreet.org/newsroom.

Katie Kindelan, “After a month-long fast, church pays off $100,000 in debt for 34 college students,” GMA, February 15, 2019, https://www.goodmorningamerica.com/living/story/month-long-fast-church-pays-off-100000-debt-61046793.

DATE: July 15, 2022
TOPIC: Organizational Leadership
TYPE: Story/Case Study
SOURCE: Faithful Generosity Story Shelf
KEYWORDS: Debt, Generosity
AUTHOR: Starlette Thomas