Victoria Christians can look around at their friends who fill the pews at their churches with a little more insight thanks to a recent study.

Victoria is among the top 10 cities where the most generous Christians live, according to a November 2019 Barna Group study. The city, with a population of just more than 67,000, ranks third – in the nation – in both nonprofit and church giving per capita.

In its 30-year history, the Barna Group has conducted more than 1 million interviews during the course of hundreds of studies to track the role of faith in America. The result is one of the nation’s most comprehensive databases of spiritual indicators, according to its website.

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In nonprofit giving, including churches, each of the practicing Christians in Victoria gives an average of $10,375 annually, according to the study. Pocatello/Idaho Falls/Jackson, Idaho, with a combined population of about 114,000, ranked first. Their practicing Christians give an average of $17,977 annually. Las Vegas, with a population of almost 645,000, came in second with an average of $10,410 in giving to nonprofits.

Victoria also ranked third in church giving, with the practicing Christian spending an average of $8,984 annually. Again, Pocatello/Idaho Falls/Jackson came in first with an average of $15,601 in giving per practicing Christian. Ottumwa/Kirkville, Iowa, with a combined population of about 25,000, ranked second with an average of $9,600 in giving to churches.

Texas, Louisiana and Arkansas are the only three southern states with cities in the top 10 for Christian giving. Victoria is the only city in Texas to make the top 50.

Furthermore, Victorians are more generous with less. They contribute at higher than usual levels even though the median household income in Victoria, $50,210, is less than those of larger surrounding cities. The median household income in Corpus Christi is $56,602, while Houston’s is $51,203, Austin’s is $71,543 and San Antonio’s is $60,629. In fact, none of the top three most giving cities or areas in the nation is considered wealthy. All of their median household incomes fall below $54,000.

The study does not delve into the reasons residents of Victoria and the other cities are so generous. Perhaps Hurricane Harvey ushered in the spirit of giving in Victoria.

“When we hosted Samaritan’s Purse, Convoy of Hope, the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association and Heart for Heart International for two months after Hurricane Harvey, I was told that it makes a huge difference when lots of believers live where tragedy strikes,” said Jim Graff, pastor of Faith Family Church. “Their faith makes them generous.”

But some nonprofits can’t make that same connection.

Victoria Ballet Theatre Artistic Director Brenda Tally said their donations dipped in 2017 after Hurricane Harvey hit because many usual donors were dealing with the disaster’s aftermath. The ballet’s contributions fell from $95,471 in 2016 to $69,787 in 2017.

Churches rely on generosity

To help understand the amount of giving necessary to keep the city’s churches operating, three churches stepped forward to share their financial information.

Each of the last two years, members of Northside Baptist Church have given $1.7 million to keep their church operating, said Rebecca McQuillen, church office manager. The average attendance at Sunday services is about 650. The money pays salaries, maintains five buildings and pays utilities, she said. And a percentage is contributed to the Baptist General Convention of Texas for missionary work.

“We could not keep our doors open without the gifts – that’s how we get our money, how we operate,” she said. “There are no grants, and we don’t sell things. We operate through donations. Our church is very generous with special offerings.”

Last year, members of Faith Family Church gave $3,574,476 in tithes and offerings, according to an email response from Jim Graff, church pastor. About 2,500 attend services on the weekends. Additionally, they contributed $223,668 to community projects and outreach efforts in parts of the world where populations have not heard about Jesus Christ.

The results of the study did not come as a surprise to Graff.

“It means everything to our organization to have generous community members. Much good can only be accomplished through joyful givers,” Graff said.

Members of Parkway Baptist Church give just under $2 million in support each year, said Mike Hurt, senior pastor of the church.

“Our generous members allow us to make a difference in the community, and we want to be a church to bless the community,” Hurt said. “And the only way we can do that is through the generosity of the church.”

Hurt brought attention to the fact that Victoria is not a wealthy area.

“Leading the nation – being third in giving – means we have good people with hearts for others in the Crossroads,” Hurt said. “They are giving sacrificially and faithfully to help others.”

Nonprofits in constant need

Although Christian giving cannot be separated from total giving, the online federal form 990 available to the public can provide insight into the resources contributed that help numerous nonprofit organizations operate.

For example, Perpetual Help Home received $231,803 in contributions and grants, according to its 2017 form 990, to help women break the cycle of incarceration, drug addiction and homelessness.

Another nonprofit, Hospice of South Texas reported receiving $606,892 on its 2017 form 990 to help Crossroads residents with end-of-life care. These nonprofits, like churches, rely almost entirely on donations because they are not selling experiences or services that supplement their bottom line.

The Victoria Ballet Theatre received $75,725 in charitable contributions in 2018, still not back to the pre-Harvey level, Tally said.

“In regards to Victoria Ballet Theatre, our giving data does not account for a donor’s religious practices,” Tally said in an email. “It is our experience that Victorians, in general, are generous in their charitable donations as well as in giving of their time as volunteers.”

The support during the past five years alone has enabled the ballet to extend its season from two to three shows, increase outreach efforts with free dance classes for underserved children, add educational matinees and continue to bring professional guest dancers and choreographers to work with the company, she said.

“As an organization, the support and generosity of our community is imperative to our success and sustainability as we pursue our mission of promoting dance for the cultural benefit of Victoria and its surrounding communities,” she said. “Victoria Ballet Theatre’s steady growth is a direct result of the generosity and support of our community.”

The Texas Zoo received $145,959 in contributions and grants; Theatre Victoria received $98,625; and the Victoria Bach Festival received $255,598, according to 2016 form 990s.

“The generosity of the community means everything to area nonprofits,” said Nina Di Leo, executive director of the Victoria Bach Festival, in an email. “That positive spirit of people coming together to give is a powerful force to move the community forward.”

The Victoria Symphony reported receiving $376,394 in contributions and grants on its 2017 form 990. The organization also established the Victoria Symphony Society Endowment Trust in 1992 but did not receive any contributions the same year. The endowment’s assets total $1,077,464.

“It is ... the generous philanthropy of corporations, foundations and individuals in our community that allows the Victoria Symphony Orchestra to be a cornerstone of excellence in our town and surrounding communities, helping to create a vibrant and culturally rich place to live,” said Michelle Hall, executive director of the symphony orchestra, in an email. “We are truly grateful for not only the monetary support but also the commitments of time and talent through volunteerism.”

Hall expressed concern that the community might believe the organization has an excess of money based on the 990 reporting. However, every dollar received goes toward paying members of a professional orchestra and keeping the nonprofit operating, she said.

“It’s an ongoing effort to make the endowment grow as a source of continuous support for the organization,” Hall said.

Actually, despite the generosity of community members, many of these nonprofits ended the last year in which they reported to the IRS in the red.

Victorians cannot limit their newfound perspective to the Christians that fill their own churches. The folks they pass in the aisles of the grocery store, the people filling their gas tanks at the next pump, the many who partake in arts and entertainment events and the co-workers they see every day might be just as guilty of giving generously.

Elena Anita Watts covers arts, culture and entertainment for the Victoria Advocate.

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