Charity begins at the race track

Raising money is never easy. School groups hold bake sales. Girl Scouts peddle cookies. Heck, even President Bush has to go to Congress and beg for money, much as you and I when we go to the boss and stammer our way through what we hope is a convincing argument about why we're worth more money, why it's the company's moral obligation to make sure our wardrobe is refreshed quarterly, and why deficit spending works for the government but not for us. Hey, at least we don't have to talk anyone into giving us a $74 billion raise so we can afford a new war.

Churches have it much easier. Passing the collection plate is a time-honored tradition, which is a good thing since it's much classier than having someone stand in the center of the aisle with a cardboard sign that says: "Will pray for food." There are teachings to back up this practice. The Bible, Torah, and Quran all encourage tithing, which means you're supposed to give between two and ten percent of what you earn to the church, the exact amount depending on who you ask, how religious you want them to think you are, and whether you base your calculations on your actual income or the amount you report to the IRS.

They're trying to bring this practice into the 21st century. For several years now a company called ParishPay has been setting up automatic tithing withdrawals for churches around the country. Now there's a new wrinkle -- they're accepting credit card payments. For a small fee -- hey, you didn't think they were doing this out of the goodness of their heart, did you? -- they transfer a preset amount of money each week. This is a great way to eliminate the guilt you feel when you don't wake up on time to make it to church, do make it but -- whoops! -- forgot your wallet, or go on vacation and manage to cram six bathing suits, your Best of Danielle Steel boxed set, and those sandals that embarrass everyone who gets within twenty feet of you in your bags but just don't have room for that self-addressed stamped envelope with your house of worship's name on it.

Meanwhile, a church in Norrfjaerden, Sweden (motto: "Don't worry, we can't pronounce it either.") has installed a credit card reader so worshippers can easily and conveniently Swipe-n-Pray®. Or is that Swipe-n-Pay? Smart parishioners are whipping out their cards and racking up frequent flier miles for their donations. Hey, why not upgrade your seat while you upgrade your soul?

Church officials say they installed it because many of the young church-goers don't carry cash, which is a distinct problem since this small village doesn't have an automatic teller machine, meaning people can't stop on the way to church and get cash even if they want to. A temple in southern India had a similar problem yet took a different approach to solving it -- they had an ATM installed. That's right, the Sri Venkateswara temple now accepts donations at an on-site automatic teller machine. It's too soon to know how popular this will be, but considering that as many as 50,000 worshippers a day leave cash and gold at the temple, it will definitely help lighten their pilgrimage load. Now they can leave their cash at home and bring their gold card to the temple. This arrangement with the bank also allows the temple to accept donations online at their web site. One-click karma boosts are long overdue.

Meanwhile in Los Angeles, nuns at St. Michael's Elementary School have taken a different approach to raising money -- they've started going to the race track. After eliminating bingo, bake sales, and a Sister Mary Margaret kissing booth at the St. Patrick's Day Fair as old news fundraisers, they convinced 100 supporters to kick in $25 each so the nuns could bet on the horses. It's true. The nuns took the money to the race track and bought a Pick Six ticket, selecting the horses they thought would win in each of six races. They went back to the school and spent the morning praying that Sister Mary Margaret wouldn't be insulted because they didn't like her kissing booth idea. Just kidding. Actually she was relieved. What they really did was pray, and they must have done a bang-up job because they ended up winning nearly $200,000 which they promptly blew in Las Vegas. Just kidding again. Actually they're splitting the winnings, with $85,000 going to the school so students can have new desks and the same amount going to those foresighted people who supported the donation drive. The remainder of the money, of course, went to the government for taxes. You can't say the school isn't doing its part to help lower the federal deficit.

This raises an interesting possibility. If every taxpayer in the United States kicked in $25 and we gave it all to the nuns at St. Michael's Elementary School so they could go to the racetrack, if their luck (and divine guidance) held out we'd each get $850 back on our investment. And we could give the government the other $108 billion. Plus its tax share of our winnings, of course. That would go a long way towards balancing the federal budget. And face it, it's a lot easier than holding bake sales and selling Girl Scout cookies.

More Mad Dog can be found online at: MadDogProductions.com. His compilation of humorous travel columns, "If It's Such a Small World Then Why Have I Been Sitting on This Airplane For Twelve Hours?" is available from Xlibris Corporation.

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