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When it came to tithing, Russell Graeter was a miser. But through the decades, God used the love of his life to transform his heart and radically impact ministry.
BIRTHDAY SURPRISE – WatersEdge Director of Donor Relations, Holly Blakey, shows Graeter a custom birthday video made by Paul Chitwood, president of the International Mission Board, thanking him for his generosity.
“That’s 13 more people that are going to heaven,” Graeter says through tears of joy. “It was worth it.”
Graeter hasn’t always felt so strongly about reaching the lost. For years, he avoided a relationship with God. Every time the doors to the couple’s church were open, MaryAnn attended but Graeter stayed home. MaryAnn’s passion for evangelism inspired her to hand out tracts and share the Gospel with anyone that would listen. She never gave up on winning her husband to Christ and prayed for him every day for decades.
“Every night she’d read me the Bible,” Graeter says. “She was a dear person and spent so much time trying to get me to become a Christian — time I wasted.”
“When I told the pastor I wanted to be a Christian, I didn’t give up some of the bad things that I did and instead rationalized them away,” he recalls. “It took me until 1985 to finally turn from that sin and walk the other way. I think God helped me, because I never looked back from that moment on.”
Giving for Good
Graeter says biblical generosity had always been part of the couple’s marriage, even before he followed the Lord. During those early days, he admits his intentions for giving were misplaced.
“At first, I tithed for an evil purpose,” Graeter says. “MaryAnn told me, ‘If you give 10 percent, God will give you back more than you can imagine.’ And I said to myself, ‘Boy, this’ll be a way to end this. I’ll do it and it won’t happen and we can forget this whole thing.’”
“That doubled our salary,” Graeter says. “Pretty soon I figured out that what I had planned for evil, God was using for good. I did it because MaryAnn wanted me to and I wanted to. So, we kept giving for the next 72 years.”
A wide range of Christian causes have benefitted from the Graeters’ generosity. From supporting their church to partnering with ministries that spread the Gospel and protect the vulnerable, the couple wanted their resources to advance God’s Kingdom.
Today, three-quarters of a century after his tithing experiment began, Graeter is still giving, now with the right motives, and God is multiplying his gifts. Since MaryAnn’s death in 2019, Graeter has focused on making larger contributions in her honor through his donor advised fund* with WatersEdge.
“Pretty soon I figured out that what I had planned for evil, God was using for good.”
“He traditionally gives large gifts, mostly directed to the North American Mission Board’s (NAMB) church-
planting efforts,” Blakey says. Graeter asked Blakey to work with NAMB to research the cities where the Gospel was most needed, which is where he directs his giving. So far, Graeter has given to city funds in Pittsburgh, Denver, Boston and Salt Lake City. The funds are distributed widely to church-planting missionaries and their ministries and have resulted in hundreds of salvations and baptisms.
Graeter’s most recent gift was used to support the work of an International Mission Board (IMB) refugee trauma services center in Northern Africa and the Middle East.
“When Mr. Graeter asked me to research the budget IMB needed for the project, he shared that he had a large gift to distribute over a three-year period,” Blakey explains. “When I received the budget numbers from IMB, the figures matched, which means his gift will completely fund the refugee center. That’s God at work!”
ALMOST A CENTURY – Not many people live as long as Russell Graeter. Throughout his lifetime, Graeter served in the Navy, worked as an engineer for Boeing and attended medical school to practice optometry.
Yearning for Home
Even without his beloved MaryAnn, Graeter intends to keep giving as long as he’s able to, and even after he’s gone. He intends for his estate to be passed on to ministries that further the Gospel when he dies.
“I don’t plan to be on this earth much longer,” he says. After 95 years, he’s ready to meet Jesus face to face and be with his wife.
“I appreciate the time God gave me with MaryAnn,” he says. “I never had a doubt at all that she loved me, no matter how far apart we were, no matter how many arguments we had … I can’t wait to see her again.”
The thing that keeps him here? Graeter thinks that God isn’t done with him quite yet, so he continues to give. He hopes that his story will inspire others to be generous, too.
“I feel guilty taking any praise because I’m just giving back what was given to me. I haven’t really done anything except just use our money the way MaryAnn would have wanted it to be used. She was a wonderful Christian,” he says.
“It’s sort of like giving away what you never owned. It all belongs to God.”
*A donor advised fund, or DAF, is a popular tool for charitable giving that maximizes tax benefits, multiplies a gift’s impact and simplifies the giving process. Instead of writing multiple checks to individual ministries, donors contribute to their DAF and receive an immediate tax deduction. Those contributions are invested and grow tax free. When a donor is ready to make a gift, WatersEdge sends the funds to the ministry on their behalf.