COVID-19 strikes immigrant, refugee communities

Andrea Dowlen, left, an Americorps worker with Catholic Charities of Tennessee, and Matthew Grimes, a Catholic Charities volunteer, fill emergency food boxes for people who have been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, the March 3 tornadoes, and other events. The boxes, with food donated by the Ladies of Charity among others, contains enough food to feed two people for five to seven meals. Anyone interested in donated items for the emergency food boxes should contact Wendy Overlock at 615-934-7077. Photo by Andy Telli

Middle Tennessee’s immigrant and refugee communities have been hit particularly hard by the COVID-19 virus, and parishes and Catholic Charities of Tennessee have been trying to provide the spiritual and material support they need to persevere through the pandemic.

“We have some parishioners, they are very, very sick,” said Father David Ramirez, the director of the Diocese of Nashville’s Hispanic Ministry who also ministers at Sagrado Corazon Church at the Catholic Pastoral Center. 

Father Ramirez and Father Alejandro Godinez of the diocese’s Hispanic Ministry also minister to the Spanish-speaking communities at St. John Vianney Church in Gallatin, St. Luke Church in Smyrna, St. Ignatius of Antioch Church in Nashville, the Church of the Nativity in Thompson’s Station, St. Catherine Church in Columbia and Good Shepherd Church in Decherd.

About 30 families at Sagrado Corazon have had members infected by the virus, Father Ramirez said. There have also been families at St. Luke and St. John Vianney that have been directly affected by the virus, he said. 

Several of the affected families at St. John Vianney included members who worked at the Gallatin nursing home where the virus swept through, leaving more than two dozen residents dead.

Father Ramirez has presided over three funerals for parishioners who have died from the virus.

Of the more than 52,000 cases of COVID-19 recorded in Tennessee, more than 12,500, or 24 percent, have been among the state’s Hispanic communities. The Hispanic communities in Tennessee also have seen 57 deaths from the virus, or 9 percent of the state’s total of 653, as of July 6.

“People are afraid,” Father Ramirez said. “They are taking care of their families.”

Some of his parishioners are afraid to get help because of their immigration status, Father Ramirez said. And others are afraid that if they go to the hospital they will die.

“I had one family who told me, ‘When my brother went to the hospital he was OK. … But the next day he died.’ The hospital told them it was the virus,” said Father Ramirez, who told his parishioner to trust the doctors. “If somebody feels bad, you have to go quickly to the doctor.”

The staff at Sagrado Corazon prepared a video for the church’s Facebook page explaining all the precautions people should take when attending Mass to avoid spreading the virus. “At every Mass, Father Alejandro and I, we talk to the people about that.”

‘One never knows’

Father Anthony Lopez, pastor of Our Lady of Lourdes Church in Springfield and St. Michael Mission in Cedar Hill, both in Robertson County, has also had a parishioner die of the COVID-19 virus.

The parishioner who died was 89 years old and a member at St. Michael. Father Lopez was able to visit her in the hospital before she died.

Dressed in protective equipment, he stood in the doorway of her hospital room and administered the prayers for the dying. 

“Normally, I like to anoint all the senses, but I couldn’t do that,” Father Lopez said. “I thought, Lord, you have this. … Let’s give this lady this precious sacrament so, when her journey is completed and the transition is made, she will be ensured of her eternal salvation.”

Father Lopez also saw several cases of the virus hit families in his parish’s large and active Hispanic community. One man who tested positive for the virus had attended a parish council meeting, and two families had members test positive after they attended a birthday party, Father Lopez said.

Although Bishop J. Mark Spalding allowed parishes to resume public celebrations of Mass beginning on May 18, Father Lopez waited to start at Our Lady of Lourdes and St. Michael until Pentecost Sunday, May 31.

After discussing it with Deacon Michael Morris, who is in a high-risk category, Father Lopez took his advice to go slow with reopening Mass to the public. 

“I decided perhaps he’s right because we don’t need to expose people when Robertson County has so many cases,” Father Lopez said. As of July 6, Robertson County had 859 cases, the 11th most among counties in Tennessee, and 11 deaths.

Father Lopez also wanted to make sure he would not infect others after visiting COVID-19 patients in the hospital. “I wanted to make sure I didn’t have any symptoms, even though I was protected.”

“But one never knows,” Father Lopez said. “That’s the scary thing about this whole thing is that one simply does not know.”

The Hispanic parishioners who had tested positive have all recovered, and Our Lady of Lourdes and St. Michael have resumed the public celebration of Mass. “Everyone has been super ultra-cooperative” following the guidelines for social distancing and wearing masks, Father Lopez said. “That is very, very encouraging to me.”

