In Massachusetts’ COVID-19 hot spot, St. Luke’s-San Lucas is part of citywide response

By Heather Beasley Doyle
Posted May 13, 2020

Volunteers bring donated food from the Greater Boston Food Bank into St. Luke’s-San Lucas Episcopal Church in Chelsea, Massachusetts, on May 13. Photo: Egan Millard/Episcopal News Service

[Episcopal News Service] Every Wednesday, trucks from the Chelsea, Massachusetts, Department of Public Works pull up to St. Luke’s-San Lucas Episcopal Church filled with food. When they do, Monica Elias Orellana and her team of 10 volunteers stand ready. “We’re waiting for them,” Elias recently told Episcopal News Service.

Since the week of March 23, when the 25-year-old Chelsea resident stepped in as the church’s volunteer coordinator, public works trucks have carried food from the Greater Boston Food Bank to the St. Luke’s, known also as San Lucas in the predominantly Hispanic community it serves. Her first week, the church received 6,000 pounds of groceries, Elias said. By the first Wednesday in May, that had grown to 17,000 pounds, propelled by the rapid spread of the coronavirus in Chelsea. “It’s just increasing week by week,” Elias said.

Massachusetts has been hard-hit by the coronavirus; more than 78,000 residents have tested positive for COVID-19 and more than 5,100 have died of the illness. Chelsea is a hot spot within a hot spot. A city across the Mystic River from Boston, its roughly 40,000 residents live within 1.8 square miles. On May 11, the city reported 2,342 confirmed COVID-19 cases and 132 deaths.

The highly contagious coronavirus thrives where people live and work in close quarters — places like Chelsea, where there are 16,000 people per square mile. Eighty percent of the city’s residents have jobs now considered essential, like delivery drivers, cashiers and manufacturing and health care workers. As the virus spread, they couldn’t wait out the pandemic at home. Even if they could, housing is particularly crowded here, thanks in large part to Boston’s worsening housing crisis, which disproportionately affects communities of color.

Those familiar with and living in Chelsea, like Mimi Graney, the city’s downtown coordinator, know just how hard the virus is hitting, and why. “The ground was laid long before [COVID-19] … for this community to suffer, between the environmental factors, the marginalization of immigrants and non-English speakers, poverty,” said Graney, who is currently helping to coordinate the city’s pandemic response out of the city manager’s office. “It wasn’t a failure of isolating specific people with the virus that caused our challenges today.”

The Rev. Edgar Gutiérrez-Duarte. Photo: Egan Millard/Episcopal News Service

It’s also a diverse city, said the Rev. Edgar A. Gutiérrez-Duarte, vicar of St. Luke’s-San Lucas. He estimates that 60% to 75% of Chelsea residents are Hispanic, from “different parts of Latin America.” The foreign-born population accounts for 45.5%, and a good number of them are undocumented, he said. At $53,280, the city’s median household income is notably lower than Massachusetts’ median of $77,378.

Gutiérrez-Duarte, known locally as Father Edgar, emigrated to the United States from Colombia in 1981. Since arriving at St. Luke’s-San Lucas 12 years ago, the 66-year-old has gotten to know the community. He’s addressed some of its needs by initiating a church-based thrift shop, soup kitchen, food pantry, immigration clinic and clothing ministry. He noted that as the coronavirus initially spread in Chelsea, people were too fearful to seek testing, treatment and help, and those who didn’t speak English or Spanish might not have gotten pandemic-related information. As the weeks have gone on, the city has stepped up its efforts to communicate consistently and multilingually, he said, and to make sure that those who are undocumented can access food, testing, health care and whatever else they might need during the crisis without fear of deportation.

As the coronavirus’ spread surfaced, Massachusetts Bishop Alan Gates visited in early March to talk about social distancing during church services. Around that time, Gutiérrez-Duarte realized the food pantry and Community Dining Room at St. Luke’s-San Lucas had to adapt. Each Saturday, volunteers from four suburban Episcopal churches (St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Lynnfield, Grace Episcopal Church in Medford, Trinity Episcopal Church in Melrose and Parish of the Epiphany in Winchester), cook and serve a hot breakfast and lunch for the Community Dining Room.

