Magdalena and Jose have been sweethearts since they met as teens in the Mexican state of Pueblo. They migrated to Minneapolis. She worked in a suburban fast food shop. He worked a full shift daily in a woodworking shop and another half shift as a cleaner.
Jose got sick with flu-like symptoms in early May and got sicker until the night he couldn’t breathe and was hauled away in an ambulance. He went on a respirator and spent 25 days in an induced coma. Meanwhile, Magdalena took ill. One night, when she feared she wouldn’t see morning, her 11-year-old brought a statue of Our Lady of Guadalupe to her bedroom and kept vigil. Friends prayed the rosary over the phone and left food at her door. Eventually both recovered, even as the sickness raged through their extended family.
But without income the deeply religious couple couldn’t pay their $900 a month rent and turned to their church for help. When Jose got sick, Magdalena told herself: “With God’s help everything is going to be OK.” She hasn’t wavered from that belief.
Father Kevin McDonough jokes that his job description calls for him to say Mass, administer sacraments and perform “other duties as assigned.”
That’s why you’ll see the 65-year-old pastor of Incarnation Catholic church in Kingfield shoveling snow outside the red brick church whose spire looms as a beacon far down 38th Street.
This year McDonough added a new skill: operating a forklift. That’s one sign that his parish and its small staff have deepened their commitment to feeding the hungry and housing the poor as an international pandemic ballooned into a crisis among his flock. The forklift helps McDonough and his staff move dozens of pallets of food every other weekend to hundreds of households across the parish, more than 860,000 pounds as of early December.
Incarnation is a parish with a split personality. It has about 400 households whose first language is English, but they’re dwarfed by another 2,500 households who primarily speak Spanish. The latter group moved from another parish two decades ago. Many are undocumented so the names used in this story are pseudonyms. They’ve reinvigorated Incarnation. So has McDonough.
Brenda has had a tough year. Last winter, her sister was killed by a truck while walking to work in Minneapolis. COVID-19 shrunk her hours at a Lake Street restaurant; the subsequent civil unrest cut them even further. Helicopters buzzed over her small apartment in the Lyndale neighborhood, she heard gunshots and a bank was torched mere blocks away. She and teen daughter Christina fled for a few days to a sister’s home in Edina.
Christina has suffered depression and anxiety since a cousin was killed by bullies several years ago, and a grandfather died more recently. Her diligence in school tailed off. The pandemic spoiled plans for her coming-of-age quinceañera celebration in June. She’s suffered from social isolation.
With little income, Brenda turned to Incarnation’s food and rent assistance programs for help. Every other week, she picks up extra food for relatives. “More than anything, I don’t care about myself,” she says. “I care about my daughter. That she has a career and doesn’t have to depend on anyone.”
The vehicles start rolling through the parking lot tucked under the parish’s school building even before the scheduled start of the parish’s food distribution. They roll in four lines past pallets stacked high with boxes of prepacked food. A number is scrawled on each windshield to show for how many households the driver is collecting food — as many as six in a few cases. About a third come from the congregation, a third come from extended networks of parishioners and a third come from the community at large.
Volunteers pop open the trunk or backseat door while a Spanish-speaking volunteer with a clipboard takes down basic demographic information. Some cars are so crowded with family members or the tools of building trades that it’s hard to find space for the food boxes. Sometimes, there are bags of bulk frozen meats, or sacks of fresh apples. Each household takes an average of 65 pounds of food.
As many as 40 volunteers show up to load cars — high school students needing to log community service hours and senior citizens like me (I’m an Incarnation parishioner). They come month after month, shivering in April and sweltering in July. Contingency plans are being made to operate through the winter. Spanish- and English-speaking church members work side-by-side, which McDonough believes brings them together. He expects to distribute food every other week through Memorial Day, by when he hopes vaccines will help breathe life back into the economy.
Maria has been fighting the odds since she was a teen in her Mexican hamlet of a couple of dozen houses and a politician tried to renege on an election promise to help villagers build better homes. Her sit-in in his office got results. But that put her at risk of reprisals, so she moved to Guadalajara where she was looked down on for her Indigenous heritage.
She’s worked since high school while raising six children. After migrating to Minneapolis, her job in a child care center covered the rent on a four-bedroom house just off Lake Street. When the pandemic closed her workplace, she made some money cooking home-prepared meals to sell to mechanics at a nearby garage. But rioting along Lake Street forced the garage to close.
Like other undocumented residents, Maria is ineligible for federal unemployment assistance, even though she pays taxes. “There’s so many walls and blocks when you don’t have documentation,” she said. Yet in Minneapolis she’s been a tireless volunteer in both church activities and at the state Capitol for legislation to ease conditions for undocumented workers. Meanwhile, she needs rent help.
The parish has a leadership group for Spanish-speaking organizations. Its monthly meeting fell just before the governor’s shutdown orders took effect in March. The group found consensus on the community’s key needs: food and rent help for the hourly workers facing layoffs or shorter hours. The food program was operating within three weeks.
The rent assistance model was McDonough’s brainchild, based on the concept of shared sacrifice. Tenants are asked to come up with a third of their rent, the parish matches that and landlords are asked to forgive the remaining third. The incentive for landlords is that they keep a tenant who has previously made rent on time and are spared the much larger costs of turning over a unit. Some $200,000 has been raised for about 100 households.
McDonough expects the food need will continue at a lesser level for another year or two. So he’s beefing up the modest food shelf the parish has operated for at least 20 years. He hopes to double the number of households served.
Meanwhile, the parish has built new networks with the city, county and state. It has become a higher profile player, not only in the world of food distribution but also as a place for services like flu shots, COVID testing and energy assistance. “They told us, ‘You’re reaching people that no one else is reaching,’” McDonough said.
Rosaria’s work hours at a Lake Street sandwich shop were already cut by the pandemic; vandalism during the unrest closed the shop altogether. Many nearby businesses she patronizes were looted or burned, meaning she couldn’t find work there either. The disruption hit the apartment where she lives near the 3rd Precinct. First there was the noise. Then her apartment was evacuated at 2 a.m. when authorities feared gas explosions as buildings burned. As tenants waited, cars exploded nearby. Tenants took turns guarding the apartment’s entry door.
Rosaria, a native of the Mexican state of Morelos, not only turned to Incarnation parish’s food program for help; she also volunteers with it. The parish rent assistance program temporarily cut her monthly payment from $900 to $300.
“I feel better, less worried,” she said. “It’s very difficult now to find work.”