New CCF fund established to help Minneapolis families rebuild lives upended by riots

| June 12, 2020 | 0 Comments

Rebeca Atenco, 17, stands in front of a building that housed her family’s Lake Street apartment before rioters in Minneapolis burned it May 27. COURTESY REBECA ATENCO

In Minneapolis, families and business owners along Lake Street and other areas hard-hit by rioting in the wake of George Floyd’s death May 25 are clearing away the rubble and wondering how to rebuild — their shops, their homes, their lives.

Some are worse off than others. Seventeen-year-old Rebeca Atenco‘s family lost everything to fire May 27, when their apartment along Lake Street in Minneapolis was torched. The only thing her family recovered was a container with the remains of a baby brother her mother miscarried in 2009. Ashes pulled from ashes.

The Atencos have received help from their parish, St. Stephen in Minneapolis, as well as Rebecca’s school, Cristo Rey Jesuit Catholic High School. Other parishes, schools and Catholic organizations such as the St. Vincent de Paul Society, which has a thrift store along Lake Street, have also been helping families most affected by the rioting. On June 9, the Catholic Community Foundation of Minnesota launched a new avenue for supporting that work: Neighbors in Need.

As a community foundation, CCF provides an “intersection” between needs and donors, said Anne Cullen Miller, CCF president. The Neighbors in Need sub-fund is “just an example of … our mission coming alive,” she said.

Neighbors in Need falls under the umbrella of the Minnesota Catholic Relief Fund, which CCF started in March initially to aid schools and parishes that had lost revenue due to COVID-19. Donors can choose to direct their fund contribution to Pandemic Relief or Neighbors in Need at ccf-mn.org/relief.

According to the Minneapolis Star Tribune, at least 1,500 buildings in the Twin Cities were vandalized or looted in the days following Floyd’s death. Dozens were completely destroyed by fire.

That equates to destroyed businesses and livelihoods; financial setbacks and insurance entanglements for business owners; and day-to-day hardship for people who relied on those businesses’ services.

Some families have no car and cannot easily travel outside the neighborhood for groceries and medicine, said Sister Margaret McGuirk, a Sinsinawa Dominican who works with families in need at Incarnation in Minneapolis. Now, places people regularly shop, eat and bank are destroyed. For area residents with cars, many of the neighborhood’s gas stations were also vandalized and remain closed. People have called the parish in need of rental assistance, groceries and cleaning supplies.

And they continue to deal with emotional and spiritual repercussions from watching their neighborhood burn.

“It’s been very stressful for everyone,” Sister McGuirk said. “People were just terrorized.”

The community was already home to the working poor, she said, and the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated their problems. Then, the rioting compounded them further.

Many of the families affected by rioting were among the hardest hit by the COVID-19 pandemic, said Father Joseph Williams, St. Stephen’s pastor. “They’re the first to lose their jobs because they’re in restaurants, they’re in our hotels, cleaning,” he said.

St. Stephen serves a large Latino community, and because about half of his adult immigrant parishioners are not citizens, they’re not able to access unemployment or tax relief payments to ease the burden. Meanwhile, many people in his community worked along Lake Street, he noted.

The first two nights of the riot, Father Williams housed a family at the parish rectory who felt threatened in their home near Lake Street. The third night, he housed a second family. Meanwhile, with financial support from other parishes as well as family and friends, Father Williams was able to help about 15 other south Minneapolis families afford hotels away from the rioting. And while those others families were able to return home when the rioting subsided, the needs — especially for the Atenco family — persist, Father Williams said.

For afflicted families, “we’re trying to relieve that anxiety and let them know that the Church is in solidarity,” Father Williams said. “It’s a beautiful time for the Church to show we’re here, and we’re not going to let them suffer this alone.”

At St. Albert the Great, parishioners and their pastor, Father Joe Gillespie, have partnered with nearby Holy Trinity Lutheran Church to provide groceries to their community and support business owners who want to rebuild. Lending their support to the grocery efforts are All Saints in Lakeville and Our Lady of Grace in Edina, Father Gillespie said.

“As the days go on, people are coming regularly,” he said, “but oftentimes, the food stops coming. We’re like a back-up supplier.”

The outreach complements efforts already underway to help people financially hurt by the COVID-19 pandemic, Father Gillespie said.

“In the parish, most people are not eager to come up and saying, ‘We need something,’” he said. “They’re used to giving. … We give out Target cards and Cub cards, and the great irony is that those were looted and damaged during the (riots).”

While the material needs are pressing, the greatest needs might be more difficult to quickly obtain: renewed confidence and forgiveness, Father Gillespie said. Many in the once-vibrant Lake Street community feel like their city’s leaders abandoned them in their darkest moment, he said. For three nights, police didn’t protect their homes or businesses, he said.

The Atencos lived along Lake Street in the basement of a cell-phone carrier store, with several other apartment units above. The night of the fire, Rebeca and her father were outside the store around 10:30 p.m., trying to deter the mob. The rioters were “kids,” she said — high-school age, like her. “Your house is next,” she said they told her. She presumes they tossed in a gasoline bomb through the windows, like those she had seen lobbed at other buildings. She didn’t see precisely what happened at he own building; she was focused on getting her mother and younger sisters out of the apartment.

The firefighters arrived and fought the fire for a time, but then they were redirected to another emergency. Around 5 a.m., she and her father realized that the fire had continued to blaze. She tried to call 911, but no one answered. Around that time, she and her father realized that their apartment and everything in it was destroyed.

“I felt like me and my family just lost it all,” Atenco said. She wishes the rioters would have considered what their destruction would cost families, she said.

Cristo Rey Jesuit, where Atenco is a junior, is located just a block off Lake Street, and some of its students live in the neighborhood. Several of its windows were smashed in the rioting, but nothing worse. Besides the Atencos, other students have been displaced from their homes due to fire and home invasions, said Cristo Rey President Jeb Myers. The school had already been offering meals, counseling and other aid to students and their families suffering the economic effects of the pandemic.

Some parishes and schools, like Cristo Rey, have launched Go Fund Me campaigns or other relief fundraising campaigns and are providing rental assistance and money for gas, groceries and household supplies. Miller said she sees the MCRF complementing, not necessarily replacing, those efforts.

“We have an expertise and a platform to do it, which can be leveraged without any additional costs to the community, or take away limited resources to do this work on the ground,” she said. “There’s multiple platforms in which people can get involved and respond, and we’re just allowing the Catholic community to leverage this one.”

Myers said that he is grateful for the generosity already extended to Cristo Rey as it supports emergency relief for its students’ families.

But, he said, the material help is just one facet of the greater needs, which include law enforcement and immigration reform, he said. And, as a community, Minnesotans need to learn to “love their neighbors,” no matter their skin color, he said.

“If we really want to make a difference,” he said, “we’ve got to get to know our neighbors and love them as ourselves.”

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