DC Church opens doors to furloughed workers

October 14, 2013

By Erik Alsgaard*

In the heart of Washington, D.C., the impact of the current government shutdown is having an effect on people, both good and bad.

On a recent rainy night, the Rev. Dr. Donna Claycomb Sokol greeted people at her church, Mt. Vernon Place UMC, just blocks from the White House. People were coming in for soup.

“The intent was to open the doors and invite any furloughed employee, or anyone impacted by the current government shutdown, to come in and be greeted by hospitality and a hot cup of soup,” said the pastor. Claycomb Sokol estimated that about 20 percent of her congregation had been affected by the shutdown.

But that doesn’t mean furloughed workers are sitting around doing nothing. One of the amazing things that has happened, she said, is that some of the furloughed people have volunteered with the church’s shower ministry.

The church has four showers underneath the sanctuary, open for anyone to come in and receive clean undergarments, a hot shower, something to eat, and hospitality. About 35-50 of the church’s “un-housed neighbors” use come in three days a week, Claycomb Sokol said.

“Some of the members who are impacted are giving of their time in ways that they haven’t before,” she said. This includes two young women who are now coming in as volunteers, at 6 a.m., to help. “I’m grateful” for their service, Claycomb Sokol said.

The main organizer this night was Rachel Keller, originally from Central Pennsylvania, but currently a second-year student at Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, D.C. Keller is the ministry intern at Mt. Vernon Place.

“Our intent was to open our doors and have soup for the AmeriCorps VISTA members, or for those who are on furlough,” she said. Keller estimated that there are hundreds of such VISTA members in the District.

VISTA – Volunteers in Service to America – was founded in the 1960’s as an effort to fight poverty in this country. VISTA is a federally-funded part of AmeriCorps, whose workers receive poverty-level wages in order to help them identify with those they are serving.

“I think it is stressful,” Keller said of the furloughed workers. “They’re definitely feeling the hurt, the weight of it. I think people have enough to get by right now, but there’s a lot of fear with what will happen in the future.”

Amy Royce was also there for the soup. Originally from Houston, Texas, she’s been in D.C. for 10 years and a member of the church since 2008. Royce works for the D.C. Superior Court, the local trial court. “In any other jurisdiction,” she said, “it would be a state court, but because Washington is a federal district, this court is a federal court.”

Royce is doing a clerkship with one of the judges, and said that since the judges have to come to work, so does she, although she’s currently not getting paid.

“Everybody just wants things to get back to normal,” she said. “About 400 people at the court are furloughed right now, so things aren’t running they way they were designed to run. We’re very short-staffed.”

The highlight of the night may have been Marie McLetchie’s “Furlough Soup.” Originally from Dallas, Texas, she has been a member of Mt. Vernon Place UMC for the past four months. McLetchie was furloughed from her job with the Department of Defense at the Pentagon, but was recently told to report back to work. She’s unsure if she’s going to be paid for the work she’s doing now.

“They think they’re going to pay us,” she said. “They have assured us that we will be paid for the time, they’re not 100 percent sure when.”

McLetchie made “Furlough Soup,” at home while she was furloughed. She froze a batch for later use, and brought that in to the church.

What’s in Furlough Soup? “Chicken stock, parsnips, carrots, celery and noodles,”
she said.  “It’s kind of a sparse soup, but it’s tasty.”

“I’ll be really glad when this is over,” she said. “I’m grateful to Rachel for putting this together.”

*Alsgaard is editor in the Ministry of Communications for the Baltimore-Washington Conference