When I was serving the Bon Air Presbyterian Church (Richmond, Va.) as Associate Pastor, the “senior minister” took Mondays off, and I was “on duty.” Monday was the day when most of the pleas for “emergency funds” came our way. And I learned quickly that not all those requests arose from legitimate needs.

There was the man who came in fairly regularly asking for help. It wasn’t on a Monday, so the pastor met the man in the front entry hall of the church and was surprised to hear that the man needed money for a parasol. “A parasol?!” the pastor exclaimed. “We don’t consider that an emergency need.”

The man explained that he needed it for cutting wood to build a fire to keep his grandchildren warm. It was a power saw that he needed, but in his rural southern drawl, it sure sounded like he wanted a parasol.

Many of the requests we fielded were more serious (especially since we doubted the “keep the grand kids warm” story). With our church situated right on the border between Richmond city and Chesterfield County, people from both localities approached us in person or by phone, hoping we would help with utility bills, rent, or food. Sadly, our experience in dealing with wolves in sheeps’ clothing led us to doubt many of the stories we were told.

We suspected that the other churches in the community were facing the same issue: whose needs are legit, and whose are simply a way to scam well-meaning churches into paying their bills. Every church had its own policy, but with this in common: the funds we used to respond to those needs were limited. Some came from special offerings, and some were specially budgeted…like a Deacon’s Fund, or Pastor’s Discretionary Fund. As pastors from various churches shared stories, we discovered we were helping some of the same people, almost regularly. Maybe “helping” wasn’t the right word; “enabling” would fit better.

One day, some of the staff members of neighborhood churches came together for lunch and invited someone from a social service agency to speak with us about how we might help more effectively and faithfully. She told us that the best way to help people in need was to act in union with county and city social services, not apart from those local agencies. The first question we should ask of anyone requesting emergency help was (assuming these were not church members whom we knew well and whose needs would be more clear to us), “Do you have a social worker?”

If the answer were yes, it was best to be in contact with that social worker and work together to meet the expressed need. If the answer were no, then the best way to help was to initiate contact with social services so that needs could be addressed in a way we Presbyterians call “decently and in order.”

After that lunch, we went back to our church and determined to follow the advice from that point on, and to keep records (confidentially) of who was making the request, an address, phone number, the expressed need, the amount of the check, and the date of the transaction. Look for patterns, we were told. And limit the number of times one person could receive help in a particular time period.

[It was not uncommon for someone to go to several churches with the same need. We’d all see the electric bill, for example, and we’d all write a check for some or all of the balance. Thus, someone asking for help with a bill for, say, $200 might wind up with contributions totaling many times that amount. If the church insisted, rightly, in sending the payment directly to the electric company, the credit could well build up over a couple of months, thus freeing up the excess for — well, let’s not even go there.]

This was hard. When a woman called in, her voice breaking with fear or embarrassment, young children crying in the background…it was hard to describe the hoops you were about to make her jump through. But when a car pulls into the church parking lot, and we hear the overly familiar story about being on the way to Georgia and running out of gas and needing help from “you good Christian folks here,” we’d like to have said, “What do you think we are here? Traveler’s Aid?”

After our new “social worker” policy went into effect, we started getting calls from a social worker in Richmond, telling us of various people she knew to be in serious need. Each week, we’d listen to the request, OK a check, and put it in the mail. Once I asked the pastor how we knew these requests were from a real social worker, and he chuckled and cautioned me against being too cynical or paranoid about the process. But, this time, I was right.

I began comparing some names and street addresses of the needy folk who were being referred to us, and something looked fishy. And then one day, I called the phone number of the supposed “client” and she answered with the wrong name. When she found out it was I who was calling, she tried to change her voice and create some confusion, but I caught her. Turns out, the so-called social worker was playing games, routing our checks to her own family and friends, sometimes vouching for people who didn’t even exist.

I called Richmond Social Services, and asked about the person who had called the church over a period of months. They didn’t have anyone by that name in their office, but when I reported the names of her “clients” they recognized some names, and the investigation grew deeper. Because some of the bogus calls had been made from a phone connected with the old Medical College of Virginia, a state facility, the State Bureau of Investigation took over, and made an arrest.

When this episode was shared among the local church staffs (and this included administrative personnel since those at the front desks were often the first ones to field requests for financial help), we knew some ecumenical coordination was past due; it was time to join together to be better stewards of the funds entrusted to us to serve those truly in need. I and some others from neighboring churches formed a little ad hoc group to pool emergency funds and share information (situations, not names, thus preserving confidences). At that time, the only church that had access to a computer for storing information was in the office of the Pentecostal church. That church would become our operations hub.

We set about organizing ourselves further, looking for a volunteer coordinator, and — a name…we needed a name! Some ideas were tossed about, and the doodling I was doing on my legal pad turned out to be the name the group adopted. We called ourselves The Chesterfield-Colonial Heights Alliance for Social Ministry, or CCHASM. Since we were building a bridge to cross the divide between those in need and those who could help, the acronym seemed apropos.

It is some 25 years later. A few months ago, I was surprised to learn that that fledgling organization is still going, and stronger than ever. Go to http://www.cchasm.org and look what has grown from that troubling scam so long ago. It’s an amazing ecumenical support agency with a variety of programs to meet unmet emergency needs in an area much broader than first conceived. God works in mysterious ways, huh?

Tomorrow, how Alfred Hitchcock and I used a Vermont house for our individual purposes forty years apart.