“I can’t believe it’s only 9 o’clock,” Tillson said while hauling another bag of groceries to a chair outside the church in Northern Virginia. The food pantry had been open for under an hour that morning, and he had already served more than 100 people.
When the coronavirus pandemic first struck, it was not clear whether the small church in South Arlington would have enough resources to nourish its regular pantry shoppers in addition to the hundreds of new ones who would show up. But as the world around it falls into disarray, the parish and its long-standing pantry have become a center of hope and purpose for the community. In the past two weeks, the number of prospective volunteers has more than tripled, with upward of 40 people willing to help. Food donations have poured in.
“This is the first time I have seen this need right here in Arlington,” said Tillson, a 28-year-old Senate staffer.
Tillson and nine other volunteers handed out groceries Wednesday to 528 people, more than double the parish’s weekly average. They stood for hours at the door, loading and reloading bags of food onto chairs placed six feet apart on the sidewalk. It was a race to keep the socially distanced line from spilling past the 75-year-old church building, around the corner to the rectory and onto neighborhood streets.
With the coronavirus shutting down churches, Our Lady Queen of Peace has lost regular donations from Mass and collection baskets on Easter Sunday. But on a recent Friday night, residents began to rally around the community pantry when a Facebook thread went viral in the Arlington neighborhood.
A neighborhood resident had posted pictures of a long line of parents waiting to pick up free meals as part of a new Arlington Public Schools meal program. The school division had been delivering free meals to children under 18 since schools closed. But that Friday marked the beginning of spring break, when the need for meals would surge. Many in the line left empty-handed.
Michaela Sims, 50, was watching a movie with her 11-year-old son when she saw the post in the Facebook group “Arlington Neighbors Helping Each Other Through COVID-19.” She immediately thought of the food pantry at her church, Our Lady Queen of Peace, as a place that could help fill the gap.
“At first it broke my heart to see the pictures, but quickly I was so heartened by the massive outpouring of people in this group who wanted to help,” said Sims, who would later be instrumental in organizing the community-wide effort.
Our Lady Queen of Peace, a 2,200-person Catholic parish, emerged in the comments section of the Facebook post as a location that could help local families but was in need of donations itself. The normal frozen meat and fresh produce deliveries from the Capital Area Food Bank had slowed, the parish’s monthly food drives had stalled, and donations that allow the church to buy goods were drying up. In late March, the food pantry ran out of food, and volunteers had to turn people away.
“That day was hard for us,” said Sally Diaz-Wells, social justice minister of the parish. “It is not our way. We give until it hurts.”
Our Lady Queen of Peace is located near Green Valley, one of the most prominent African American communities in Arlington. A Post analysis of available data and census demographics shows that majority-black counties have been disproportionately hit by the coronavirus, with three times the rate of infections and almost six times the rate of deaths compared to white-majority counties.
Founded 75 years ago by black Catholics seeking refuge from segregation, the parish considers community outreach as central to its mission. The food pantry started 30 years ago with just a handful of volunteers and has since grown into a community gathering space. Until the novel coronavirus suspended gatherings, everyone was welcome to stop by the parish on Wednesday mornings for a bag of groceries, free doughnuts, coffee and story time for kids.
“It was set up to make everyone feel like they were receiving a hug,” Diaz-Wells said.
Although the church canceled all public celebrations on March 16, the food pantry remained open, with new measures to prevent the spread of germs. Over the weeks, the number of residents relying on an extra bag of groceries from the pantry each Wednesday multiplied.
Hours after seeing the Facebook post of parents in line for food, Sims called the Rev. Tim Hickey and described the droves of her neighbors prepared to lend a hand. Hickey penned an open letter asking for donations and volunteers to source food, shop, manage and advertise for the pantry.
“When things are darkest, we tend to pull together, and when we pull together, we find a sense of hope,” Hickey said. “We find a sense that we will make it through this.”
The letter and the rally around the parish inspired a few local schools, which started challenges to see who could donate more to the pantry. They also inspired volunteers such as Jenni Hogan, a 34-year-old gymnastics teacher in Arlington.
“The letter spoke to me,” said Hogan, who signed up to shop for groceries when she saw Hickey’s letter on local news site ARLnow.com. On Tuesday, she dropped off $500 in groceries, for which the pantry will reimburse her, including cereal, pasta sauce and canned fruit.
“I am not particularly religious, but I support organizations that help people,” she said through a pink cloth mask outside some bins of food. “To me, what church is all about is community and making sure that everyone is looked after. I love that Arlington and South Arlington in particular really take that to heart.”
This story has been updated to reflect the local news site that earlier reported on the church’s call for help with the food pantry.