As the United States has become the epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak worldwide, the epicenter of COVID-19 cases in the Washington metropolitan area is a zip code area including the Langley Park community in Prince George’s County, Maryland, which has a high concentration of poor immigrant families living in apartment complexes who have not only been impacted by the virus, but also by unemployment during the recent steep economic downturn.

Since the COVID-19 outbreak and shutdown in the Washington area, St. Camillus Parish in Silver Spring has been continuing to provide emergency financial assistance to Langley Park families, and staff members of St. Francis International School and members of the Franciscan order have been providing food help to that community, and they’ve recently enlisted the support of the Maryland National Guard and a neighboring parish for their large-scale food distributions.

“It is a densely populated area with many young families and a large number of children.  They have been disproportionally impacted by the pandemic. They have a deep faith in God.  At the same time, they are extremely vulnerable and without any social safety net,” said Franciscan Father Jacek Orzechowski, the manager of Parish Community Organizing and Advocacy for Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Washington. 

He noted that during the COVID-19 shutdown of local businesses, many of the Langley Park residents who worked in fields like construction, at restaurants or cleaning houses or buildings lost their jobs, and due to their immigration status, many are ineligible for government unemployment benefits or the federal stimulus checks.

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.

Describing the emergency fund’s impact, Father Orzechowski said, “There are a number of immigrant families in Langley Park that are beneficiaries of the St. Francis Emergency Fund.  Recently, a young couple made a desperate call seeking help. They were diagnosed with COVID positive. Their four children have been involved in the faith formation program at the Catholic Community of Langley Park. Placed in quarantine, the parents have lost their income.  They were full of anguish not knowing who is going to help them pay (their) rent and Pepco bill.”

The priest added that the person who administers the emergency fund told him that when the fund covered a sizeable part of their expenses, the mother of that family broke into tears and said, "Thank you so much to all of you for all you are doing, and to those who are donating and helping us and our children to survive.  May God bless you all."   

Many other families in Langley Park are facing the same predicament, said the priest, who is asking the larger Catholic community to support the parish’s effort.

Father Orzechowski noted, “In the Gospel of Luke, the disciples of Jesus also felt overwhelmed by the multitude of hungry people around Jesus.  They wanted Jesus to send them away.   But he said to them, ‘You give them something to eat.’ (Luke 9:13).    At this time, when we are not able to gather in churches and break the bread of the Eucharist, we have an opportunity to share the bread of solidarity and our common humanity.”   

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.

Volunteers from St. Francis International School welcome a family receiving meals at the school's May 14 food distribution in Langley Park, where they were assisted by members of the Maryland National Guard. (CS photos/Andrew Biraj)

Also offering a lifeline to Langley Park families during the COVID-19 crisis, but in the form of food assistance for the past two months, has been St. Francis International School in Silver Spring, which is sponsored by St. Camillus Parish and also by St. Mark the Evangelist in Hyattsville, Our Lady of Vietnam in Silver Spring and St. Catherine Laboure in Wheaton.

Toby Harkleroad, a Secular Franciscan who is the founding principal of St. Francis International School, said his school has been personally impacted by the pandemic.

“We’ve lost two parents in the school community to COVID-19, young African immigrant dads,” he said, noting that the school has also lost a number of grandparents to the disease, and two of its teachers were diagnosed with the coronavirus.

The 443 students in pre-kindergarten through the eighth grade at St. Francis International School have family roots in 50 different countries. The school serves many low-income families, and it provides 900 government-funded meals, including breakfasts, lunches and after-school snacks, on a regular school day. 

In the early days of the COVID-19 crisis after local schools were shut down, St. Francis International School continued providing food to its families through a drive-through service on its grounds, but Harkleroad said that he realized the families could get that food assistance at a nearby public school, and St. Francis could use the food acquisition and preparation infrastructure from its nutrition program to provide food to the hard-hit Langley Park community, where there are no food banks or pantries.

Harkleroad said he felt that, “If we can do it (help the Langley Park families with food), why don’t we do it?”

While St. Francis International School’s teachers have been providing online learning to their students, workers from the school’s nutrition program and classroom aides have been preparing and packing food,  and on Tuesdays and Thursdays, Franciscan volunteers and postulants have been loading a truck with the food, and then Harkleroad and three to four of the postulants wearing masks and gloves have been distributing the food outside the offices of the Catholic Community at Langley Park.

“Our families are proud that we’ve been working hard to meet their students’ academic needs, while also finding a way to address the needs of people down the street in a worse situation,” Harkleroad said. 

Through his participation in a program for government school food assistance for poor families, Harkleroad was able to get the help of members of the Maryland National Guard to distribute the food at Langley Park, who began assisting that effort in mid-May, joined by volunteers from St. Andrew Apostle Parish in Silver Spring.

“The reason for the National Guard and the St. Andrew volunteers is actually because the young first year Franciscans who have been helping us with prep and distribution these last two months will be finishing off at the end of the month and moving to California for their novitiate year. So, our goal with partnering with the Guard and St. Andrew is to make this food ministry sustainable for as long as we can,” Harkleroad said.

Now the food distribution is being done on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays at the parking lot of the Langley Park Community Center.

“It has gone really well,” said Harkleroad, who expressed gratitude for the help of the National Guard members and the other volunteers.

On May 14, they distributed about 1,300 meals, which Harkleroad said on that day included a hot entrée of a noodle and beef casserole, while on the previous week they provided rice and chicken meals. On other days, they’ve given out sandwiches. They also provided oranges, breakfast fare of cereal and milk and cups of frozen peaches.

Families and young children wait in line during the May 14 food distribution at Langley Park. (CS photo/Andrew Biraj)

Harkleroad said it is quite moving to see the people waiting patiently in line, standing apart from each other at a safe social distance. Some mothers had babies strapped on their backs while they held the hand of a small child. A grandmother walked away balancing her food on her head. Some small children lined up by themselves, to get food and bring it back to their families. On some days, the Langley Park residents have had to wait outside in line for the food while it’s been raining

“These folks have come from another country, and they’re in a crisis like all of us, and somehow they still manage to stand in a line with peace and dignity,” Harkleroad said, noting how grateful they are to get help.

At the Langley Park food distribution on May 14, some small children waited in line to pick up food for their families, and then returned home with the bags of food. (CS photo/Andrew Biraj)

Harkleroad said it’s fitting that St. Francis International School and St. Camillus are helping the Langley Park residents, because after St. Camillus Parish was founded in 1951, its Masses were held at a nearby movie theater before its church was built, and many of its original parishioners lived in that community.

“Our roots are literally right there,” he said.

The St. Francis International School principal said that in the next week through the support of Prince George’s County’s leadership, Chef José Andrés' World Central Kitchen will be providing dinners to the Langley Park community.

Harkleroad echoed Father Orzechowski in saying that the parish and school’s ongoing outreach to the Langley Park families is a work of faith, and he noted the connection between being fed spiritually through the sacraments and prayer, and then going out and helping feed others physically as a way to bring them Christ’s love.

“Our mission as Church is to be sent out and do this for others,” he said.