The Gift


Ann Michel writes about the remarkable bequest given toward college education by Osceola McCarty, who completed sixth grade, as an example of selfless living and generosity.

“What would stewardship season be without the widow’s mite?” muses Barbara Brown Taylor inThe Preaching Life (Cowley Publications, 1993). “It would be like Thanksgiving without turkey, Christmas without presents, Easter without eggs.” This ancient text might be dismissed as merely prosaic – that is, if it were not so utterly prophetic.

In 1995, Miss Oseola McCarty, an 87-year-old African American who had earned her living taking in other people’s laundry, made a gift of $150,000 to support scholarships at the University of Southern Mississippi. Miss McCarty, who left school in the sixth grade to work and care for family members, had never even visited the campus before making this gift, even though she lived just blocks away. But she possessed a strong desire to help black students study at this institution once closed to them. “I want to help somebody’s child go to college,” said Miss McCarty, who never married or had children of her own.

What has become known in Hattiesburg as simply “The Gift” was not the largest bequest ever received by the university, but it is perhaps the most surprising. Miss McCarty had accumulated the funds through simple hard work and thrift. Never owning a car, she walked over a mile to the grocery. She did not mind that her black-and-white TV got only one channel because she never watched it anyways. And she only turned on her window air-conditioner when company came.

Her example of selfless living and generosity inspired many others and won her scores of accolades, including a Presidential Citizen’s Medal awarded by President Clinton and an honorary doctorate bestowed by Harvard University. But the only thanks Oseola McCarty really wanted was to see one of the students she helped graduate. Stephanie Bullock, the first recipient of the McCarty Scholarship, graduated in May of 1999, just months before Oseola McCarty died quietly in her home.

Preachers often think about how to make the Gospel relevant to everyday life. But the more important question is, “how can we make our everyday life relevant to the Gospel?” Miss Oseola McCarty, whose tattered Bible was held together with Scotch tape, made life relevant to the Word through her humble, self-effacing generosity. In her, an ancient text became new. She gave all that she had.

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About Author

Ann A. Michel has served on the staff of the Lewis Center for Church Leadership since early 2005. She currently serves as a Senior Consultant and is co-editor of Leading Ideas e-newsletter. She also teaches at Wesley Theological Seminary in the areas of stewardship and leadership. She is the co-author with Lovett H. Weems Jr. of Generosity, Stewardship, and Abundance: A Transformational Guide to Church Finance (Rowman & Littlefield, 2021) available at Cokesbury and Amazon. She is also the author of Synergy: A Leadership Guide for Church Staff and Volunteers (Abingdon, 2017), available at Cokesbury and Amazon.

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