“There was a sense that we needed to do things differently,” Gutiérrez-Duarte said. It didn’t feel safe to have people seated around tables together, and importantly, “90% of the volunteers from our partners are older than 60,” he said, a demographic vulnerable to the coronavirus.

From there, things happened fast. Gutiérrez-Duarte halted the Community Dining Room program, and church services became virtual a week later. He planned to continue the food pantry as usual, having residents drop by to make an appointment and then return to pick up their groceries one or two weeks later. It continued like this – switching to outdoor grocery and bag lunch pick-up – for two weeks.

Volunteers bring pallets of food from the Greater Boston Food Bank into St. Luke’s-San Lucas on May 13. Photo: Egan Millard/Episcopal News Service

Then, “the food pantry coordinator … he told me, ‘You know, we have waiting lists already that go to July.’ I said, ‘That doesn’t make any sense,’” Gutiérrez-Duarte recalled. “And at the same time, the news about Chelsea becoming a hot spot for COVID [was] already coming out.”

They got rid of appointments and bagged lunches and focused on offering emergency groceries each Saturday. The need, as they had already seen, was there; as more people became ill or lost their jobs, an already-precarious local situation intensified. That same month, the food pantry coordinator’s family grew ill, and Elias stepped in as volunteer coordinator. Though she’d grown less involved over the years, she’s been a member of the church since her teens, and her father is a warden. Plus, the nonprofit where she works, The Neighborhood Developers, agreed to reallocate some of her time to St. Luke’s-San Lucas. The changes sidelined suburban volunteers from helping at the food pantry, too. But as Chelsea’s pandemic has deepened, “I haven’t had any problem in getting volunteers,” Gutiérrez-Duarte said. “They show up, and they’re from Chelsea.”

From early on, Chelsea’s community and government leaders sought to take care of their own. The week of March 11, Chelsea-based environmental nonprofit GreenRoots organized a conference call to strategize around housing, elders, food assistance, financial impacts, activities, supplies, faith communities and other key issues. “And by Friday, it became clear that city staff would be the glue for a broad community approach,” said Graney, the city’s downtown coordinator. From there, roughly 70 city employees, clergy, medical officials, representatives from nonprofits such as Chelsea Collaborative, and others met daily on a conference call to lead a 160-member core team and 250 volunteers, according to Graney. Gutiérrez-Duarte and Elias are on those calls as part of the food assistance subcommittee. Gutiérrez-Duarte sometimes leads the call’s closing prayer and provides pastoral care for those who then stay on the line. The calls have sustained a community-wide response. “The same thing that I’m doing, everybody is doing,” Gutiérrez-Duarte said.

Before the pandemic, the biggest food pantry expense was transporting the food from the Greater Boston Food Bank to the church. A local nonprofit was doing the work, charging by weight. When the city asked Gutiérrez-Duarte if St. Luke’s-San Lucas was prepared to bring in more food, he said yes, except for the delivery cost; increasing supply would mean higher delivery fees. At that point, the city offered to have the Department of Public Works deliver the food at no cost to the church.

Dozens of sacks of potatoes were among the supplies the church received on May 13. Photo: Egan Millard/Episcopal News Service

The pandemic response team also initiated pop-up pantries in the city and has begun delivering food – including some provided by St. Luke’s-San Lucas – to residents who are too ill, or too afraid of becoming ill, to pick up in person. Hunger makes sense amid illness and rising unemployment, and especially so here: “Before the pandemic, 60 [percent] of our residents reported being food insecure – meaning they ran out of food before the end of the month,” Graney said.

Chelsea resident Zaida Ismatul Oliva, whose mother is an active member of St. Luke’s-San Lucas, hadn’t experienced food insecurity until recently. A senior special programs coordinator at Bunker Hill Community College, she’s now working from home, but her partner, a contract livery driver, is out of work. Recently moving in with the couple and their 1-year-old daughter was Ismatul’s 74-year-old mother, who normally lives in an income-based co-op. “There’s a lot more people there,” Ismatul said of the co-op, adding that their small town house has become “a controlled environment,” making it potentially safer.

