While the coronavirus pandemic has brought fear and uncertainty to much of the nation, a local priest and Catholic school principal serving the ‘poorest of the poor’ in Langley Park, Maryland, say the immigrant community there is in urgent need of help.

Langley Park, one of the most densely populated communities in Prince George’s County, includes more than 20,000 people living in a one square mile area. Most are immigrants from Central America, and many of them are poor and worked in construction, restaurant or cleaning jobs that were halted after the government-ordered restrictions aimed at preventing the spread of the coronavirus that included limiting the size of public gatherings, closing non-essential businesses and ordering residents to stay at home. Most of those workers are ineligible for the stimulus checks recently approved by Congress in the wake of the financial crisis caused by the coronavirus shutdown nationwide.

“There are a lot of people (in Langley Park) who have lost their jobs, and they are becoming more and more fearful, struggling to provide for their families,” said Franciscan Father Jacek Orzechowski, the manager of Parish Community Organizing and Advocacy for Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Washington. “The lines (for food assistance) are becoming longer. Oftentimes people in Langley Park live from paycheck to paycheck, supporting themselves and sharing it with family members in other countries.” 

The priest is encouraging Catholics across the archdiocese and other concerned community members to support the immigrant families in Langley Park through the St. Francis Emergency Fund of St. Camillus Parish in Silver Spring. For many years, that parish has been celebrating Masses for the Catholic Community of Langley Park and providing food and material assistance for immigrants there.

Supporting that emergency fund, the priest said, would “show solidarity with our brothers and sisters in Langley Park, to help people pay for rent and utilities.”

Toby Harkleroad, the principal of St. Francis International School in Silver Spring, has been part of an effort by staff members at his school and Franciscan postulants to provide food help to the immigrant community at Langley Park during the crisis. On Mondays and Wednesdays, workers from the school’s nutrition program and classroom aides pack food, then on Tuesdays and Thursdays, Franciscan volunteers and postulants load a truck with the food, and then Harkleroad and three to four of the postulants wearing masks and gloves distribute the food at Langley Park. On Holy Thursday April 9, they gave out enough food for more than 2,000 meals.

They also provide food for distribution by volunteers at nearby Our Lady of Sorrows Parish in Takoma Park, and for a shelter serving women and families affected by domestic violence. Volunteers distribute food from the St. Camillus Food Pantry at that parish on Fridays and Saturdays to help meet the increasing need for food assistance in the community.

Reflecting on the challenges faced by the immigrants at Langley Park, Harkleroad said, “Clearly these folks are struggling to stay safe at this time, and then having the added pressure of having someplace to live,” with worries about paying their rent. 

“These folks don’t have options. These are people figuring out meals day to day for their kids. These are people desperate for help in this crisis…. We’re all legitimately in crisis right now. It’s hard to imagine the level of crisis these people are in,” the school principal said.

Father Orzechowski said he has gotten to know the people in Langley Park.

“As a person who has served the Catholic Community in Langley Park, I know the people. I have celebrated the Eucharist with them over the years. I have interacted with them. These are people with tremendous faith. They are struggling to help their family members here and back home, especially in Guatemala,” he said, adding that they are people with “a rich faith and tradition, (and) people who in the midst of the crisis are able to share among one another.”

The priest said that a high percentage of the residents are indigenous people who speak the Mayan language. 

Franciscan postulants give food to a family outside the office of the Catholic Community of Langley Park. (Photo by Father Jacek Orzechowski)

During the coronavirus crisis, Father Orzechowski has a joined a group of volunteers from St. Camillus Parish in delivering food in Langley Park to the apartments of senior citizens and people with medical conditions. The people receiving food there include elderly women in wheelchairs, and a mother who speaks Mayan and has a small child.

“These are some of the poorest of the poor,” he said.

Both the priest and the principal see a Eucharistic connection to serving the poor in Langley Park during the time of the coronavirus pandemic.

Harkleroad noted they have been able to distribute what they have dubbed “Ezekiel bread,” delivered by Father Dan Leary, the pastor of St. Andrew Apostle Parish in Silver Spring, thanks to the generosity of a donor.

And Father Orzechowski said that even though Catholics are not able now to receive the Eucharist while public Masses have been suspended due to the coronavirus precautions, “we still have the opportunity to break bread of charity and justice, and offer our common humanity.”

The priest added that the Eucharistic life of the Church includes not only receiving Christ in Communion at Mass, but bringing Christ to others by helping them in times of difficulty and crisis.

And both the priest and principal said that helping those in need in Langley Park would be a fitting way for people of faith to mark the Easter season.

Father Orzechowski noted that as the Church celebrated Easter on April 12 and then will celebrate Divine Mercy Sunday one week later, “may we remember the words of our Lord at the Sermon on the Mount: ‘Blessed are the merciful for they will be shown mercy.’ In this time of the COVID-19 pandemic, Christ calls us to take up his mission of bringing the good news to the poor, acting with mercy and justice, and helping to heal the world and ourselves.  By showing charity and solidarity to the poor, marginalized immigrant communities, we, too, can become living witnesses of the power of the risen Christ and His mercy." 

Harkleroad said that after Catholics made sacrifices during the 40 days of Lent, “the Easter message challenges us to move beyond a sometimes sacrifice, to (understanding) this is who we are as people of faith, as people of the Resurrection. We need to figure out how to live this on an ongoing basis, not just as part of a temporary emergency situation,” as a way to be “renewed and make this a permanent part of who we are as Christians.”

The priest agreed, saying that while “Lent is a time to give things up, Easter is a time to take things up, to take up the mission of Jesus, the mission of charity and love, providing for the most vulnerable.”

And Father Orzechowski added, “My hope is that many fellow Catholics from across the archdiocese will see that as an opportunity to take up the mission of the risen Christ and to reach out to the people of Langley Park with charity and solidarity. In this crisis, we are in it together.”

(People can make online donations to the St. Francis Emergency Fund for Langley Park at https://stcamilluschurch.org/ and then click GIVING near the top of the homepage, and then click into the online giving section, and in the box that says Envelope#, type St. Francis Emergency Fund: Langley Park. Or people can mail donations to St. Francis Emergency Fund: Langley Park; St. Camillus Church; 1600 St. Camillus Drive; Silver Spring, MD 20903.)