Open doors, hearts during government shutdown

By Forrest White

Feb. 6, 2019 -- As Oakton UMC member Helen Albanese read stories about the government shutdown in the Jan. 17 edition of the Washington Post, a reader comment at the bottom of one story grabbed her attention.

“I saw how they were all going stir crazy now that they had all cleaned out their closets and bookshelves and taken their stuff to charities, thanks to Marie Kondo’s Netflix program about tidying up,” Albanese said. “Post stories also frequently reported that these furloughed people were spending money at cafes buying coffee and snacks while worrying about having no income.”

The comment writer shared that her place of worship was holding an open house each day for furloughed workers, providing snacks and beverages.

Albanese thought it would be a great idea for Oakton UMC, which is located at a major residential and small business intersection in Fairfax County.

She reached out to her pastor, the Rev. Dawn-Marie Singleton, the chair of church council and the chair of trustees, and got their approval, then spent Friday and Saturday getting organized.

“One of my closest friends in the area was on furlough at the time and I had asked her what she thought the church could do,” Singleton said. “Her response was ‘Just give us somewhere to go or something to do. I am tired of feeling I have no purpose. Just a simple place to pray or gather would be helpful.’ So when Helen came up with her idea, I knew it was the perfect thing for Oakton to do.”

At worship that Sunday, Jan. 20, Albanese asked how many in the congregation had a family member or friend who was either furloughed or an out-of-work contractor. About one-third of the 75 in attendance raised their hand.

She shared the open house idea and the Oakton members said they thought it was terrific.

So, from Jan. 21-25, the church opened its doors from 11 a.m. until 3 p.m. each day, with eight members taking two-hour blocks to join Albanese in providing radical hospitality to those suffering during the shutdown. Two members installed a new router she purchased to make sure there was strong Wi-Fi in the basement room set up for the open house.

On Monday, the holiday to honor the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., one woman showed up – she would soon be retiring from her government job and wanted to study for the real estate exam. She had seen Oakton’s announcement in Nextdoor, a social networking service for neighborhoods. A community volunteer came to help because she, too, saw it on Nextdoor.

Church members also shared about the open house on social media and by placing flyers at businesses throughout the area.

Though no one showed up the rest of the week, the Oakton members were there waiting, with open doors and open hearts.

It’s no surprise the church got involved in serving the community. It has a partnership with three area schools – Oakton, Mosby Woods and Marshall Road Elementary Schools – and helps with everything from food needs to musical instrument rental to assistance with bills and collecting school supplies. At Mosby Woods the church began a homework club last year, with members serving as mentors and tutors for 36 of its neediest students twice each week after school.

“We are presently engaged in a discernment process to figure out how God is calling us to be more involved in our community and how we can best reach our neighbors,” Singleton said. “It is an exciting process and we look forward to seeing how God leads us into our future of making disciples for the transformation of the world.”

The church learned some lessons from its open house during the shutdown.

“We believed that had our open house been implemented very early in the shutdown, we would have had far more impact with members and the community,” Albanese said. “The next time there is a government shutdown, we know exactly how to implement this program. And we will do it quickly - not wait until week six of a shutdown.”

She sadi she doesn’t think it’s a matter of if there’s another shutdown, but when.

“No doubt, there will be future shutdowns, unless Congress passes a law forbidding it … unlikely,” Albanese said. “Churches need to have ideas of how to quickly implement a game plan to serve their congregations and their communities.”

-Forrest White is news associate with the conference Communications office.


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