An evangelical church in Alabama handed out $16,500 in grocery store gift cards to local federal workers and contractors struggling to make ends meet during the ongoing partial government shutdown.
The First Baptist Church of Huntsville’s grand gesture on Thursday was part of a wider community-led effort to help furloughed workers in Alabama’s third-largest city, which is home to NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center and the Army’s Redstone Arsenal.
First Baptist’s senior pastor, Travis Collins, told HuffPost that the church emptied out its disaster relief fund ― which held $14,000 ― and collected an additional $2,500 from its members to help fund the charity effort. The church purchased over 300 Publix gift cards from a local grocery store in $50 increments.
Within 30 minutes of opening the church’s doors on Thursday, all the gift cards were gone, Collins said.
The pastor said he was moved by how many people had lined up that morning at his church to receive the cards.
“That was probably the most impactful moment,” he said. “Just seeing that many people who have done the right thing, prepared for a job, got a job, worked at a job and for circumstances beyond their control, now they’re in need of temporary assistance.”
Now in its fifth week, the partial government shutdown was triggered by disagreements between President Donald Trump, who is demanding more than $5 billion for a U.S.-Mexico border wall, and Democrats in Congress, who don’t want to allocate any new money for it. The shutdown has affected 800,000 federal workers, about 420,000 of whom must still report to work, even without being paid.
In Alabama, nearly 40,000 federal employees have been affected by the shutdown, The Washington Post reports.
Collins said that many members of his congregation are NASA or Redstone Arsenal employees. First Baptist is a conservative evangelical congregation aligned with the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship and the Southern Baptist Convention.
Below, Collins invites furloughed workers to attend a charity event at First Baptist Church of Huntsville.
The pastor emphasized that his church is just one of many local organizations helping federal workers during the partial shutdown. He said the idea for Thursday’s event came from workers at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center who wanted to create an opportunity for local charities and businesses to connect with furloughed workers. As one of Huntsville’s largest churches, First Baptist had the space to accommodate such an event.
Eighteen community organizations set up information booths in the church, including the local food bank, the Alabama Department of Labor and banks offering low-interest loans, CNN reports. At least 700 people attended the event, Collins said.
First Baptist’s ministry staff are meeting on Monday to discuss future partnerships with community organizations helping furloughed workers, he said.
“Our only regret is that we didn’t designate more money,” Collins said. “We had no idea how big the response would be.”
Across the country, other religious communities have pitched in to help federal employees affected by the shutdown. A church in Chula Vista, California, started a food bank for furloughed employees, and churches in Dallas and Atlanta and a synagogue in Chattanooga, Tennessee, offered gift cards. Muslim youth groups across the country organized volunteers to clean up national parks amid the shutdown.
Collins said he sees First Baptist’s donation as a “natural response” to the crisis.
“It’s kind of corny and all, but I think Jesus would be there giving away grocery cards or he’d be right there volunteering with any organization that is helping,” Collins said. “So it’s not like we’re going above and beyond the call of duty.”