The state of Alabama has nearly 40,000 federal employees, all without paychecks and increasingly desperate during the partial government shutdown. It seemed that just about all of them were in a line that snaked around the parking lot of First Baptist Church of Huntsville on Thursday.
They opened the doors to the sanctuary at 10 a.m.
By 10:30 a.m., all the gift cards were gone.
More than 700 people passed through, church officials estimated, but the speed at which the cards were snapped up astounded Travis Collins, the senior pastor. Nearly once every six seconds, church members were putting a gift card into the hands of a government worker.
Listening to NPR on the way to the office Monday, Collins heard a story about D.C. chef José Andrés, who opened a relief kitchen for federal employees. Collins was struck by something Andrés said, about giving people one fewer bill to worry about, and wondered whether his church could do something to help.
The pastor discovered that others had the same idea. A few of them worked at Marshall Space Flight Center, the Huntsville-based facility that builds engines and vehicles for NASA. This week’s task was more earthly: They wanted to bring social service and community organizations together to help federal workers. But they needed a central place that could handle a large crowd.
First Baptist Church fit the bill. It is one of the largest churches in Huntsville and has a distinct mural on its facade, something locals have nicknamed “Eggbeater Jesus.”
The church planned to use $14,000 from its emergency fund, in addition to $2,500 members had given, to buy grocery-store gift cards: $50 apiece for every furloughed federal worker. But 18 other community organizations were also there, including the Alabama Department of Labor, a local food bank and two credit unions offering tips on surviving missed paychecks.
The shutdown was triggered by an impasse between President Trump and congressional Democrats over his demand for $5.7 billion in funding for a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border.
The president was expected to present a new deal on border wall funding on Saturday, but Democrats have indicated that the proposal will not be enough to sway their votes, meaning the shutdown is likely to continue into a fifth week.
On Wednesday, Trump signed legislation that would give back pay to the 800,000 federal workers affected by the partial shutdown. But the workers can’t pay rent or buy groceries with IOUs. And the shutdown is affecting not just government employees and contract workers, but also the economies built around their spending.
The community groups at First Baptist on Saturday morning joined a growing number of organizations and individuals trying to help workers who have been furloughed or are required to work without pay.
But seeing all those people stream through his church’s doors hammered home the effect of partisan wrangling on his community, Collins said.
On Sunday, he said, he plans to preach a sermon from the book of Galatians, a strong message about joy.
“I’m going to make reference to the situation,” he told The Washington Post. “How do you find joy when you’re not getting a paycheck and your neighbor or your sister is not getting a paycheck? But barring deep wounds or depression, joy is a choice.”
He also wanted to highlight the many members of his church who volunteered Thursday morning.
“Instead of sitting home and writing their congressman, which they would be well within their rights to do, they got out and decided to help someone."