Episcopalians across the country respond to federal shutdown’s impact

By Mary Frances Schjonberg
Posted Jan 14, 2019

[Episcopal News Service] As the effects of the longest federal government shutdown in United States history ripple across the country, many Episcopalians are feeling the economic pinch even as others try to help their neighbors cope.

“I understand what’s at stake. I understand that it is bigger than just my paycheck, but it is my paycheck,” Episcopalian Christopher Dwyer, a veteran who works for the Department of Housing and Urban Development, told NBC News’ Lester Holt on Jan. 10.

Dwyer, who is a member of Christ Church in Bloomfield and Glen Ridge in New Jersey and a seminarian at Drew Theological School in Madison, New Jersey, told Holt that he soon might have to find other work, saying his unemployment insurance will eventually run out. (While rules vary by state, unemployment benefits generally pay a percentage of the recipient’s salary, and federal workers will reportedly have to repay their benefits if they receive back pay.)

From school tuition deferrals to free firewood to anxiety support groups, the responses run the gamut in Washington, D.C., neighborhoods, on Native American reservations and in seaside communities.

The reservations are among the hardest hit because of their dependence on federal aid of all sorts. That dependence was enshrined centuries ago in treaties between tribes and the U.S. government in which the tribes gave up huge territories for many guarantees, including money for services like health care and education. The Bureau of Indian Affairs provides those services, either directly or through grants to 567 federally recognized tribes. All told, about 1.9 million American Indian and Alaska Natives are impacted.

Rosebud Sioux Tribe Chairman Rodney Bordeaux has said that 74 percent of the tribe’s budget revenue is federal money. Bordeaux and other tribal leaders plan to go to Washington this week to meet with lawmakers.

The Rev. Lauren R. Stanley, superintending presbyter of the Rosebud Episcopal Mission (West) in South Dakota and the Rev. John Floberg, priest-in-charge on the North Dakota side of the Standing Rock Episcopal Mission, both told Episcopal News Service that the tribal governments are considering shutting down parts of their operations because they lack federal grant money.

Stanley said she is getting calls asking for help with electric bills and for propane. The local electric co-op is working with furloughed federal workers, but other reservation residents are getting desperate, she said. That is where the mission’s Firewood for the Elders program comes in. Stanley said South Dakota temperatures have been “okay”; it was 38 degrees the afternoon of Jan. 14, but snow is forecast for Jan. 18 with an expected high of 17. Stanley said the program is giving out wood not just to older tribal members but to any families affected by the shutdown and to furloughed workers.

People are worried about the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, SNAP or EBT as it is known on the Rosebud Reservation. Recipients’ January benefits were available on Jan. 10, and it has been announced that February money will be put in people’s accounts on Jan. 20. Stanley said she worries that some people will not budget out that money to last through the end of February.

While the USDA has said its Commodity Supplemental Food Program will make its planned February deliveries, Stanley said a lot of the food isn’t arriving and recipients are getting rain checks to redeem when it does arrive.

“The Rosebud Episcopal Mission is committed to helping those most in need,” Stanley told ENS.

And, people across the country have been asking her how they can help, offering donations of material goods, money and gifts cards. Stanley is telling people that money and gift cards are best because each family has different needs.

The partial government shutdown entered its 24th day on Jan. 14, making it the longest in U.S. history, as Congress and President Donald Trump remain at a loggerheads over his demand for billions of dollars for a wall on the southern border. On this record-setting day, Trump rejected a suggestion that he allow the government to reopen temporarily while negotiations continued about border security.

About 800,000 federal employees, more than half of whom are still working, did not get paid on Jan. 11. Congress has sent Trump a bill to give those workers back pay once the shutdown ends. The president has said he would sign it.

Such promises, however, do not help furloughed workers’ cash flow now, so Episcopalians are stepping up. For example, St. Patrick’s Episcopal Day School in Washington, D.C., told parents on Jan. 7, the day that school resumed after the Christmas holidays, that parents who are federal employees or contractors and having difficulty paying tuition and fees can defer those payments without late fees. They will have to set up a repayment plan later.

