As the federal government shutdown enters a painful second month, the human consequences and costs continue to grow. President Trump’s sham “compromise” over the weekend failed to break the impasse as Democrats continue to hold firm to the principled demand that negotiations over border security take place only after the government is reopened. Today, the Senate is set to vote on this “compromise” as well as a bill that would simply reopen the government for a few weeks to allow serious negotiations without the operations of the government held hostage. The second bill is the one we should urge senators to vote for, though the president and Republican Leader Mitch McConnell are urging Republican senators to vote against it as Trump feels its passage would weaken his negotiating position. The continued stalemate, which has been exacerbated by the president’s brinkmanship, is also deepening a sense of powerlessness and malaise in our nation. It is easy to feel as though there is little we can do to change what is a seemingly intractable political crisis. As Jim Wallis wrote last week, in the midst of this government shutdown and the political and humanitarian crisis it has created, it is imperative that people of faith pray both as an action in itself and as a preparation for future action.
But the shutdown is also inspiring extraordinary acts of compassion and hospitality, offering glimmers of hope in the midst of the utterly preventable hardship and despair it is causing. The Apostle Paul’s powerful metaphor to the church at Corinth in which he compares the church to the human body, and “when one part suffers, all people suffer with it, when one part is honored, all parts are honored with it” provides an important reminder and balm during these times. Federal workers and contractors are woven into the very body of our communities, whether in rural areas or urban centers, red states or blue states, we are all feeling the growing pinch and pain of the shutdown’s effects.
The shutdown also reveals a great deal about the state of our nation’s character. Decades of under-challenged and insidious anti-government sentiment is helping to fuel and prolong this crisis. But the shutdown is shining a spotlight on the degree to which the role and functions of government affect people’s daily lives in both subtle and profound ways. The disruptions and headaches caused by the shutdown reveal just how indispensable government is to our lives — from the federal government’s role in food inspection to filing our taxes to providing essential airport security to issuing housing vouchers and loans.
This crisis has also revealed the degree to which the shutdown has been driven by right-wing pundits and extremists who managed to reverse the president’s position. The exhausted but increasingly outraged majority are being held hostage by a president and many Republican senators who are seeking to appease and hold onto their base at all costs, which has generated powerful disincentives to negotiate in good faith.
But on a more hopeful note, the shutdown has revealed our nation’s capacity for compassion, solidarity, and generosity. Our nightly news has been filled with stories of how food banks, soup kitchens, restaurants, and a range of businesses and nonprofit organizations are opening their doors and redoubling their efforts to serve and support furloughed and unpaid government workers and contractors. Within this broader story is a less visible story of how countless churches have also stepped up and intervened to stand in the gap for those who have been disinherited by this negligent shutdown. While many churches plan rapid responses to natural disasters, churches are now responding to a human-made and manufactured political crisis by tapping into disaster relief funds to alleviate hardship caused to government workers and their families. For example, in Prince George’s County, First Baptist Church of Glenarden prepared more than 3,000 bags of food to give out, forming a sea of white bags that nearly covered an entire basketball court. My church, Alfred Street Baptist Church, which is located in Alexandria, Va., hosted a prayer service for government workers and has provided substantial aid and support to government families in need. The District Church in Washington, D.C., has tapped into its benevolence fund to provide thousands of dollars in financial support to members who are directly impacted by the shutdown, particularly government contractors who will be unlikely to be repaid after the shutdown ends. Reid Temple Silver Spring is hosting a town hall, distributing gift cards, and providing assistance for housing and living costs this week and weekend.
While I’m most familiar with what churches are doing across the Washington, Maryland, and Virginia metro region, churches across the country are responding in similar ways to the shutdown, modeling a greater commitment to the Golden Rule and the Great Commandment. For example, in Alabama, where nearly 40,000 federal employees have gone without paychecks, the First Baptist Church of Huntsville dipped into its disaster-relief fund and passed the collection plate to buy $16,500 in grocery-store gift cards for furloughed federal employees.
The churches’ outpouring of generosity and compassion may be an important stop gap; however, it is not a substitute or sustainable solution to the government shutdown. Bread for the World reinforced this point when it reported in the midst of the 2018 budget debate, the country’s religious congregations would have to add $714,000 to their annual budgets each year for the next decade to make up for the drastic cuts that were proposed in President Trump’s federal fiscal year 2018 budget proposal.
By providing immediate relief, churches are doling out hope in the midst of a time of politically induced despair and cynicism. While the government shutdown has no clear end in sight, we can take heart that the church is revitalizing and expanding its commitment to diakonia, a term that often captures the church’s calling to provide aid and relief to people in need. A renewed diakonia will be essential in the months and years ahead as a nation faces an increasingly likely recession.
Our government is disrespecting and breaking its contract with arguably its most precious asset: its workforce. One silver lining is that we are becoming more attuned to each other’s needs and starting to pay more attention to and better appreciate the invaluable service that so many government workers provide us. This crisis should convict us to demand more integrity and courage from Congress, who are sworn to protect the public trust and advance the common good.
The Apostle Paul’s message was to the Corinthian church, one that was riddled with extreme inequality and embroiled in bitter divisions over leadership and doctrine. Today our nation is deeply divided by partisanship, ideology, and an increasingly tribal politics. Paul’s timeless reminder that our lives are ultimately interdependent is deeply needed today. Or as Dr. Martin Luther King once said, “We are tied together in the single garment of destiny, caught in an inescapable network of mutuality. And whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly.”
While the stories of churches stepping up amid crisis inspire hope, many more churches are just starting to identify ways in which they can intervene and help. In addition to the urgent need for heightened prayer and advocacy, churches must come alongside the most vulnerable. One concrete need is that while the Justice Department extended funding for six weeks for domestic violence shelters and coalitions, the government shutdown — and the uncertainty that surrounds its duration — has led agencies to temporarily lay off employees and cut off additional services to victims over the past month.
Given that on an average day, 40,000 victims of domestic violence seek safety at shelters, a sustained shutdown could be life-threatening. Especially when the government fails to do its job, churches can contact their local domestic violence coalition and ask how they can offer support in this time of need and uncertainty.
In Dr. King’s final sermon, titled “Remaining Awake During a Great Revolution,” he offered poignant words that our president and Congress desperately need to hear and take to heart: “On some positions, cowardice asks the question, is it expedient? And then expedience comes along and asks the question, is it politic? Vanity asks the question, is it popular? Conscience asks the question, is it right?”
Our prayers, acts of diakonia, and advocacy can help to overcome our powerlessness and help to end this shutdown as we replace the broken motivations of political expediency and vanity with the righteous demands of conscience.