Shutdown spurs ministry to help furloughed workers

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WASHINGTON (BP) -- When portions of the federal government shut down, Southern Baptists ramped up their ministries to furloughed federal workers across the country.

President Trump announced Friday he would sign a bill opening the government until Feb. 15 while lawmakers finalize legislation to increase border security. Still, some federal employees missed their second paycheck, and the partial shutdown stretched into a record-setting 35th day.

Amid the shutdown, Southern Baptists also attempted to bring Christian principles to bear on the legislative impasse between Trump and Congress regarding federal spending.

"We're here to help," said Don Williams, an Oklahoma disaster relief leader shepherding an operation that serves three meals daily to federal workers. Meanwhile, Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary ethics professor Evan Lenow said the apparent "lack of civility among our elected officials sets a poor example for the rest of the citizenry."

Some 800,000 federal workers are affected by the shutdown and will not be paid until the government reopens fully. Legislation signed Jan. 17 by Trump guarantees back pay for furloughed workers once the government reopens. For contract workers, back pay is uncertain.

Gift card distributions, free meals and concerted prayer efforts were among the ways believers sought to help federal employees in a financial bind. Dave Ramsey -- a personal finance author and speaker who has partnered with the Southern Baptist Convention -- offered financial counsel to furloughed workers.

'Families who are suffering'

First Baptist Church in Huntsville, Ala., distributed $16,500 in grocery store gift cards to furloughed federal workers at a Jan. 17 community event hosted by the church. With a $50 gift card given to each worker, it took just 30 minutes to expend the entire supply. First Baptist drew $14,000 from its emergency fund, and members gave an additional $2,500 for the ministry.

"My only regret is that we didn't have more to give," pastor Travis Collins told The Alabama Baptist newsjournal.

More than 700 people attended the event, which also featured booths manned by community aid organizations. About 40,000 federal workers reside in the Huntsville area between NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center and the Redstone Arsenal U.S. Army post.

In Oklahoma, Southern Baptist Disaster Relief workers served 900 meals per day to Federal Bureau of Prisons employees at the Federal Transfer Center in Oklahoma City beginning Jan. 22. The 300 employees there help transport prisoners throughout the federal prison system.

The meal service operation was manned by 15-20 DR volunteers who worked daily from 4 a.m. until 4 p.m., said Williams, the Baptist General Convention of Oklahoma's disaster relief director.

"Disaster relief finds people that are in need, not only in a natural disaster, but in an event like this," Williams told Baptist Press. "We're here to help and meet that need."

Had the shutdown continued, Oklahoma DR volunteers also planned to begin serving meals Jan. 29 to employees at a nearby federal prison, Williams said. Federal air traffic controllers had asked if they could be included in the meal service as well.

In northwest Arkansas, National Day of Prayer Task Force President Ronnie Floyd called his congregation, Cross Church, and other churches across the nation to pray that America's leaders would be characterized by humility, understanding, cooperation and peace.

"This coming Sunday, I will lead our people at Cross Church to join me in prayer for a divine intervention" as Trump and Congress continue to negotiate, Floyd told BP via email. "We will also pray not only for our broken nation to find a way to see a resolution relating to this problem soon, but we will really pray for the great numbers of families who are suffering the financial consequences of our broken nation.

"We are also trying to identify who some of these people are within our church to come alongside of them at this time. Finally, I would call upon every pastor in this nation to stand up and call his people to prayer over this terrible crisis in America. God can do what we cannot do. Therefore, we need to call upon Him now," said Floyd, a former SBC president.

Lessons to learn

Lenow, director of Southwestern's Land Center for Cultural Engagement, said ministries to furloughed workers became necessary because the government did not fulfill its moral obligations to "pay its employees," "manage [federal] funds wisely" and demonstrate "civility."

Congressional votes "typically fall along party lines," Lenow said in written comments. "Sharp disagreement is certainly part of government, but ideological opposition today demonstrates a lack of civility. This lack of civility among our elected officials sets a poor example for the rest of the citizenry and exacerbates an already intense divide within our nation."

Ramsey, who has partnered with the SBC Executive Committee to teach Christians biblical money management, wrote a blog post offering furloughed federal employees tips for weathering a period without pay. Among them:

-- "Create a budget";

-- Pay for food, utilities, shelter and transportation first;

-- "Sell stuff"; and

-- Get a temporary or side job.

"You don't want to make a rash, knee-jerk decision based on anxiety and panic," Ramsey wrote. "When you're facing the harsh reality of not getting paid for who knows how long, it's easy to go into 'freak out, do whatever we have to do to survive' mode. But don't get suckered into letting a credit card or loan catch your fall."

David Roach is chief national correspondent for Baptist Press, the Southern Baptist Convention's news service.

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