New bridges among Catholic groups, agencies to help people in need during COVID-19 crisis


“Siendo discípulos misioneros — testigos del amor de Dios.”

Deacon Enrique Castro, diocesan director of intercultural and marriage ministries, described the best response for the Church to the COVID-19 pandemic: “Being missionary disciples — witnesses to God’s love.”

The COVID-19 crisis is opening new avenues for cooperation among Catholic Charities of Central and Northern Missouri (CCCNMO) and other agencies of the Church, including El Puente–Hispanic Ministry and Hispanic communities throughout the diocese.

CCCNMO is the charitable arm of the Catholic Church in the 38 counties that make up this diocese.

Dan Lester, the agency’s executive director, called this a time for Christian solidarity.

“We’re talking about helping our neighbors — people who live in our communities and go to our churches and work in our local businesses and send their children to our schools,” he stated.

“When Jesus said, ‘What you did for the least of these, you did for Me,’ He didn’t restrict it those you know or are related to or who you like or who you agree with or who you look like,” Mr. Lester stated. “He just said do it.”

By any other name

The diocesan Office of Hispanic Ministry translated into Spanish the online form for requesting direct assistance from Catholic Charities.

Since then, Cristhia Castro, executive director of El Puente–Hispanic Ministry in Jefferson City, her staff and some trained volunteers have been helping review applications and distribute assistance grants to Spanish-speaking families throughout the diocese.

The online request portal, located on the Catholic Charities website at, asks those seeking assistance to enter basic demographic details and contact information, as well as a description of their COVID-19-related need.

They are also prompted to select if their need is financial or volunteer related, such as needing assistance with obtaining groceries or needed medical supplies while quarantined.

Deacon Castro has identified deacons and other parish representatives throughout the diocese to distribute Catholic Charities grants locally.

Much of the funding came from a $10,000 disaster response mini-grant CCCNMO received from Catholic Charities USA (CCUSA).

“This is very similar to how Catholic Charities USA responds to a natural disaster,” said Mr. Lester. “It shows that our national network and here up close, we really are looking at the pandemic as a form of a natural disaster.”

That understanding affects how the local Catholic Charities affiliate deploys caseworkers and volunteers and sets priorities for long-term recovery efforts.

“The outreach efforts might look different, but the economic effects of this pandemic on families is very similar to that of a tornado or flood,” said Mr. Lester.

“Taking the initiative”

Crises such at the COVID-19 pandemic cause hardships across the socioeconomic spectrum, but immigrant and minority groups are usually hit the hardest.

Deacon Castro noted that the shutdowns from the pandemic have sent many Hispanic families in central and northeastern Missouri to the brink.

Many are employed in the hospitality and food processing industries, both of which are reeling due to COVID-19.

If anyone in a family is undocumented, no one in that family is eligible for assistance under the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act — even if everyone else in the house is a U.S.-born or naturalized U.S. citizen.

In addition, parents who are not yet fluent in English have to take a more active role in their children’s education due to the suspension of in-class instruction at schools throughout the state.

St. Peter parish in Marshall, St. Vincent de Paul parish in Sedalia and St. Mary parish in Milan are strongly represented among the employees of several local meat processing plants.

Many are immigrants from Hispanic countries and have been living and working there for years.

Deacon Castro said shutdowns and the unfortunate consequences due to the pandemic have created opportunities for parishioners to assist one another.

“The people of God are taking the initiative and organizing themselves to help others,” he reported to Bishop McKnight on April 24. “I’m trying to connect local organizations with our parishes and people.”

Needs could increase

Father Mark Smith, pastor of the Marshall parish and the Holy Family mission in Sweet Springs, said plant shutdowns and family health concerns are prompting employees to use up their paid leave.

As of April 26, sources indicated that 37 families registered in the Marshall parish had at least one member who tested positive for COVID-19.

That number was likely to increase as widespread testing had gotten under way in anticipation of employees at some of the plants returning to work.

In addition, according to Fr. Smith, “several restaurants are closed with others having much reduced staff. Motels have let almost all housekeeping staff go, and several other employers have reduced staffing somewhat.”

St. Peter parish’s Hispanic leadership has reallocated $2,000 previously raised for activities such as retreats that have had to be cancelled.

They intend to use the money for food assistance and then other needs that may arise.

The pastors of Ss. Peter & Paul parish in Boonville and St. Pius X parish in Moberly have offered assistance from their parish treasuries and St. Vincent de Paul Society conferences.

“I am deeply grateful for their offers of charity,” said Fr. Smith. “For the immediate future, I believe we have the funds to take care of our active parishioners.”

However, he said, “if this drags on and our major employers do not continue to pay their employees, we will most likely be swamped with assistance requests, for our parishioners and for the wider community.” 

Difficult choices

Language and other barriers often stand between people and the assistance they need.

Father Thomas Alber, senior associate pastor at Marshall and Sweet Springs, who is bilingual, is helping Hispanic families sign up for assistance at the local food pantry.

Mr. Lester said the requests for emergency assistance continue to highlight the broader issues of stagnant wages and the rising cost of living.

“We’ve seen a similar pattern to what we have seen outside the pandemic: people having to make difficult choices based on limited resources,” he said. “Folks are often forced every month to make a choice between paying the utility bill or getting enough food for a given week.

“So the trends we’re seeing are people who have lost work and now are having to make tough choices,” Mr. Lester stated. “That unemployment check might get them through the rent, but not the utilities for the month.”

He pointed out that when people request assistance, a case manager helps them assess their finances to see if there’s anything they can do to improve their situation.

“We absolutely want to provide assistance but do it in a way that’s reasonable and is a good use of our resources and also empowering those folks,” he stated.

“It’s really important to us to be wise stewards of the resources and help people see they can help them allocate those resources as well,” he said.

Response and recovery

Mr. Lester likened unemployment benefits and the one-time economic stimulus payment to the flood assistance that is immediately available after a natural disaster.

It’s helpful but can’t last very long.

“Disaster response is usually a short-term process, but disaster recovery is often a much more extended proposition,” he noted.

“What we’re trying to think through is: what does disaster recovery from coronavirus look like, not just disaster response?” he said.

One thing is certain: the response and the recovery will both involve more robust collaboration among local service and relief agencies.

For instance, said Mr. Lester, “it’s been wonderful to see this new blossoming relationship with The Food Bank for Central and Northeast Missouri and the United Way of Central Missouri’s mobile food pantry and Catholic Charities and our parishes.”

Catholic Charities has also been working with El Puente to distribute personal hygiene products donated by Unilever Home & Personal Care in Jefferson City.

All the while, God’s people are finding new ways to put their faith into action.

“There are so many united and independent efforts that are happening now,” said Mr. Lester. “I think a lot people throughout the diocese are recognizing in this crisis a real opportunity to be of service.”

New Evangelization

Deacon Castro has been helping Spanish-speaking parishioners stay connected through a Facebook page — Ministerio Hispano - Diócesis de JC — and a text-messaging app.

He believes the COVID-19 pandemic has opened people’s eyes to the vast mission field before them.

“It has forced us to change our understanding of evangelization — finding new ways to evangelize, exploring new forms of evangelization, and pursuing these with renewed ardor,” he said.

He’s confident that these factors will continue well beyond the current crisis.

“And we need to continue exploring and implementing good strategies for assisting people in need and helping all people get to know Christ better,” he said.

“That’s what being missionary disciples and witnesses to God’s love is all about,” he added.