Their family feels the strain of losing one income, so Ismatul’s mother suggested that they go to St. Luke’s-San Lucas for emergency food. “It’s scary times for everyone,” Ismatul said, “I’d rather someone else take the food.” She didn’t feel comfortable with the idea of getting food for free, but her mother suggested the emergency food more than once. On May 1, Ismatul picked up three bags of groceries for the first time. “I struggle with this, to be honest,” she said, but the produce, lentils, canned food and cereal helped. “You can definitely make a few meals from that,” she said. “I don’t think I’ll be there every week to pick up food, but it’s really good to know that help is there.”

A volunteer brings a pallet of cabbages into the church on May 13. Photo: Egan Millard/Episcopal News Service

Ismatul knows she’s not alone. Driving to pick up groceries or to CVS, she notices less street traffic, but with the new pop-up pantries, “We see lines everywhere,” she said.

From 10 miles away in Winchester, the Chelsea church’s partners at Parish of the Epiphany wanted to find new ways to help. Not only did they miss being at St. Luke’s-San Lucas, but they also worried for the people they’d gotten to know at the Community Dining Room. “It’s a pretty stable population,” said Claudia Bell, Epiphany’s coordinator for partnership in the Mystic Valley Deanery. So they reached out to Gutiérrez-Duarte about safely making bag lunches and have been doing so for the past few weeks. In early May, volunteers made more than 300 lunches in their homes one week, following strict protocols. Wanting to do more, Betsy Walsh, another Epiphany organizer, coordinated with Gutiérrez-Duarte and Rosaivette Baez, who owns Chelsea’s Bella Isla Cafe, to have the Winchester church pay the restaurant for meals. Then, vouchers for those meals are placed in 100 of the food pantry’s grocery bags at random, to be redeemed, helping a local restaurant as well as feeding people. Bell noted that they’re still tweaking the program, hoping next to print the vouchers in Spanish instead of English and to start a GoFundMe page to support, and possibly grow, the initiative. “We are open to seeing where this goes,” Bell said. “We just want to be effective.”

With food coming into Chelsea, hunger is one problem that can be mitigated, if not solved, during the coronavirus crisis. The first Friday in May, Elias, the volunteer coordinator, led a team of 10 as they put food donations into 2,100 bags. “We’re always wearing masks,” she said. They’ve moved food pantry operations from the back of the church to the front, where there’s more space in the parish hall.

The next day, residents began lining up at 6 a.m., waiting for the pantry to open at 7. Marks on the ground indicate where to stand to maintain social distancing. Another volunteer team distributed the bags, some containing the bag lunches and vouchers, to 700 individuals or families, according to Elias. Some in line received diapers, baby food or pet food. Volunteers handed out the last bag six hours later, at 1 p.m.

Crates of donated pineapples are piled high at St. Luke’s-San Lucas after a delivery from the Greater Boston Food Bank. Photo: Egan Millard/Episcopal News Service

New confirmed COVID-19 cases and deaths in Massachusetts now seem to be on a dedicated decline, perhaps signaling that its pandemic peak may soon end. On May 11, Gov. Charlie Baker announced a phased reopening plan tentatively scheduled to begin May 18. In Chelsea, Gutiérrez-Duarte plans to staying the course of trying to meet deepening needs as unemployment grows not only here, but across the state. The most recent shipment from the Greater Boston Food Bank didn’t include cereal, Elias said. It’s an important staple, especially for those without kitchen access at home. She planned to buy some, and Gutiérrez-Duarte has also begun food shopping to supplement shipments from the food bank and other food donations the church receives.

About a week earlier, Gutiérrez-Duarte took a phone call during an interview. It was a woman in nearby Cambridge, wanting to know how things were going and how she could help. “Things aren’t getting better, it’s getting worse,” he told her. “The situation is more desperate now.”

Aid has come in from beyond the city itself, according to Graney, as Chelsea’s need has outstripped that of other Massachusetts municipalities. Nonetheless, Gutiérrez-Duarte and Elias are clear that St. Luke’s-San Lucas is doing its part to help residents. They’re equally clear that the church is one member of a tightly coordinated team. There are lots of negative stereotypes about Chelsea, Elias noted. Those who grow up there want to get out, but not Elias. “I went to college, I came back,” she said. Now more than ever, “I’m just so proud to be from Chelsea.”

– Heather Beasley Doyle is a freelance journalist, writer and editor based in Massachusetts. She has previously written about education and racial reconciliation for Episcopal News Service.