As July 4, 2020 dawned on a Saturday morning, many people slept in, and would later enjoy a relaxing day of cookouts and fireworks displays. But by 7 a.m. that morning, people impacted by the COVID-19 outbreak and economic downturn already began lining up outside the parish and school buildings of the Shrine of St. Jude in Rockville, Maryland, to receive groceries, produce and baby supplies from the parish’s new St. Stephen’s Food Pantry that opened two months earlier in the wake of the crisis.

On this Independence Day, those people were not free from worrying about finding food for themselves and their families, and by the time an opening prayer was offered before the food distribution began around 9 a.m., hundreds of people wearing face masks and standing a safe distance apart from each other had joined the line that snaked around and behind the buildings. Those in line included men and women, mothers with children, and some senior citizens. Some held umbrellas to shield themselves from the sun as they patiently waited.

“The needs are real and very close to home,” said Father Paul Lee, St. Jude’s pastor. Later, he added, “The consequences of the COVID-19 crisis are beyond our comprehension. People are suffering greatly, but through God’s grace, we were able to meet their needs in time.”

He had been shocked this spring when parishioners started coming to him seeking food help, and the parish quickly mobilized to open the St. Stephen’s Food Pantry, serving 120 people on its first day of operation on May 9. 

By the end of June, the pantry was serving more than 400 people each Saturday. On the July 4 holiday, St. Jude’s pantry served 330 people, providing them with a bag and box of food, plus a box of fresh fruit and vegetables, and baby supplies if they needed them. That morning, between 50 and 60 volunteers, including about three dozen teens and young adults, had organized the food and then carried it to people’s cars.

Early on July 4,  volunteers at St. Jude Parish began setting up the  bags of food to be given out that morning. (CS photo/Andrew Biraj)

Many of the volunteers were family members, including Larry Kilmer, a St. Jude’s parishioner and math teacher and coach at The Heights School in Potomac, joined by his wife Jennifer and several of their children. He noted that each weekend after the food distribution, the pantry’s cupboards are bare, but by the next Saturday, bolstered by parishioners’ donations and by support from other local parishes, community groups and the Montgomery County government, bags and boxes of food line the St. Jude’s hallway, ready to be given out.

Father Lee compared the community response to the Gospel account of Jesus’s multiplication of loaves and fishes, but organizers of the St. Stephen’s Food Pantry, like other parish pantries across the area, worry about keeping up with the growing demand for help.

“We really have no idea how it’s going to keep going,” Larry Kilmer said.

Parish Pantry Support Project

To help meet that need, the Archdiocese of Washington has launched a Parish Pantry Support Project, an initiative to support food pantries operated by local parishes. The project launched in July has an online giving page, so local Catholics can provide donations to parish food pantries providing frontline help to people impacted by the COVID-19 crisis. 

The archdiocese’s Office of Development and Secretariat of Pastoral Ministry and Social Concerns researched local parish food pantries, and found that before the pandemic, 64 parishes had pantries, and they were providing food assistance to more than 7,500 people per week at an estimated monthly cost of at least $92,000.

Women volunteer at the food pantry at St. Mark the Evangelist Parish in Hyattsville, Maryland on July 7.  That morning, the pantry provided food to 350 individuals and families. (CS photo/Andrew Biraj)

That survey found that since the onset of the coronavirus outbreak and the resulting economic downturn, three more parishes had started food pantries, meaning that 67 or nearly one-half of the archdiocese’s 139 parishes now operate food pantries. The number of people those pantries are serving is estimated to have doubled to 15,000 people weekly, as has the cost for providing the food assistance to meet the growing demand, which now amounts to an estimated $200,000 per month for the parishes.

The website for the Parish Pantry Support Project notes that donations will help “replenish parish food pantries and sustain newly opened pantries where demand has skyrocketed this year.”

Joe Gillmer, the archdiocese’s executive director of development, said the dramatic rise in demand has been seen in parishes across the archdiocese, including at food pantries in the city of Washington and at suburban and rural parishes in Maryland. St. Mary’s Parish in Newport distributed 42 tons of food to those in need in Southern Maryland last year and has already exceeded that amount this year.

“It’s an equal opportunity need across the archdiocese,” Gillmer said, noting the parish food pantries are serving members of their own communities, their neighbors, who have fallen on hard times.

The archdiocesan official noted that the effort is not in competition with food assistance efforts being undertaken by Catholic Charities and groups like the St. Vincent de Paul Society, but is meant to complement that outreach to meet the rising need. Gillmer noted that some parishes support longstanding food pantries in their region, like the one operated by St. Martin’s Parish in Gaithersburg.

