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Over a million nonprofits use Amazon.com’s charitable giving program, AmazonSmile, to collect donations. It’s not hard to see why: The online retail giant’s donate-while-you-shop function gave away over $100 million to enlisted charities in 2018.
AmazonSmile’s most popular recipients range the spectrum. They include Planned Parenthood and Human Rights Campaign but also Christian nonprofits such as Samaritan’s Purse and Compassion International. The latter each collected over $80,000.
But not all Christian charities have been welcome.
That’s because groups like Liberty Counsel, Family Research Council, and the American College of Pediatricians appear on the Southern Poverty Law Center’s hate list for opposing the LGBTQ activist agenda. According to AmazonSmile’s website, the program relies on SPLC data to identify charities that “engage in, support, encourage, or promote intolerance [or] hate.”
This summer, conservative politicians and groups pressured Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos to rethink how his company decides whom to ban from its charitable program.
In July, House Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., interrogated Bezos on AmazonSmile’s use of SPLC during Congressional tech antitrust hearings. Bezos said SPLC’s list was “not perfect, and I would like a better source if we could get it.”
Yet back in May, a conservative investor had already made that suggestion, introducing a resolution at Amazon’s annual shareholders meeting that would reconsider its reliance on SPLC. Bezos and Amazon board members opposed it, and shareholders subsequently voted it down.
Frank Wright says SPLC is wrong to paint his group, D. James Kennedy Ministries, as extremist for following Biblical views on marriage and sexuality, and he says Amazon is wrong for listening. Wright’s group was the first from the anti-LGBTQ hate list to sue Amazon and SPLC, and he believes AmazonSmile’s denial has cost him more than lost donations.
“We received letters and calls from donors, essentially asking: What’s wrong with you guys? When did you become haters?” Wright said via email. “Each donor we communicated with was satisfied by our explanation, but what about the donors or potential donors that never called or wrote to us?”
SPLC states on its website that “viewing being LGBTQ as unbiblical or simply opposing marriage equality does not qualify an organization to be listed as an anti-LGBTQ hate group.”
However, recipients of SPLC’s anti-LGBTQ designation told me the Alabama-based organization has never told them how they got on the list—or how to get off.
They further contend SPLC is superfluous because Amazon already filters hate groups out from legitimate charities by requiring all applicants to prove tax-exempt status. In IRS terms, this means groups must annually file under a 501(c)(3) designation.
“Amazon doesn’t need the SPLC to tell them that the KKK is a hate group, and KKK wouldn’t qualify for AmazonSmile anyway because it doesn’t have 501(c)(3) status,” said Jeremy Tedesco, senior counsel at Alliance Defending Freedom, the Arizona-based legal advocacy group that received SPLC hate group designation in 2016. Amazon booted Alliance Defending Freedom from AmazonSmile in 2018.
That same year, SPLC collected $37,379 from AmazonSmile.
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They shattered display windows and the glass front door and rushed in, swinging crowbars and golf clubs, grabbing merchandise, and throwing chairs. Many of the hundred-plus looters made a beeline behind the counter, yanking bottles and packages of prescription drugs off the shelves. They destroyed what they didn’t steal, and all evening groups of mostly young men tramped in and out, snatching and smashing. Then several of them looked up and spray-painted over the surveillance cameras, and Jim Stage’s screen went blank.
“It was surreal,” Stage says. “Like watching something out of a movie.” Only it was real, and it wasn’t over.
Stage was watching on his computer the live video feed from Lloyd’s Pharmacy, his St. Paul business since 2014 and an independent neighborhood pharmacy for 102 years.
On this evening, May 28, three days after George Floyd’s death while in Minneapolis police custody, protesters gathered in the racially diverse St. Paul community of Hamline-Midway. Lloyd’s Pharmacy sits in the middle of it on busy Snelling Avenue.
Exhausted from hours of viewing rioters pillage his store, pharmacist Stage fell into bed that night hoping Lloyd’s could sustain the blow and he could repair the damage. But at 3:30 a.m. he awoke to find two texts telling him someone had set fire to the pharmacy in the middle of the night.
By 7 a.m., when he got to the scene, he saw firefighters spraying torrents of water at the smoldering shell of his store. They had battled the blaze all night, but the old wooden building burned too hot to quench. A backhoe arrived to knock over the walls leaning precariously into a debris-strewn parking lot.
“A lot of people were in shock. Some were afraid. I wasn’t afraid. I was just sad.”
Another Lloyd’s pharmacist, Kyle Anstett, embraced Stage in shared grief. Firefighters approached and expressed sorrow over the total loss. Stage thanked them for trying to save his store. Pharmacy customers and neighbors gathered around and cried.
“A lot of people were in shock. Some were afraid,” recounts Stage. “I wasn’t afraid. I was just sad.”
