One thing is clear in the confusion and duration of the ongoing government shutdown: “thoughts and prayers” aren’t enough to help furloughed workers and affected contractors through the ordeal.
Ministers and concerned lay people are testifying that both empathy and action are needed. And that is taking form in different ways, including donations of food, clothing and cash.
But as the economic shock waves move steadily outward as the shutdown reached its 28th day on Jan. 18, even those congregations providing that help will begin to feel the pinch – just as businesses and service industry workers are around government centers.
“As the shutdown goes on longer, the needs of people facing real dire economic hardship will go beyond what most churches can cover,” said Julie Pennington-Russell, the senior pastor at First Baptist Church in the City of Washington D.C.
The congregation is feeling the demand, she said. Its deacon chair and its moderator plus a number of others work for federal agencies. Other members work for nonprofits that depend on government funding, she said.
But it doesn’t stop there.
“We have been reached out to by people from California, who work in government, saying they are in hardship and can you help us?” she said.
‘We share in the burden’
Religious groups around the nation are being pressed by similar questions, and many are taking extraordinary measures to try to help, even if only a little.
WSB-TV in Atlanta reported that a congregation in that city, New Birth Missionary Baptist Church, raised enough money to give $300 to each of the 30 affected members who went to the altar seeking help on Sunday, Jan. 6.
Jamal Bryant, the church’s senior pastor, told the station that he had originally asked its furloughed members to the altar to pray for them.
Suddenly, he felt called to ask worshipers to dig deep into their pockets to give.
“I ain’t waiting on the Democrats or the Republicans,” Bryant said in a video broadcast of the service.
Astonished by the generosity of his congregation, Bryant said the church will look for additional ways to help, including potluck dinners and grocery gift cards.
In Maryland, First Baptist Church of Glenarden is running a banner on its website announcing a “Grocery Giveaway” for furloughed federal employees, which will be held Jan. 21.
That congregation’s pastor, Cynthia Terry, told Fox 5 News in Washington, D.C., that the church plans to distribute three weeks’ worth of food to those struggling through the shutdown.
“They don’t understand why they have to go through it, and many people say it’s never lasted this long,” Terry told the station. “So they’re able to get through it because we share in the burden.”
‘A kick in the stomach’
But there are times when money isn’t the only way to share those burdens, said Rick Goodman, a member of Calvary Baptist Church in Washington, D.C., and a recently retired federal employee with close to 10 government shutdowns under his belt.
One way to help is to remember that the shutdown is about much more than politics – it’s about people, he told Baptist News Global.
That means practicing empathy for people who in many cases are living paycheck to paycheck and may be the only breadwinners in their households. Shutdowns mean being unable to pay credit card and medical bills, not getting braces for the kids and paying the rent or mortgage, Goodman said.
And workers take a hit to their self-esteem, as well.
“It’s like a kick in the stomach when you are told we are going to shut you down,” he said. “It’s like being told what you do isn’t important.”
In an essay published online this month by the Alliance of Baptists, Goodman said listening is another way to come alongside furloughed workers.
As a former manager in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Goodman said it was a skill he had to rely on all too many times.
“In the past I have counseled employees as they outlined their dire circumstances if a shutdown occurred,” Goodman wrote in his Jan. 9 essay. “This was very difficult to do, as I had nothing to offer them but my willingness to listen.”
He told BNG that he didn’t just stumble onto his ability focus on empathy and listening.
“My Baptist faith teaches me to be open and listening and caring for humanity,” he said. “Faith keeps me grounded that this is about people being affected. It’s not just a political thing, but an awful personal thing.”
Pennington-Russell said it often takes patience to practice those listening skills.
“It’s hard for people in general to say ‘I’m not making it, I need help,’” she said.
They often don’t want anyone to know they are struggling emotionally or financially, or both.
“Some will just say ‘pray for me, pastor,’ without really saying what is going on,” Pennington-Russell said.
It’s important friends and ministers make known their availability, whether it’s to provide financial or emotional support, she said.
Another role religious organizations and individuals can play is to press for political reforms that prohibit future shutdowns, Goodman said.
“Helping (furloughed workers) pay bills is a humanitarian and charitable act,” he said. “But we also need to advocate for a decent society.”