Celestine Whitley couldn't believe what she was seeing: Her fellow parishioners at Baltimore's New Psalmist Baptist Church kept heading to the altar to lay money down each time the guest speaker hammered home a point during his sermon.
Whitley had recently seen such offerings performed on broadcasts of televangelist Bishop Eddie Long. But the practice -- known as seed offering -- left her confused. Was it Bible-based? Were the givers sincere or just showing off? Moreover, where was the money going?
"I said to myself, 'What are those people doing walking up there giving that money? They weren't doing that before,' " she says. "They were giving dollars to this preacher, and he doesn't look as if he needed those dollars."
Today -- three years later -- Whitley has joined a growing group of parishioners who place money at the altar, a practice that has become popular and controversial in African-American churches. She changed her mind after talking to the ministerial staff and praying on the matter.
Some people view the practice as a genuine expression of faith, others view it as a distraction or an attention-grabber.
There are two schools of thought behind the practice, which is popular in charismatic, nontraditional styles of worship.
The first is that if the minister utters something that resonates with you spiritually, you place money at the altar -- tantamount to sowing a seed in the ground -- and ultimately you will reap blessings. The second is that if you're inspired by the minister's teachings, you need not wait for the offertory to give.
Nowadays, Whitley is a frequent and cheerful seed sower. So much so that once at a local gospel recording session, she was so inspired by the words of one of the musicians that she approached him and placed $15 in his hand.
"I've done [seed offerings] so many times I can't even count," she says. "Sometimes you can hear a word that ignites something inside you that lasts forever. It's all about what you believe and your faith, and it's not for everybody."
The act of sowing a seed has biblical roots.
"One scripture they [ministers] use is in Genesis, which talks about how God has made all things to reproduce after their kind," says Milmon Harrison, assistant professor for African-American and African studies at the University of California, Davis. "Another they use is in the New Testament, where Jesus teaches the parable of the sower. He talks about sowing into good ground, and receiving a 20-fold, 50-fold, 100-fold increase.
"It's part of the prosperity movement," says Harrison, author of the book Righteous Riches, which explores practices in contemporary African-American religion.
Harrison adds: "Although today's movement may be more extreme in some sense. It's really drawing from currents that have been part of American culture from the beginning -- equating favor from God with material reward." But he says seed-sowing isn't exclusive to African-American places of worship.
"I've seen non-black people doing it," he says.
Seed offerings are not unlike other forms of giving where the giver is told that in return he or she will receive a blessing from God.
That has particularly been the case in television ministry broadcasts, among such ministers as the Rev. Creflo A. Dollar, founder and senior pastor of World Changers Church International in College Park, Ga., and World Changers Church-New York.
His Changing Your World broadcast can be seen on BET, TBN, WGN and on local stations.
Dollar says he once allowed the practice in his church after seeing it for the first time at a religious convention in Fort Worth, Texas, 15 years ago.
But eventually, he says, he discontinued the practice, after deciding that the line of people forming to leave seed offerings had become a distraction.
"We had to set up a new order, because it was keeping people from hearing the word," he says. "Personally, I feel you should hear the word of God first and do your offerings during offering time."
Dollar says that every minister treats the practice individually, that he has no problem with those who allow it. He adds that each time he received seed offerings, he never kept the money for himself.
"Our deacons would get the money off the steps and turn it in with the rest of the offering that goes to the church," he says. "You have to deal with the IRS codes [tax laws for nonprofits], so even when people are giving the money to you, the IRS believes you're there for your church."
Locally, the practice can be seen in many churches, from New Psalmist Baptist to Kingdom Harvest Christian Center in Owings Mills (where Whitley is now a member) to Empowerment Temple in West Baltimore.
Pastors at New Psalmist and Kingdom Harvest did not respond to interview requests about seed offerings.
Empowerment Temple's pastor, the Rev. Jamal Harrison-Bryant, says he neither endorses the practice nor discourages it.
"No. 1, I've never taught it," says Bryant. "But it is an expression of how televangelism has had an impact on the local church. People who saw it on TV co-opted it as their own."
But the Rev. J.L. Carter of the Ark Church in Baltimore does not condone it.
"As I understand it, the minister says something and persons feel blessed instantly and need to express that," he says. "We still believe that for the most part you can still express it to the preacher, but you don't have to do it at that moment. You can either wait for the offertory or put it in the mail."
Quiana Roberts of Reservoir Hill says that when she first saw seed offerings at Baltimore-area churches, "I didn't see why I needed to do it." Then she joined Empowerment Temple, and upon hearing an inspiring message by Bryant, she wrote a check for $10 and left it at the altar.
Now, she says, such giving comes naturally. "I do it because I believe in the words the pastor is speaking at the time," she says, "and I want to sow into that revelation or that prophesy so that it will manifest itself."
Not only does she give seed offerings voluntarily but she gives them when ministers request them. She says that she has no problem with such petitions.
"I've tapped into the gift God has given me and I can discern when it's of God and when I'm not supposed to give," Roberts says.
But such a public show can draw givers with the wrong intentions, some people say.
"You do have some people who come late to church, sow a seed, and then after church say, 'Yeah, girl, did you see me walk up in church today? I was wearing it!' But for people who truly believe, it works for them," Whitley says.
Dollar frowns upon showy givers, as well as ministers who petition seed offerings. He's seen instances where ministers will instruct an assistant pastor or deacon to give, hoping to prompt a chain reaction from the congregation.
"The Bible does say that when we give we can expect to receive," he adds, "but we have to understand that you don't give to get. You give because you love God. You honor God. You respect God. If you don't remember that, you can get off track."