During the coronavirus outbreak, Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Washington has staged large-scale food distributions at locations across the area, including at the parking lot of the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception and at St. Mary of the Mills Parish in Laurel, Maryland

On July 10, Catholic Charities will have its 10th large community food distribution, again outside the National Shrine. The agency also distributes food at its pantries in Silver Spring; Washington, D.C.; and in Southern Maryland. As of July 1, Catholic Charities has given out more than 34,500 grocery packages and 32,000 take-home, family-sized meals since the pandemic began.

Gillmer said donations to the Parish Pantry Support Project will provide crucial help to parishes when the demand for food assistance is expected to remain high for an extended period of time, and also at a time when parishes are facing the challenge of decreased offertory support as the size of attendance at public Masses is limited due to recommended safety precautions against the spread of the coronavirus.

“If ever there was a time for us to rally for food pantries, it would be right now,” said Gillmer.

A volunteer helps get food bags ready to distribute from the pantry of St. Mark's Parish in Hyattsville on July 7. (CS photo/Andrew Biraj)

Heartache and hope 

Unlike the recently opened St. Stephen’s Food Pantry at St. Jude’s Parish, the food pantry at St. Mark the Evangelist Parish in Hyattsville, Maryland, has been in operation since 1991, almost three decades.

Doug Jones began volunteering with the St. Mark’s food pantry six years ago after retiring from his government logistics work, and now he uses that logistics experience at the pantry.

“After I retired, I decided I wanted to give back,” he said. “I just prayed and prayed, (asking) ‘what am I going to do next,’ and God directed me to the food pantry, and I’ve been here ever since.”

The St. Mark’s food pantry distributes food every Tuesday, and on July 7, volunteers there gave out food to 352 individuals and families. Before the COVID-19 crisis, the panty was serving about 80 families a week, Jones said. That amounts to a more than four-fold increase.

Cars line up to receive food at the July 7 distribution from the pantry at St. Mark the Evangelist Parish in Hyattsville, Maryland. (CS photo/Andrew Biraj)

“To me, it’s very heartbreaking, the need in our community. Families are truly in need,” he said, adding that in his lifetime, he’s never witnessed the level of food insecurity that people in the community are experiencing now.

The pantry at the Hyattsville parish relies on donations from parishioners, and also gets food from the Capital Area Food Bank and Catholic Charities, and the parish has done fundraising and sought donations from local governments and community groups. 

The St. Mark’s pantry typically has 12-15 volunteers daily, sorting or distributing food. Before the COVID-19 outbreak, many of its volunteers were senior citizens, but now fewer can help from that at-risk group, and young adults and members of the Knights of Columbus have stepped forward to volunteer. Some of the volunteers helping at St. Mark's pantry lost their jobs during the economic downturn, Jones said.

Many young adults are helping at the St. Mark's food pantry, as some of the usual group of senior citizen volunteers are part of an at-risk population during the COVID-19 crisis. (CS photo/Andrew Biraj)

Jones noted that St. Mark’s Parish recently opened a GoFundMe account to raise donations for its food pantry

“We’re really in need. We’re in debt,” he said of the pantry. “We don’t have any money. We’re not capable of providing the food they need. Unfortunately, we turn people away every time. We’re serving 350 families a week. We could serve 400.”

Reflecting on the community’s growing need for food assistance, Jones said again, “It’s heartbreaking.”

That dramatic increase in demand has also been seen at the St. Stephen’s Food Pantry since the Shrine of St. Jude began that outreach two months ago. That pantry, like St. Mark’s, has seen a nearly four-fold increase in families being served during the COVID-19 crisis.

“It’s eye-opening, to see the amount growing week after week,” said Edwin Lopez, the chair of St. Jude’s pastoral council.

He noted that Montgomery County has been using the parish’s pantry as a hub, providing boxes of produce to distribute to those in need, and community groups including a local distillery have provided bags of food to supplement the donations of food and money from parishioners. For the July 4 food distribution at the parish, the Montgomery County Muslim Foundation provided 100 boxes of food.

Lopez said it’s been inspiring to see the great number of St. Jude parishioners who have volunteered since the program started.

“They’re eager to help and ready to jump in,” he said.

Jennifer Kilmer agreed, saying, “It really pulls the parish together.”

Among the parishioners helping were members of the Knights of Columbus. “Anything we can do to help the project, we’re here,” said Gavin Pereira, the grand knight of the local council.

The approximately 50 volunteers helping at the food distribution at the Shrine of St. Jude in Rockville on July 4 included teens and adults working together. (CS photo/Andrew Biraj)

On that July 4, two American flags hung at the building’s entrance, as St. Jude’s parishioners of different backgrounds and ages scurried to stack and distribute the bags and boxes of food, Larry Young, a retired Navy officer who serves as the pantry’s volunteer coordinator, said that outpouring offered a sign of hope for this country at a difficult time.

