Travis Collins looked out on the long line of people snaking around his church parking lot. He recognized very few of the faces standing in the morning air. But he could feel the desperation.
“For the first time, I felt in my gut the impact of the partial shutdown,” Collins told CNN.
Collins is the pastor of First Baptist Church in Huntsville, Alabama – home to NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center and the US Army’s Redstone Arsenal. It is also home to more than 40,000 federal workers and contractors.
“We have more NASA workers than you can shake a stick at,” Collins told CNN.
The church opened its doors Thursday to help local workers struggling with the longest federal government shutdown in US history.
The church had tapped out all $14,000 in its disaster relief fund and collected another $2,500 in donations from members throughout the week. The cash went to buy more than 300 gift cards to a local grocery store, in $50 increments.
“In 30 minutes, they were all gone,” Collins said.
It was a community affair
Earlier this week, Collins had gotten a call from someone with the Marshall Space Flight Center looking to organize a community-wide event for federal workers. He eagerly offered up the church’s large space.
In addition to handing out grocery cards, First Baptist Church hosted 18 other community organizations, from the local food bank and the Alabama Department of Labor to banks offering low interest loans. Some furloughed workers also manned tables to help instruct their colleagues about options to weather the financial drought.
“We just hosted it,” Collins said. “This was truly a community event.”
The church’s student minister, Jamie Mackey, estimated 2,000 people walked through the doors that day.
The fallout from the shutdown continues
Though there’s no sign that the deadlock in Washington will break anytime soon, President Trump signed legislation Wednesday providing back pay to workers who haven’t received paychecks during during the partial shutdown.
But the bill only guarantees pay after the shutdown ends, and even then, Collins says he worries about those working at the many “ancillary organizations around us that support NASA.” Those private contractors often aren’t guaranteed the stability that comes with federal government jobs.
Faith communities are stepping up
First Baptist Church of Huntsville is just one of countless faith communities stepping up during the shutdown. Muslim youth groups have helped clean up litter, empty garbage cans and sweep the grounds at national parks, from the Everglades in Florida to Joshua Tree in California.
Churches in Atlanta have pooled cash and other gifts together for their members working in federal jobs, including one person paying the electric bill for fellow congregants affected by the shutdown.
And a synagogue in Chattanooga, Tennessee, donated $1,200 worth of gift cards at the local airport in $20 increments, ensuring that about 60 TSA agents got an extra boost.
As forCollins, he’s taking heart in the outpouring of support from this city hit hard by the shutdown, but sustained by a caring community.
“Huntsville,” he says, “is a large city that feels like a town.”