Head of School Peter A. Barrett told ENS Jan. 14 that many Episcopal schools are no doubt finding themselves in similar situations, especially in the Washington area.

For some federal employees, the needs are more basic. Eleanor Godfrey told a local television news station that the Lord’s Pantry, a ministry of St. James Episcopal Church in New London, Connecticut, is ready to help.

“This is probably the best place to come to get food. I certainly hope the people who are involved in this shutdown don’t become prideful because [at] St. James, we’re here for you and we want you to come down here,” said Godfrey, the pantry’s manager.

More than 7,000 federal employees work in Connecticut, and the federal government is a major employer in the southeastern part of the state where New London is. Located on the Long Island Sound, New London is home to the Coast Guard Academy. Coast Guard employees are furloughed because they are part of the Department of Homeland Security, one of the departments effected by the partial shutdown.

The pantry is getting the word out via social media as well.

The Community Soup Kitchen at Christ Church Episcopal in New Haven, Connecticut, is telling furloughed workers they are welcome. “St. Paul tells us in scripture that the laborer deserves to be paid. And we hope that the government will reopen and workers who are working will be paid,” the Rev. Stephen Holton told a local NBC television station. “Everyone deserves a meal, and this is a place where you can receive it. Come and be fed. Come and be fed together,” he said.

In Jackson Hole, Wyoming, Jackson Cupboard, a food pantry at St. John’s Episcopal Church, is partnering with Wyoming Food Bank of the Rockies to host a special mobile food pantry on Jan. 15.

When 4Saints Episcopal Food Pantry in Fort Worth, Texas, posted the announcement below, it was shared 25 times, an unusual amount for the pantry, leading Director Judy Cariker to think there is a need out there.

Meanwhile, in Georgia, the Very Rev. Alexis Chase, vicar of Holy Comforter Episcopal Church in Atlanta, took to Facebook Jan. 14 to offer “furloughed friends” the chance for some comfort.

“Furlough Bible Study” is just one of the ways that St. Columba’s Episcopal Church in northwest Washington, D.C., is trying to help. The Bible study, for “those with unexpected time in your day and a desire to gather with fellow sojourners,” begins Jan. 16. On that same day, St. Columba’s Mothers’ Group will host a professionally led conversation with practical advice about how to manage anxiety and its impact.

“Some of you have told me that, even though you’ve lived through government shutdowns in the past, this time feels particularly scary,” the Rev. Ledlie Laughlin, St. Columba’s rector, told the congregation on Jan. 9. “Others have told me that you’re scrambling to figure out your finances, calculating the toll on your savings in the absence of a paycheck. This is a time to come together, to take care of one another, and to take care of our neighbors.”

Laughlin said prayer ought to be Episcopalians’ first response. St. Columba’s is including all affected by the shutdown in its Sunday and daily prayers.

(Province II of the Episcopal Church has offered “A Litany for those affected by the government shutdown” here.)

St. Columba’s is also “crowdsourcing and identifying resources” for people who may be facing hardship for the first time and do not know where assistance is available for food or other necessities, he said.

And, Laughlin urged parishioners who need financial help to contact him, and he asked those who “have enough to help someone else” to be in touch with him also.

The Episcopal Church also is responding with advocacy in Washington. Its Office of Government Relations has called for an end to the shutdown, saying that “shutting down our government is a failure of leadership and recognition of the responsibility that comes with being an elected official.”

“The government shutdown has far-reaching implications for our country as it impacts the livelihoods of federal employees and their families; as well as of those relying on federal support for food, housing, medical services, and more; and the vital government services such as airport security, mortgage and student loan processing, and a wide suite of services the federal government is responsible for delivering in Native American communities,” the office said in a Jan. 9 statement.

Basing its comments on church policy as set by General Convention, OGR said Congress and the administration need to work together to address legitimate security needs, to ensure the government’s legal responsibility to process asylum seekers and treat all migrants with humanity and respect, and to enact policies that address the root causes and help alleviate the conditions that drive forced migration in Central and South America.

– The Rev. Mary Frances Schjonberg is the Episcopal News Service’s senior editor and reporter.