Religious Groups Feel the Pinch of Government Shutdown

Religious Groups Feel the Pinch of Government Shutdown

By Kevin Eckstrom, Cathy Lynn Grossman, Sarah Pulliam Bailey, David Gibson, Adelle M. Banks and Katherine Burgess
c. 2013 Religion News Service

The Washington National Cathedral’s west center tympanum, bishop’s garden, bishop’s lawn, south side, south facade and central tower. (August 10, 2012) (Photo Credit: Craig Stapert courtesy Washington National Cathedral)

WASHINGTON (RNS) As the government shutdown enters its second week, some religious groups are starting to feel the pinch, and they’re also finding ways to reach out.

More than 90 Catholic, evangelical and Protestant leaders have signed a statement rebuking “pro-life” lawmakers for the shutdown, saying they are “appalled that elected officials are pursuing an extreme ideological agenda at the expense of the working poor and vulnerable families” who won’t receive government benefits.

Starting Wednesday, evangelical, Catholic and mainline Protestant leaders will hold a daily “Faithful Filibuster” on Capitol Hill with Bible verses on the poor “to remind Congress that its dysfunction hurts struggling families and low-income people.”

Here’s how the shutdown is impacting religious groups in ways large and small:

Rescheduled weddings

The national parks closure has prompted a blessing for some couples locked out of their planned wedding venues. Churches are opening their gardens and doors to shutdown refugees.

First, Washington Episcopal Bishop Mariann Budde invited displaced couples to wed at the Bishop’s Garden at the Washington National Cathedral. There are at least 11 weddings booked during the next two weeks, diocesan spokesman Jim Naughton said. Three have been held so far.

Then, a small church near Cincinnati, Church of Our Saviour/La Iglesia de Nuestro Salvador in Mount Auburn, Ohio, followed the cathedral’s lead.

“We have a small garden, but it’s really nice,” the Rev. Paula Jackson told a local website. “We don’t know how long this shutdown is going to last … This is one thing we can do for people, who have a very important moment in their lives planned.”

For couples whose Grand Teton National Park wedding dreams were dashed, there’s hope: St. John’s Church in Jackson Hole, Wyo., is offering shut-out sweethearts the spacious community green in front of the main sanctuary.

St. John’s Rector Ken Asel said he will put out the word that the biggest private green space in Jackson Hole will be available for the couples. Unfortunately, St. John’s most famous chapel, the Chapel of the Transfiguration with its window view of Grand Teton, will not be available because it is surrounded by the national park.

Workmen who needed to winterize the building for the season had to outrun park rangers once the roads through the park to the chapel were locked down.

D.C. sites shuttered

The play “The Laramie Project,” about gay rights icon Matthew Shepard, was scheduled to be performed at the historic Ford’s Theatre in Washington, but several of its October dates have shifted to the nearby First Congregational United Church of Christ. The theater, where President Lincoln was shot in 1865, is operated through a partnership between Ford’s Theatre Society and the National Park Service.

Church bus accident

The National Transportation Safety Board might have investigated the Oct. 2 church bus accident in which eight people died in eastern Tennessee. But all of its highway investigators were furloughed.

“In this particular case I think it’s highly likely that we would have responded to it, but again, with our investigators furloughed, it’s impossible to do that,” Sharon Bryson, the NTSB’s deputy director of communications, told NBC News.

Charitable funds dry up

The government shutdown also threatens to reduce or shutter charitable services operated by faith-based groups that use federal funds.

As Catholic News Service reports, the Diocese of Wichita (Kansas) is covering the costs of programs for homeless families and battered women run by the local branch of Catholic Charities. In Washington, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops said it would be able to continue assisting immigrants through its Migration and Refugee Services for a couple of months if necessary.

But officials also made it clear that these are only stopgap measures that still leave the poor and vulnerable at greater risk.

“It is hypocritical and shameful for those who tout their commitment to family values to show such callous indifference,” said an Oct. 2 statement released by Faith in Public Life and signed by a range of Catholic and other Christian leaders.

Contraception mandate lawsuits 

Justice Department lawyers are asking for more time in a case challenging the Obama administration’s contraception mandate, which has drawn strong opposition from a number of religious groups and institutions, including a suit filed by Geneva College in western Pennsylvania.

During the shutdown, government attorneys “are prohibited from working, even on a voluntary basis, except in very limited circumstances, including ‘emergencies involving the safety of human life or the protection of property,’” federal attorneys told a federal court in Pittsburgh, according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

Military chaplains

The shutdown caused some initial confusion about whether military chaplains would be able to perform religious services. The House passed a resolution Saturday (Oct. 5) urging the secretary of defense to not allow the government shutdown to reduce religious services on military bases. The Senate has not yet voted on the bill.

Military chaplains continue to work during the shutdown, but the resolution was aimed at contract chaplains involved in performing religious services or conducting religious activities, according to Military Times. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said he would reinstate almost all of the 350,000 civilian employees of the Defense Department, which was expected to allow contract priests to say Mass.

