News & Politics

My Life in DC’s Coronavirus Era: Monsignor John Enzler of Catholic Charities DC

A feature about how people around Washington are adjusting to our new reality.

Monsignor John Enzler is the president and CEO of Catholic Charities, Archdiocese of Washington. Photo courtesy of Monsignor Enzler.
Coronavirus 2020

About Coronavirus 2020

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Monsignor John Enzler is the president and CEO of Catholic Charities, Archdiocese of Washington.

Can you describe the level of need that you’re seeing in the community right now as a result of Covid-19?

The need is growing exponentially. It gets bigger and bigger every week. Here is just one example: At our food pantry in Mount Pleasant, which mostly serves the Latino population, there has been an eightfold increase in demand over the last three weeks. Before the crisis, we were serving 100 people a week, and now it is 800.

What types of social services are in greatest demand in the community right now?

Catholic Charities serves the most vulnerable in our community. We are often told we are the last resort for people in need. So we are emphasizing basic needs like food, shelter, and emergency financial assistance. During this crisis, there is a particular emphasis on healthcare.

How have you had to change your operations in order to serve the community during the crisis? 

Our front-line staff is still doing as much as possible to serve, directly, those in need in our shelters, along with operating food programs and providing basic services. Many of us, though, are working from our homes and trying to make sure that we serve by telecommuting and telehealth. In the past at our food pantries, we would serve nutritious foods–veggies, fruits, and poultry. Now, because of the need for social distancing, we are still doing staple foods but also handing out grocery gift cards to allow people to pick out their necessities. The gift cards have a value of up to $50 each.

Have you seen the fundraising environment change as a result of the pandemic?

We are recognizing that, as the stock market has plunged, many of our very generous donors are no longer able to give at the same level. They are still giving but not as much as in the past. We are using social media more than ever to help people donate through checks, credit card, or through an Amazon Wish List and have those items delivered directly to our main office at 924 G Street, NW. As always, some are doing more than ever. Others cannot do what they once did. But this is for sure–everyone is doing their best to reach out in solidarity with the poor.

How concerned are you about your organization’s ability to continue fulfilling its mission and serving the community amid the pandemic? 

Our board, our staff, and our volunteers have always been mission driven. We will not and cannot drop our God-given call to take care of those in need. We have had to make some temporary administrative and personnel adjustments. But the good work goes on, and we hope to return from this situation stronger than ever.

What’s your organization’s most urgent need right now?

This week we are conducting a virtual food drive throughout the Washington area. Our churches and parishioners will take the lead, but all are invited to join us. That is our basic concern. People are hungry and need food. Because of the long lines that can gather at our food pantries and because we are respecting the call for social distancing, the less time our staff and volunteers spend giving out food and the less time people stand in line–all the better for the safety and health of clients and staff. Our biggest need is monetary donations for us to buy grocery gift cards, or grocery gift cards themselves that can be handed out directly with very little delay to the impoverished that come to our doors.

What can people in the area do if they’d like to help?

Monetary donations via our website. Or grocery gift cards of values up to $50 sent to Catholic Charities, 924 G Street ,NW, Washington, DC, 20001, or emailed to giving@cc-dc.org.

Where are you working from these days? How has your daily routine changed?

While I normally work at the main office, I’m now working from where I live, St. Bartholomew’s Church in Bethesda. I’m usually all over the city at one of our 39 locations. But now, because I’m in the “older” age group, I’m being very careful and obedient and only rarely go out for emergencies. I’ve driven my car only twice in the last three weeks for very short trips. I’m not particularly gifted at technology but I’ve managed to master Zoom and Microsoft Teams as well as communicate with my old staples of emails, phone calls, and text messages.

What’s the most heartening or encouraging thing that you’ve witnessed or read about since the onset of the pandemic? 

I don’t watch much television, but I have seen on the evening news some wonderful signs of the American spirit—people giving at a cost to themselves to people in need. I think of one young man I know, an altar server at St. Barts who has developmental differences. He shows up on time and stays the whole day at Giant Food, where he is restocking shelves and helping people who are looking for specific items like toilet paper and hand sanitizer. He is obviously at some risk, although not as much as healthcare workers at hospitals and nursing homes. That human sacrifice is inspirational to me.

When you get scared or stressed about the pandemic, what do you do to relieve the fear or anxiety? 

Obviously, prayer is first on my list, but I’m trying to pray in a different fashion. A recent book I read by Sister Ruth Burrows from Richmond, England, speaks of prayer as not our job but God’s work. Simply, she says, take time and give it to the Lord through quiet and silence. You don’t have to say much, just let God do the work. That is not often my normal style of prayer, but I love the fact that I’m able to do that now more than ever. I’m also listening to what some call Christian rock or songs of praise. We have a wonderful Christian band that plays for our 8 PM Mass every Sunday night. I usually preside at that Mass and love the upbeat spirit and the beautiful sound of three guitars, a keyboard, drums, and two superb soloists. I enjoy their music on Sunday nights, and I enjoy listening to some of their music virtually during this time when I’m unable to celebrate Mass each week with our community.

What’s a book, movie, or pastime that you’ve rediscovered during the pandemic? 

One thing I’ve done for the last week that I’ve really come to enjoy is to take an hour walk around the community before dinner every night. I do at-home workouts three to four times a week in the mornings; now I’m being trained through Zoom. The walks are so reflective, so quiet, so invigorating. I’m sure when this is over that will become a part of my everyday experience.

What are you most looking forward to when this is all over? 

Sitting at Nats Park and watching the Nationals (dare I say it) win. Being able to celebrate Sunday Mass with our parishioners and greeting them before and after the celebration. Having all our Catholic Charities staff back on team. Fewer virtual meetings and having most meetings in person. Celebrating all the weddings that have been postponed, including my nephew’s. Visiting hospitals and nursing homes without worries of my safety or the safety of the sick. Baptizing babies, supporting families who have lost loved ones and just being a priest who, in the example of Jesus, “lays down his life for his friends.” And maybe most of all, I’m looking forward to seeing in person the smiles on the faces of those who find hope from Catholic Charities’ services.

To donate to Catholic Charities, click here

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Senior Writer

Luke Mullins is a senior writer at Washingtonian magazine focusing on the people and institutions that control the city’s levers of power. He has written about the Koch Brothers’ attempt to take over The Cato Institute, David Gregory’s ouster as moderator of NBC’s Meet the Press, the collapse of Washington’s Metro system, and the conflict that split apart the founders of Politico.

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