One man passed along to Stage a $20 bill given by a stranger. Stage learned several good Samaritans tried to stop the ransacking the night before by boarding up the windows and door and posting a sign: “Please don’t destroy. This is locally owned, community owned.” A short while later, arsonists lit the first match.
After Stage had instructed Anstett to send employees safely home earlier in the day, Anstett drove back to visually check on the shop. He saw some of the first looters. To him, they looked less like protesters and more like opportunists: “There were cars zooming in and then people were jumping out, and they’d break into a business, loot everything, jump back in the car, and drive away.”
No other buildings next to Lloyd’s appear burned, although according to published reports 55 businesses throughout St. Paul suffered fire damage that night. Jin Lim, owner of 7-Mile Sportswear, about 3 miles from Lloyd’s, says his business is a complete loss due to looting and water damage. Sprinklers gushed when arsonists lit fire to his store.
Next door to Lloyd’s stands Fusion Salon, untouched by rioting, although some water leaked in from fire hoses. Owner Diane Brennan thinks looters targeted Lloyd’s for the drugs. They hit pharmacies, gas stations, and liquor stores hard that night. “What happened shook us all to the core,” she says. She hopes Stage rebuilds to help keep the community intact.
Processing what happened to his pharmacy is taking Stage time and faith. And keeping the business running is challenging. His wife and five children, employees, customers, and church have all encouraged him to rebuild.
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Jennie Higgins is a 62-year-old employee at a Costco store near Houston, Texas, where she assists customers in the clothing section. Her husband, Randy, drives trucks to deliver stock to other Costco locations. The couple have worked for the retailer for years, but now, Jennie Higgins said, “We’re considered essential people.”
In March, Randy worked six days a week, and drivers doubled their loads to meet demand. Meanwhile, Jennie said, she has experienced a range of emotions “from unbelievable to just frightening,” never knowing what she’ll face at work: the coronavirus or angry, scared customers.
Grocery workers are facing pressure from long hours, upset customers, and the threat of the coronavirus. But amid the challenges, some Christian employees say they are serving others by listening, encouraging, or just remaining calm.
On March 26, Costco announced reduced hours at its U.S. locations: Stores would close at 6:30 p.m. on weeknights. The stores are rationing some quick-selling items, and food courts now offer a limited menu and no seating. Costco locations around the country are reporting COVID-19 cases among their employees. Some have added sneeze guards at the registers and provided “hazard pay” for employees who work with customers.
The warehouse retailer has been overrun in recent weeks, but Chip Lind, an optician at a Costco near Seattle, said the company has cared well for employees. When his store closed the optical department, it offered him work on the warehouse side, checking out customers or assisting cashiers. Lind, a nine-year Costco employee, said the work is mundane, but he’s thankful to have a job. His store has limited the number of shoppers allowed in the building at once: Before that, Lind said, “fights were breaking out every day,” as customers competed for the last of certain products. Police sent officers to stand at the Costco doors.
“I’ve prayed that God would allow me to be a light in an unusually difficult situation.”
Lind, in his late 50s, sees his non-Christian co-workers responding to the virus fearfully. He said those who resist fear and keep good attitudes stand out. He and his Christian co-workers quote Bible verses to each other during their shifts and sometimes sing worship songs between customers at the registers. Lind said co-workers see him reading his Bible in the break room and ask about it, and he encourages them to read the Psalms when pandemic anxiety keeps them from sleep.
As a Christian, Jennie Higgins said, “I’ve prayed that God would allow me to be a light in an unusually difficult situation.” Sometimes angry customers direct their frustration toward her. When that happens, she said, she listens and acknowledges how difficult the situation is. Often people are surprised she cares, and thank her for listening. She also tries to encourage co-workers: One told her, “This place has been like a dark cloud, and I have seen who you are in this, and it means a lot to me.”
“I had no idea that just being kind and asking questions about his life would change his life so much,” Higgins said.
H-E-B grocery stores in Texas have placed tape on the floor to remind customers to keep 6 feet of social distancing. Employees give customers wipes for cart handles and point them to hand sanitizing stations.
Bonita Brant has worked at an H-E-B near Austin for 2½ years. Brant leads the team that provides in-store food demos, but two weeks after the coronavirus hit Austin, her store canceled the demos. Brant and her team took on other tasks, from sanitizing surfaces to bagging groceries to working in the store’s backlogged curbside pickup program. The store began rerouting customer foot traffic to reduce shoplifting and set product limits to reduce hoarding. “You could look at people and see the anxiousness on their faces,” Brant said. “I’m thinking, ‘Calm down, people. God is in control.’”
High-school junior Mason McGuire works as a bagger and parking lot attendant at another H-E-B store near Austin. He said the first week after the coronavirus reached the area was “insane.” Crowds of customers emptied whole shelves before 11 a.m. Managers worked quickly to keep the chaos under control.