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Congregation gets $60M gift -- and decides to give most of it away

Posted: Friday, December 08, 2000

ST. MARYS, Ga. (AP) -- Hundreds of letters fill a small file cabinet. Handwritten requests churn out of the fax machine and curl into a pile. And the office staff at St. Marys United Methodist Church has stopped answering the phone, which never stops ringing.

The notes and messages that have swamped the coastal church, nestled in Georgia's southeastern corner, all seek the same thing -- a piece of the $60 million a local telephone tycoon left the congregation to spend as it pleases.

After weeks spent wrestling with the whopping sum, church members made a decision last week. Fearful that the fortune could cheapen their faith, they voted to give away all but a fraction of the money.

''You read the stories about people who have won the lottery and you follow up on them a year later and find out they're estranged from their families and broke,'' said the Rev. Derek McAleer. ''Our church has won the lottery in some respects, and the dangers are all around us.''

So are the ceaseless, mostly unsolicited, requests for cash. McAleer estimates up to 300 letters have poured in, postmarked from as far away as California.

Other churches want help building new sanctuaries. An elderly widow wants money to fix her leaky roof. Entrepreneurs want investments for their ice cream parlors and limousine services. One man even asked the church to help pay his credit card bills.

Could Warren Bailey have known his generosity would cause such a fuss?

In the decades before his death in July at age 88, Bailey and his two brothers reaped a fortune from the Camden Telephone Co.

Their father bought the company in the late 1920s, when Camden County was still a fishing community and only a few people could afford phones. Bailey took over as company president in 1941, and soon the arrival of a paper mill and a naval base boosted the population and the family business.

Bailey never flaunted his wealth. He preferred Hardee's and Wal-Mart to fine dining and designer stores. He refused to pay $7.50 a month for garbage service, toting his trash bags from home to the office garbage bin. And he was pushing 76 when he finally bought a house and left his tiny apartment at the phone company.

Long divorced and with no children, Bailey drew up a will in 1996 with his attorney, Charlie Smith Jr. He rattled off a short list of friends who were to share a total of $220,000. Then he paused.

''And give the rest to the church,'' Bailey told Smith, who represents the area in the Georgia Legislature.

Bailey had been a member of St. Marys United Methodist for most of his life, but hadn't attended for more than 20 years. Friends say he preferred watching Sunday services on television, where he could avoid crowds and didn't have to wear a coat and tie.

Smith, also a church member, knew Bailey had given $100,000 annually to the church for various projects since 1992. But the scope of this final gift alarmed him.

''I tried to talk him out of it,'' Smith said. ''I told him, 'Warren, this could destroy a church, this kind of money. Don't do this to the church.' But he was the kind of fellow who, once he made up his mind, that was it.''

Bailey chose the church to receive the bulk of his wealth because he didn't trust the government with it and couldn't think of anyone else, said Tom Turner, a phone company employee and close friend of Bailey's.

Turner, who received $45,000 from Bailey's estate, wasn't surprised he and other friends didn't get more.

''The money he left us, it seemed like he left enough money that it didn't change your life,'' Turner said. ''I really think he looked at it that way.''

Smith kept Bailey's will a secret from church members for four years, until Bailey died July 14 of congestive heart failure. The congregation considered the money a blessing, but also a burden.

Would the church's 715 members resort to infighting over how to spend Bailey's gift? Would the collection plate dry up because people assumed the church was wealthy? Would the church become distracted from religion by riches?

McAleer turned to the Bible for guidance. A search of his computerized New Testament for the word ''money'' turned up 164 verses. Most of them were warnings against greed and the temptations of wealth.

''Did you know that Jesus talked more about money than prayer or any other topic?'' McAleer said. ''And it's all saying, 'Watch out.'''

The congregation decided right away that none of the money would go into the general budget, about $298,000, that pays the pastor's salary and funds day-to-day operations.

Last week, the members rejected a proposal to keep $4 million for future construction. The money was added to the amount to be given away to other churches and ministries, for a total of $16 million.

Another $40 million will go into a foundation managed by nine-member board that will award grants to nonprofit groups. The church plans to hire a money-managing firm to invest the funds.

For itself, the church will keep $2.8 million in an endowment fund named for Bailey. The church hopes the fund will generate interest of about $100,000 a year, the same as Bailey's previous donations, to be spent on service projects.

Now the church board must decide what types of projects it will award grants to.

And the pile of letters, faxes and phone messages keeps growing, yet to be answered, in the church file cabinet, filled with wish lists for a piece of Bailey's bequest.

''I really don't think he understood what would happen,'' Turner said. ''It's either that, or he's sitting up there laughing: 'You want money, here's money. See what it can do to you.'''

End Adv for Dec. 10



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