Furloughed government workers turn to the church

Bishop LaTrelle Easterling prays with others inside the United Methodist Building before delivering a statement on the government shutdown on the front steps of the United Methodist Building. (Photo by Melissa Lauber, Baltimore-Washington Conference)

Munching on doughnut holes and drinking hot coffee, furloughed federal government workers talk about tuition bills due, deadline work that isn’t getting done and how to positively fill their days when going to work isn’t an option.

That’s the scene every Monday morning at 10 am at North Bethesda United Methodist Church in Bethesda, Maryland, since shortly after the shutdown began Dec. 22

The church has provided a forum for furloughed workers to talk about their frustrations as they weather the longest federal government partial shutdown in U.S. history. Bethesda is located 18 miles northwest of the District of Columbia, home to many federal government jobs.

“Monday mornings are tough for unemployed (people),” said Rev. Jeff Jones, pastor of North Bethesda. He leads five to ten laid-off workers each week “to give them something to aim for and get out of the house and get their week started.”

About 850,000 government employees are waiting for the shutdown to end, working without pay or moonlighting to earn some cash. Congress and President Trump are stalled over the president’s demand for more than $5 billion to partially fund the construction of a border wall to separate the U.S. and Mexico.

The out-of-work employees work in U.S. agencies including the State, Justice, Treasury, Transportation, Commerce, Homeland Security, Agriculture, HUD and Interior departments.

Also affected are some smaller independent agencies, like the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Other workers down the economic line such as government contractors are also impacted.

While the Washington area is hardest hit, churches around the country are helping federal workers with bills, food, counseling and prayers.

“If this drags on, we’ll see more of the folks living from paycheck to paycheck, said Rev. James E. Skilling-ton, of Morgan Chapel United Methodist Church in Woodbine, Maryland, near Baltimore.

“You’ve got the problems of health care, you got the problem of how do you pay for gas? How are you going to pay for childcare? How you going to make sure the kids are safe when they get home? What about if you have pets and you don’t have money for pet food?”

Faith leaders gathered at the United Methodist Building near the U.S. Capitol Hill Jan. 17 to call for the end of the shutdown. United Methodist representatives included Washington Area Bishop LaTrelle Miller Easter-ling and Rev. Susan Henry-Crowe, top executive of the denomination’s Board of Church and Society.

“We stand with all those impacted by this senseless government shutdown,” said Henry-Crowe. “It is unconscionable that hundreds of thousands of employees and contractors are locked out of their jobs, working without pay and losing basic income because of political gamesmanship.

“As the ripple effects of this shutdown continue, our churches and faith communities will continue to support those struggling during this time of unnecessary uncertainty,” she said.

In East Tennessee, Norris-Sinking Springs United Methodist Church in Norris was already feeding 250 to 300 families a month before the shutdown, said Rev. Billy Kurtz.

Kurtz said he is especially concerned about the number of people or families who will need the assistance if federal supplemental nutrition programs lose funding and they go without food stamps.

“Along with that, we are concerned about the people who will divert funds from electric and other bills to buy food, therefore leading people to need utilities or rent assistance.”