Many of the volunteers wore matching lime green T-shirts labeled “St. Stephen’s Food Pantry,” and many were young. Father Lee wore a black facemask that a parishioner had sewn a small white square on, so it resembled a Roman collar on a priest’s clerical shirt. His small white terrier Rocky, a Westie, stood at his side, not far from a table stacked with pet food supplied by the county to distribute to families that day for their pets.

Father Paul Lee, St. Jude's pastor, was accompanied by his dog Rocky at the July 4 food distribution. (CS photo/Andrew Biraj)

St. Jude’s pastor said he was inspired to see the members of his diverse parish working together to serve those in need, and was especially moved by the young volunteers who were loading up cars with food.

“Our teenagers, their presence makes me so happy and hopeful for the future,” he said.

Glenn Benjamin, the principal of St. Jude Regional Catholic School, said it was gratifying to see so many students and graduates pitching in.

“It means we’re doing what we as teachers set out to do, teaching them to be good citizens, to be good moral people,” he said.

Lucy Young, 18, was volunteering that day with her younger sisters Maggie and Tina, who now attend the Academy of the Holy Cross.

“So many people are coming here, and they obviously need our help,” said Young, a graduate of St. Jude’s School and Holy Cross who is now a rising sophomore at the University of Maryland, majoring in hearing and speech sciences.

Volunteering at the food distribution is a work of faith, she said. “Jesus tells us to serve the poor and to love our neighbor as ourselves. That’s what we’re doing here today and every weekend.”

And as she was about to continue carrying bags and boxes of food to people’s cars, she added, “It’s a good workout!”

Young volunteers help at the July 4 food distribution at St. Jude's in Rockville. (CS photo/Andrew Biraj)

Another volunteer, Tom Kilmer, 17, who just graduated from The Heights School and will be attending the University of Dayton and studying business management, said, “God’s given me a great gift of a family and a home. It’s just my way of giving back to the community.”

Among the families volunteering with the St. Jude’s food distribution that morning were Monica and Jose Flores and their daughter Isabelle, now a student at the Academy of the Holy Cross, and their son Santiago, who will be an eighth grader at St. Jude Regional Catholic School.

“This is like a calling. Every Saturday, we wake up and have a purpose. We see a need, and people are helping each other, inside and outside,” Monica Flores said, noting that earlier that morning, she and her daughter were inside the building, packing bags with diapers and other baby supplies. Now she was outside, greeting the people in line, finding out what their needs are.

Flores immigrated to the United States from Peru 27 years ago, and her husband is from El Salvador. She noted that 90 percent of the people in line that morning were Hispanic immigrants, and she serves as a translator for them and tries to comfort them.

“I understand them,” Monica Flores said. “My mom worked cleaning houses. I know their struggles.”

People in line have told her about losing their jobs, or about having a family member who is sick. She said St. Jude’s volunteers have made special deliveries to the homes of sick people or if they learn of a mother about to have a baby who needs food brought to her.

Flores, who also volunteers as a catechist at the parish, said, “It’s very important for me to be here.”

Volunteers prepare to give out bags of food at the July 4 food distribution at the Shrine of St. Jude in Rockville. Behind them were hundreds of people who had started lining up for help early that morning. (CS photo/Andrew Biraj)

Benjamin, St. Jude’s principal, said the July 4th holiday was very important to many of the volunteers. He noted that he has family ancestors who came to America in the mid-1600s, and some other St. Jude’s volunteers that day were immigrants who felt blessed to be Americans and want to give back by serving their community.

“For me, this is what it’s about, we’re celebrating people coming here for freedom,” said Benjamin, who wore a Captain America T-shirt and a facemask with the pattern of the Maryland flag.

Van McMahon, who immigrated to the United States from Vietnam 17 years ago and attends the Shrine of St. Jude with her husband and their four children, was helping to put food in the bags that were being given out that morning.

“We just want to help out as much as we can,” she said.

Later that morning, a wedding was going to be celebrated inside the Shrine of St. Jude, and as the food distribution was going on, some people were inside the church, quietly praying as votive candles flickered nearby.

For those volunteers on that day at St. Jude’s Parish, the holiday had become a holy day, a chance for people to help and offer hope to neighbors who were struggling to have food for their families.

Brodie Wise, a deacon candidate from St. Andrew Apostle Parish in Silver Spring who is an executive for a technology company, smiled as he joined the St. Jude’s volunteers, and said, “Doing God’s work, there’s nothing more satisfying.”