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Five Bucks, and Change

August 17, 2003

So there he was two Sundays ago, standing in his familiar pulpit and preaching the Gospel to hundreds of attentive parishioners in Louisiana. As usual, all but two or three faces looking up at Bishop Fred Caldwell were black, like his. It was the day's final sermon of three. About 1,800 Shreveport worshipers had already heard him. For some reason as he stood there that muggy night, the minister recalled an idea he first had a decade ago. He decided to share it right then and there.

Caldwell announced that throughout August he was going to pay from his own pocket $5 to every white man or woman who attended services at his Greenwood Acres Full Gospel Baptist Church. One person in that audience happened to work for a television station. The next day a TV crew interviewed Caldwell. The story of seeming to pay people to pray went global. And the rest is, well, not yet history. Millions of people saw the story. Several dozen white people have come to Caldwell's services, enough to set the preacher back $345. But, interestingly, a majority of newcomers decline the $5 check, and many of them now bring family members. In fact, Caldwell reports, a number of people from far away sent in $5.

What's going on here? Caldwell says the superficial news reports focused more on the novelty of a black paying whites to pray and less on his real concern: the racism of religion. "We've got a problem with racism by folks of all colors," he says. "This weekend, you look around your church. See if that crowd looks like the kingdom of God."

He sees the $5 as bait to change thinking, a journey Caldwell himself began more than 30 years ago. He was a junkie contemplating suicide, he said, when a TV sermon by Billy Graham changed his mind about the possibility of change. Slowly, Caldwell was drawn to religion and then preaching. But it didn't work so well and he invested long hours in introspection. "I hated whites," Caldwell says. "I just plain hated them. There's reasons. But you can't preach or live God's words with hate in your heart. So I had to change my heart, get it right." Since the $5 offer, he's been called an Uncle Tom by blacks and a joke by whites. "That's OK," he says. "Their heart's where mine used to be."

He'll distribute more $5 checks today. But the offer has already served its purpose. "We often see in the news how we allow our culture to infiltrate the Gospel," Caldwell says. "Yet we fight so strongly to prevent the Gospel from infiltrating our culture. Five dollars won't change everything. But it got the word out about the possibility of change. Maybe this article will get more people thinking out there."

Not a bad idea.

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