Shutdown affects local theology student

Photo by Daniel Jackovino
Christopher Dwyer, a theology student assisting at Christ Episcopal Church and a furloughed federal worker.

GLEN RIDGE, NJ — A theology student assisting at Christ Episcopal Church who is also a furloughed federal worker, Christopher Dwyer, said on Sunday that he was starting to feel the pinch. He said that on the twenty-third day of the shutdown. Barring a “miracle,” today is the twenty-seventh day.

A full-time theology student at Drew University, Dwyer is a financial analyst for the U. S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, in Manhattan. His out-of-work status is a result of the government shutdown since a congressional bill financing it was passed in late December without funds to build a 600-mile-long wall between Mexico and the U. S. President Trump, who made the barrier a campaign pledge, refused to sign the bill. The shutdown has affected 800,000 federal workers who are now either unemployed or working without pay.

“Costs build up,” Dwyer said at the church. “I called my creditors and told them it’s going to be a while. My bank has a lot of federal employees and veterans. They’re use to it.”

Dwyer is familiar with shutdowns, too. He has been at HUD for eight years and was there for the 17-day shutdown in October 2013 and for the one that lasted three-days, in January 2018. The current shutdown is the longest in U. S. history.

“It comes down to Democrats and Republicans,” he said. “It happens when you have the irresistible object and the immovable force. Since the Gingrich shutdown in the ‘90s, you can see the government has been so contentious. Everytime it gets close to funding, you brace yourself emotionally and spiritually.”

In 1995, an impasse between a Republican House of Representatives and Bill Clinton’s White House caused a shutdown for 21 days. Newt Gingrich was speaker of the house at the time.

“It always happens on a Friday at midnight,” Dwyer said of a potential shutdown. “This time, it was right before Christmas and we had off Christmas Eve and Christmas.”

Christmas Eve 2018 was a Monday. Leaving the office on the previous Friday, Dwyer and his coworkers had no idea when they would be back.

“It was — ‘Merry Christmas and Happy New Year or Happy Valentine’s Day,’” he said.

A Navy veteran, Dwyer is married and a Bloomfield resident. A nephew attending Bloomfield College resides with him.

The family is living on his wife’s Social Security disability benefits and part of his student loan. He does not touch the credit cards and has not yet received any unemployment checks. He does not know if this is because the agency dealing with claims for government workers has been affected, too, or because more are out-of-work.

“The NY State Department of Labor told me everything is running slower and asked if I could dig up my pay stubs,” he said.
Dwyer has not spoken to co-workers, but is keeping in touch with his union representative. He was contacted by NBC-TV News along with two other individuals affected by the shutdown.

“They figured I’d make a good human-interest story,” he said with a laugh.
But when he saw part of the interview, he was upset because many of his responses were eliminated and he was shown as someone concerned only about himself and a paycheck. Dwyer said that is not the person he is.

“I love being in public service,” he said. “I’ve been serving my country since I was in the military. I understand my job is a political football. But this particular shutdown, this wall, is so abhorrent, I don’t wish the Democrats would cave for my job to come back. I don’t want that. This is bigger than me. I’m starting to feel the pinch, there’s a lot of anxiety in my house, but not at that cost.”

Dwyer is something of a “handyman” at the church and does whatever has to be done and preached on a recent Sunday. The church is led by the Rev. Diana Wilcox.

“I preached on the prologue to the Gospel of John, but one verse,” he said. “I never do that. It was about what the presence of God means.”

He is entering his fourth semester as a theology student and has been assisting at the church since October 2016. Congregates know he has been affected by the shutdown and have offered to help. He has received assistance from his mother and other relatives.

“It’s going to be OK,” he said. “I’m optimistic, but mostly it’s my faith, that God will take care of us. He takes care of us even when things are awful. Especially when they are awful.”

At HUD, Dwyer works in community planning and development. He makes sure federal funds get to nonprofits which in turn distribute that money. Now he does not know if the nonprofits are even making payroll.

“Sure, there are 800,000 fed employees not drawing a paycheck,” he said. “But there are people who really need our
services but don’t have them. We always need to consider the most vulnerable.”

But the political fight over the wall, he said, is a fight for the “soul” of the country.
“The very idea about this wall says a lot about who we are,” he said. “We talk about folks coming up from Central America. The entire 20th century was about American intervention there to destabilize it. Now we wonder why the people want relief? Who wants to leave their country? It’s more dangerous to stay there.

“I don’t think anyone who thought about it would realize a wall won’t keep you out. The wall won’t do that. It’s a monument to racism. That’s what I mean by the soul of the country. Yes, it’s a very difficult time, but the shutdown is bigger than my paycheck.”