What Date Do You Run Out of Food?

by | Sep 17, 2020

When the Episcopal Diocese of Washington voted to become a “Sanctuary Diocese” in January 2018, confronting a pandemic disease was probably not what the authors of the resolution had in mind. Although diocesan churches were encouraged “to serve as places of welcome and healing, and to provide other forms of material and pastoral support for all persons, regardless of immigration status,” likely no one envisioned what 2020 would bring. 

While the concept of sanctuary dates back thousands of years and was a feature of Judaic, Roman, and later British Common Law, the modern-day Sanctuary Movement dates to 1980 and two congregations in Tucson, Arizona that began assisting refugees from El Salvador and Guatemala. Nearly 40 years later, Washington, DC, is one of more than 500 sanctuary locales across the United States and home to dozens, if not hundreds, of initiatives working in solidarity with or support of the rights of migrants and refugees. 

St. Stephen and the Incarnation Church, located in Columbia Heights just off 16th Street Northwest DC, provides a home for several initiatives that work to meet the needs of immigrants, refugees, and other vulnerable people affected by the pandemic. Blessed with a massive building, early on in the pandemic St. Stephen / San Esteban was able to turn its basement dining room and nave into a space to  store and pack perishable and non-perishable food, diapers, toilet paper, cleaning supplies–the necessities of life. 

Four organizations–Loaves and Fishes (a ministry of St. Stephen / San Esteban), Sanctuary DMV, Thrive DC, and We Are Family–do some or all of their work from our church building, benefiting from the fact that the church has been in the food “business” since the mid-1960s, when the congregation first began sharing food with its neighbors. Each of these initiatives has significantly increased its outreach efforts in response to the coronavirus pandemic.

  • Thrive DC, which works to prevent and end homelessness, was providing 60 people with free groceries at its regular Thursday food pantry, immediately prior to the COVID-19 lock-down. By mid-July, they had provided groceries and emergency supplies to more than 3,000 people–and several hundred meals each day.

  • We Are Family, which supports the needs of senior citizens–especially those unable to leave their homes–had, by June, increased its deliveries of free groceries to reach more than 900 households.

  •  Loaves and Fishes, which has provided weekend meals to people in the community for decades, moved from preparing hot-cooked meals to bag lunches and is now providing a mix of bag and hot-cooked lunches to about 125 people each Saturday and Sunday. They have also distributed more than $10,000 worth of gift cards to people in need of food, most of them undocumented immigrants.

  • From helping a few hundred people early in the COVID-19 pandemic, Sanctuary DMV has since supported an estimated 30,000 people with food and essential supplies across the DMV. They have raised more than $240,000 in donations–but more funds and more volunteers are needed, as they have a waitlist of more than 3,000 requests for help. (And by the time these words are published, these numbers will be out of date.)

“What date do you run out of food?” 

This is one of three questions asked by Sanctuary DMV volunteers when they respond to a request for help, because right now, the demand far exceeds the supply among those who may not be able to buy food. Food, shelter, water, heat/cool–these are the basics for survival. Sanctuary DMV was established to help in these situations, and is linked to a network of some 70 faith-based organizations across the DMV, some of them churches in our diocese, including St. Stephen’s / San Esteban. 

For the undocumented accessing these necessities is only one of the challenges before them. The undocumented also face the threat of deportation–and of detention in places severely affected by COVID-19–as well as the fear and worry associated with being removed and leaving young children behind. 

What happens to young children in these circumstances is the focus of the Standby Guardianship Project, which has online resources to help undocumented parents–especially in Maryland–ensure the care and safety of their children, without going to court, if they are disabled (by illness, for example) or removed. Thanks in part to the efforts of another St. Stephen / San Esteban parishioner, there is now a Standby Guardianship law in Maryland. Similar emergency legislation in Washington, DC, has since expired; a permanent law will require public hearings and Congressional approval.

How can we help? 
Time, talent, and/or treasure are needed by organizations acting in solidarity with their fellow DC, Maryland, and Virginia residents, of which these are but a few:

Sally Ethelston
Postulant for the diaconate, St. Stephen and the Incarnation / San Esteban y La Encarnación

This article draws on information provided by Denise Woods, volunteer coordinator for Sanctuary DMV Food Justice Initiative; previously published materials, in particular an article by Loaves and Fishes; and conversations with members of St. Stephen and the Incarnation.