Catholic Charities of Oregon responds to pandemic, wildfires

October 6, 2020

Pope Francis writes in his recent encyclical, Fratelli tutti, that even in the midst of the pandemic and other crises “God continues to sow abundant seeds of goodness in our human family” (No. 54), the fruit of which is a sense of hope generated by “all those around us who, in the midst of fear, responded by putting their lives on the line” to help others (Ibid).

Among those people instilling hope by their active care are the team members at Catholic Charities of Oregon. Since March 2020, Catholic Charities has expanded its suite of services in order to respond effectively and in real time to the current and emerging needs facing their fellow Oregonians due to the Covid-19 pandemic and wildfires.

“We want to honor the Church’s commitment to serve all in need,” said Deacon Rick Birkel, Ph.D., executive director of Catholic Charities of Oregon, “Anyone who needs help, we can assist you.”

Guided by Dr. Birkel, Catholic Charities’ leadership team is working closely with the Archdiocese of Portland in Oregon – including parishes up and down the western side of the state – as well as nonprofit and public partners to identify current, short-term needs and to plan for medium- and long-term needs that will result from the ongoing repercussions of an unprecedented 2020 year.

To date, the Catholic Charities network has collected more than $3 million that is being distributed directly to individuals and families affected by the pandemic and wildfires across Western Oregon. The emergency financial assistance enables people to purchase hotel vouchers, clothing, food, and health and hygiene items.

Two areas of particular urgency identified by Catholic Charities are the nutrition needs of people affected by the pandemic and legal services for Oregon’s immigrant community who suffered many losses from the wildfires.

In March, the leadership team of Catholic Charities determined that food preparation and distribution needed to be added to its suite of services in order to respond to the food insecurity caused by the pandemic. The response included delivering at least 10,000 meals a week to those in need, expanding food pantry services to two days per week, and food box delivery to farmworker housing communities.

Regarding the delivery of food boxes to farming communities, Catholic Charities is working with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and local nonprofit partners. A minimum of 500 boxes of food each week have been delivered to the doors of farmworkers. Many of the workers have been directly affected by Covid-19 and unable to leave their homes for weeks. The food boxes, weighing 30 pounds each, contain milk, fresh fruits, vegetables, cheeses, meats, grains, and breads and more.

In the aftermath of the wildfires in Southern Oregon, Catholic Charities learned that more than 150 families in the Sacred Heart parish in Medford lost their homes and thousands of other people have been displaced. Most of the people affected are Latino, and their major concern is the loss of their immigration documentation such as green cards, employment authorizations and U.S. passports of recent citizens. Reissuing these documents by the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services can cost as much as $700 per document. Catholic Charities’ Immigration Legal Services team traveled to Medford in the aftermath of the wildfires to conduct legal clinics, assess the legal needs of migrants and assist with the reissuing of lost documents.

In an interview with Mater Dei Radio, Dr. Birkel lamented, “Those who have the least, lose the most.” In the face of so many losses and urgent needs, the temptation may be to turn away, thinking it’s too much to handle. Catholic Charities did not turn away. Strengthened by their faith in God, they responded immediately to help those in need, gathering goods and services and even generous partners to demonstrate to the needy that they are loved. It’s the kind of active charity that fills people with hope.


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