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Anonymous Benefactor's Letter Inspires the UU Church of St. Petersburg

On May 8th the Unitarian Universalist (UU) Church of St. Petersburg, FL, held a special worship service to offer praise and thanks for a windfall gift from a secret friend. The downtown church of about 100 members has been serving the St. Petersburg area for more than ninety years, but recently the congregation had fallen on hard financial times. Quite unexpectedly, an anonymous donor provided them with the means to regain their footing and to expand their ministry. The service was the congregation’s chance to celebrate and to reflect on how this mystery gift has transformed their community.

A few short months ago a friend of the church offered a challenge grant through the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA), promising to match, up to $75,000, each dollar pledged in their 2005 canvass. The stunned and delighted congregation rose to the occasion, and in March their member canvass topped $86,000, an astonishing increase of 29% over the previous year’s total. Best of all, the congregation may receive additional annual gifts totaling $250,000 from the donor over the next several years. The Rev. Susanne Nazian, co-consulting minister for the church (along with colleague the Rev. Alec Craig), commented on the wonderful morale boost the gift has provided: “Someone cares enough about us to give us this wonderful gift, and now we have a new faith in ourselves.”

At the celebration service, the Rev. Beth Graham, the UUA’s Associate Vice President for Stewardship and Development, presented the congregation with an oversized mock-up of a bank check for $75,000 on behalf the mystery donor. On a more serious note, Graham read a letter from the benefactor and preached a homily titled “Singing It Back,” a reflection on the sacred aspects of generosity and faith.

Graham described the special event: “Bright balloons swayed in the breeze, bringing such a festive feeling to the room. The choir nearly raised the roof with their energy and music and the congregation sang the morning's hymns with gusto. And to add to the electricity in the air, three local television news crews were covering the story, filming the service for later broadcast and interviewing key participants. It was truly a magical morning in Florida."

The donor was inspired over the winter holidays by a friend who suggested that “one might enjoy spending some bequest money while one can enjoy the process.” Mindful of this, the donor was struck with the idea for this gift while gazing at a Christmas tree one night. A phone call to the UUA’s Charitable Giving staff was the next step toward making the vision a reality.

UUA President, the Rev. William Sinkford, praised the generosity of the donor and applauded the creative work of the Stewardship and Development team: “A generous donor wanted to make a dream come true in St. Petersburg and, working together, we were able to make that happen.” The Rev. Terry Sweetser, UUA Vice President for Stewardship and Development, reflected on the power of the benefactor’s inspired wish, noting, “We are always looking for innovative ways to help donors’ dreams come true in the Unitarian Universalist institutions they love.”

One delightful consequence of the donor’s decision to remain anonymous is that the church members have been treating one another with increased gratitude and respect, knowing that anyone of them could be the benefactor. Graham commented, "It was the donor household, of course, who had the vision of helping this particular church find a way through some tough times. But the membership responded in kind by increasing their pledge income so dramatically."

Now the St. Petersburg congregation is savoring its opportunity to give back. The increased funding will allow them to call a permanent full-time minister, revitalize their religious education program, and expand services to the local community. Rev. Nazian conveyed the transformative power of the gift with these concluding words: “It’s wonderful to see hope revived. And that’s what has happened here.”

Letter from Anonymous Benefactor

Dear Friends,

This congregation has a great history that goes back more than 90 years, and so many wonderful people have served here, both lay and professional leaders.

Moreover, its home is a strong and gracious presence on the shore of Mirror Lake in Downtown St. Petersburg. The congregation has encountered some challenges in the last few years, but has shown courage, good cheer, faith, and imagination in facing them.

This gift is intended to honor so much of the past associated with this church, to ensure its future by providing a helping hand to a congregation that has the innate potential but lacks resources at this time, and to enhance its ability to share the values and benefits of Unitarian Universalism with the wider community.

A hope was that this gift would provide a boost at this particular time of transition, and your enthusiastic response and commitment have been deeply satisfying. By matching and exceeding this offering in your annual canvass, you are giving yourselves and your community the gift of faith through your stewardship.

Congratulations!

Yours truly,

Your Anonymous Donor

For more information contact web @ uua.org.

This work is made possible by the generosity of individual donors and congregations. Please consider making a donation today.

Last updated on Friday, June 17, 2011.

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