Still, the Roman Catholic Archdiocese for the Military Services says the shutdown is threatening Catholic service members’ religious rights. “Priests who minister to Catholics on military bases worldwide are not permitted to work — not even to volunteer. During the shutdown, it is illegal for them to minister on base and they risk being arrested if they attempt to do so,” warned John Schlageter, general counsel for the military archdiocese.

Fun for furloughed federal employees

A short walk from the Capitol sits Sixth & I, a restored synagogue that is now part synagogue and part cultural center and that has proven especially popular with younger Jewish adults. During the shutdown, Sixth & I sponsors “Shutdown Central” under the motto “A shutdown shouldn’t mean putting your mind to rest. Let’s make something out of this nothing.”

On any given day, that means a roster of programming that can include improv classes with local comedians, a class on government transparency and a knitting circle. But every day there’s “Political Ping Pong,” board games and the constant streaming of “The West Wing.”

In Vernal, Utah, St. Paul’s Episcopal Church offered free lunch to furloughed employees on Sunday (Oct. 6): “We recognize that those who are employed by the Federal Government are an integral part of what makes our community work and that their loss of wages is through no fault of their own.”

Church “Mans Up” to Address Black Youth Crisis

Church “Mans Up” to Address Black Youth Crisis

On an early Saturday morning, Bishop L.W. Francisco stood before a group of about 50 men and male teens of his Calvary Community Church and reflected on how long it had taken for the scene to materialize.

Seven years ago he received the vision that his predominantly black congregation in Hampton, Va. needed to do a better job mentoring African-American males. Presiding over too many young men’s funerals and consoling their loved ones, Francisco had seen from the frontlines the high homicides and incarceration rates of young urban black men. Over the years, men at his church who meant well would begin to work with the teens, but then, for one reason or another, the effort would fizzle. But in late 2012, Francisco issued a special call from the pulpit for committed men to step up. He sensed that something was different, that the chemistry was finally right.

“This is a vision that the Lord has given me and I’ve been carrying it and carrying it and carrying it,” Francisco said to the group, which had gathered at 8 a.m. “These 12 men (the core leaders) are sold out to this program. They are running with it. They have a passion for it.”

Calvary (known as C3) launched its Man Training program in February 2013, its theme being “Ambition to Transition.” The 10-week program helps boys become men through the training of their minds, bodies and souls. I am a member of C3, but attended the gathering as a writer. The program kicked off with a weekend “boot camp” at the Williamsburg Christian Retreat Center, where each man worked with two teens—there were 24 teens in all. The teens, all members of the church, had physical training activities and classes on issues such as prayer, peer pressure and having a quality relationship with God. The young men graduated in June.

Throughout the week in between meetings, the men would contact the boys and try to recap things that they learned to keep them encouraged, said Sylvester Taylor who heads the program. Moral and spiritual values, respect for authority, academic excellence, camaraderie and being an extension of the family are what the program emphasizes. “Repetition produces retention. This is a discipline program,” Sylvester said. “We’re really trying to instill that in them with the word of God and applying it throughout their lives.”

Located in Southeast Virginia, Hampton Roads has 11 military facilities, the highest concentration in the nation. As a result, many of the men are connected with the military in some way. The men did not aim to necessarily steer the teens toward joining the armed forces, but the teens benefited from the military-style discipline, such as being prompt and working as a unit. “We’re trying to teach them life-long lessons that they can apply across the board,” said Taylor, who is married and has young child. “We can connect and use our experience, but we’re not a replacement for the family.”

Taylor said that the more than 100 applications from families outside of the church confirmed Francisco’s vision that the training program should serve the wider community. They opted to start in-house first to get the program’s structure solid.

Young black males too often lack fathers in the home, leaving teens to be raised often by struggling single moms. This is typically cited as a key reason too many young black males are killing each other. They’re sucked in by the “street mentality.” But for teens such as Steven Scales and Joshua Moore, whose fathers are very involved in their lives, hearing from other strong men makes a huge impression too.

Steven said he was “a little nervous” at first, but then began enjoying the camaraderie of the other teens and the men. Joshua said the mentors reinforced his father’s voice. “When it’s the same things that my father is saying, it impacts me more,” he said.

As the focus on the young black male crisis has increased in the aftermath of the Trayvon Martin tragedy, many have been asking what can be done. Others have questioned whether the black church is doing enough. Many black churches across the country have long had successful mentoring programs, but are often not given credit, i.e. The Black Male mentoring program in South Florida and a mentoring program in Silver Springs, MD which has mentored black male teens for the last decade.

Youth mentoring is difficult to do well. Men who are considered morally upright and successful in their careers are typically ideal mentors but these men got that way by being hard-working, dedicated and thus, very, very busy. They are also often tending to their own families. As a married father who has reared two sons and a daughter, while navigating a demanding career, I can relate. I’ve mentored as a member of 100 Black Men, my fraternity, Phi Beta Sigma, my churches and as a sports coach. I could only pull it off by having my children involved in the programs. Still, it was a tough juggling act. Rearing your own kids can be more than a notion.

I still mentor. Doing nothing as a generation of young men ends up in prison or in the grave is not an option. Men like those at C3 understand this. They looked in the mirror and manned up.