Established in 1839, the Nineteenth Street Baptist Church has stood as a spiritual beacon in the nation’s capital for nearly two centuries. On the eve of his first inauguration, ladies and gentlemen dressed in fur and wool waited in a long line for the chance to worship with President-Elect Barack Obama and his family.
But in recent weeks, there are new lines, now filled with federal workers who, after years of service, find themselves furloughed and gleaning bags of food and groceries simply because they have been pinned down in a political fight between President Donald Trump and Congressional Democrats over who should pay for a border wall to keep immigrants out of the United States.
“We have a prayer line and we food pantry because a number of our members have been impacted by the shutdown,” says Rev. Darryl D. Roberts, pastor of Nineteenth Street. “A number of our members have been furloughed, and we are also doing a financial contribution. We have benevolence bank.”
In addition to tapping into their traditional food banks and networks, houses of worship across the District, as well as in Maryland and Virginia, are taking up collections of food and money, and reminding members who are running out of money during the government shutdown of the resources they have to offer.
Nineteenth Street, which is actually located on 16th Street NW, has operated a food pantry for decades to serve those in need, but its congregation is filled with well-educated African Americans who for generations have embraced an attitude of service and giving back. Located in the “Gold Coast,” many have subscribed to the belief that hard work and a good education are the keys to economic opportunity.
But these people are no strangers to struggle. Many walked with Martin Luther King Jr. and took part in the civil rights protests to integrate Dixie. Now, after years of working toward a better society, the aging members of this church have more questions than answers when it comes to their immediate futures.
On Friday, a steady stream of people came to Nineteenth Street to pick up frozen chicken, frozen fish, and an assortment of canned goods. Their first stop was to sign in with Deacon Michael Bonner, 72, the coordinator of the program, who makes sure that people coming in have a referral from one of about 15 different agencies.
“The government workers don’t have to show an ID because we know them,” says Bonner, adding that since the shutdown began the church has nearly doubled the number of people it serves twice a week. “On January 9th we served 91 people and we ran out of food.” The pantry is normally open Wednesdays and Fridays, but stayed closed this past Wednesday to restock.
“How many people are in the family?” Bonner asked Sequnely Gray, a mother of five, who came to the church on Friday. She said even though she comes to the church on regular basis to stretch her monthly budget, she wanted to share her food with federal contractors she knows who are having a hard time right now.
“The politicians need to look at their own lives,” Gray says. “They are playing a childhood game by not talking to each, other but real Americans are suffering.” Gray’s children are 17, 15, 13, 8, and 5.
As people streamed in, Deborah Heard, a retired newspaper editor and member of NineteenthStreet, logged onto her laptop computer because it was time to order more food for the church’s pantry from the Capital Area Food Bank.
“I didn’t see things like pasta or brown rice,” said Heard. But she wasn’t worried, because the church already had planned to go to the store and buy more food to make sure the pantry would be fully stocked for next Wednesday.