Yet, some of his parishioners still have reservations about gathering in public places like a church, he said. “And I completely, completely understand that.”

“I think the Lord is going to provide and take care of us,” Father Lopez said. “We’re trusting in him that the numbers (of people at Mass) will increase as time goes on. We see people are getting out.”

Both Father Lopez and the parish office manager were tested for the virus and both were clear of the disease. “We need to be here for our people,” he said. “We need to make sure we’re healthy and we give them what they need, which is the blessed sacraments, especially the Holy Eucharist, which is the source and summit of our faith.”

Refugee communities affected

The Hispanic community is not the only group that has been hit hard by the COVID-19 virus.

“We’ve definitely heard of some widespread outbreaks in some of the different communities,” said Kellye Branson, director of refugee and immigration services for Catholic Charities of Tennessee. “The Bhutanese had over 130 families who had a family member who tested positive,” and the Burmese community also seen several cases among its members, she said.

Among the immigrant and refugee families that have been affected by the virus, “Many of them work in settings where they’ve had large outbreaks,” Branson said. “One person gets sick at work and infects other family members.”

It’s common among immigrant families to have three generations living together, Branson noted. “They’re not really able to isolate at home. When you have one person test positive in a small home or apartment, it’s hard to get space within your home.

“That is one of the challenges that many of our immigrant communities face,” she said.

“It was often the husband who tested positive and quarantined to the home. The wives often don’t drive,” which means it is difficult for them to get to the grocery store to buy food, Branson said. Her staff has stepped in, working with other agencies, to provide “cleaning supplies, some medical supplies, fresh fruit and vegetables and rice and beans and things they could cook,” Branson said.

Some of the immigrant and refugee communities, like the Bhutanese, have used existing community organizations and networks to share information about how to avoid spreading the virus. “The Bhutanese are very organized,” Branson said.

The community has used its BRAVE Nashville Facebook page to share educational information in their native language of Nepali. “They felt the message wasn’t getting relayed to their community,” Branson said.

“They’ve been doing some YouTube interviews with doctors and students in that community to provide guidance,” Branson said.

Providing cash assistance

The impact of COVID-19 on immigrant and refugee communities goes beyond their health.

“For the Hispanic families, it is tough,” said Valeria Sanchez-Lucas, a Hispanic Family Services caseworker for Catholic Charities who works at the South Nashville Family Resource Center. “I’m working with a lot of clients who lost their jobs, also some who tested positive, so there’s no way they could go back to work.”

The pandemic has hit several industries that employ many people in the Hispanic community particularly hard, including, service industries, housekeeping, restaurants, hotels and manufacturing, Sanchez-Lucas said.

Many of her clients who have been laid off are “single mothers, who have a big household, including grandparents,” Sanchez-Lucas said. 

“It’s really hard for a lot of individuals to stay home,” she said. “There’s no other means for them to get money. They have to go to work.

“They’re putting their lives at risk, but not only their lives, but the lives of their family members,” Sanchez-Lucas said. “They’re trying to take precautions, but they’re not staying home. They can’t.”

Catholic Charities is one of six agencies in Davidson County participating in the United Way of Greater Nashville’s COVID-19 Response Fund, providing cash assistance to Davidson County residents who have lost wages because of the pandemic.

“We give them a check. … We let them choose which bill is most pressing at the time,” said Marie Gilland, program oversight director for Catholic Charities.

Through the program, Catholic Charities can provide as much as $800, Sanchez-Lucas said. “It’s a one-time help per household,” she said.

So far, Catholic Charities has distributed “well over $300,000” to families, Gilland said. “We have helped over 400 people and we’re still working on it.”

“The first couple of weeks in March we were receiving a web-based application every 12 minutes,” Gilland said. “It stayed at that level for a couple of weeks” before eventually starting to slow down. “We’ve paused accepting applications so we can address a wait list.”

“We served people who have never asked for help before … and feel a little awkward doing so,” Gilland said. “A lot of people live paycheck to paycheck, even middle class, and that was hard to adjust to.”

“People are so overwhelmed with what’s going on in their lives, they don’t know what to do,” she added.

Catholic Charities caseworkers also refer families to other agencies for other types of assistance, such as food banks. “I can try to connect them to Connexion Americas,” an agency that provides legal, financial and other services, Sanchez-Lucas said of her Hispanic clients.

But the type of help many of her clients are eligible for is limited, she said. “The majority, if not all, of them are undocumented, so it’s really hard to provide other types of resources where they can get financial assistance because it’s all government based.”