Inside the hushed contours of the racetrack kitchen, deep in the cloistered, hardscrabble world of the backstretch at Laurel Park racetrack, every head was bowed. The Rev. Segundo Mir, who pastors a mostly Spanish-speaking flock at First Baptist Church of Laurel, led the 14 people in the room in prayer.
"Thank you, Lord, for this beautiful day, the blue sky," he began in a honey-thick baritone.
The Monday evening assembly is a long tradition, a standing invitation for anyone who works at the track and is moved to attend. The agenda is simple: a meal followed by a search of the scriptures. For the men, most of them grooms and hot walkers from Central and South America, the occasion dishes up sustenance for body and soul. For two hours each week, the kitchen is transformed into a sanctuary, tucked away at the end of a pothole-plagued dirt road, surrounded by barns and hay.
Mir's interpreter is Susan LaCourse. The West Laurel resident, a substitute teacher in the Prince George's County Public Schools, said she likes Monday nights because it gives her a chance to speak Spanish.
"But more important," she continued, "I get to mingle with some really interesting, God-loving people." As LaCourse spoke, another volunteer, Jane Mitchell, invited the men to form a line at the table for pizza and sides of salad, corn and fresh, crusty bread. The food is donated by Safeway, Laurel Advocacy and Referral Services and First Baptist, and Mitchell also regularly delivers coats, bedding and blankets donated by First Baptist.
LaCourse said a big blessing in her life is being an American. "In 1988, I was on a mission trip to Guatemala. They lived in huts with dirt floors, and they cooked over fires. I imagine there are plenty of people still living that way. It gave me a real appreciation. My perspective is if we can even out the disparity between the way we live and the way they live, that's a good thing."
Most of the men who work the backstretch do jobs that are plainly visible from the side entrances to the track along Brock Bridge and Whiskey Bottom roads. It's a bonding experience for man and horse: scrubbing, feeding, walking and even talking to them.
LaCourse remarked that the majority of the men hail from a single town, La Rinconada, in Michoacan, an agriculture-rich province in west-central Mexico, where avocado plantations abound and drug cartels are rampant.
"I think one of the hardest things for them is being separated from their families," she said. Seeing them show up on a weekly basis speaks to her heart, she said.
"Their faith is really strong. That carries them."
The men, whose average age is 40, journey to their native communities right before Christmas and return to either Laurel, Pimlico or the Bowie training facility in February or March.
Mir, 70, a native of Havana, Cuba, said the men are confronted with daily challenges.
"They are alone; they work hard," he said. "Most of them are depressed. They need help, they need compassion." Coming together each Monday evening, he emphasized, is strictly a personal decision. They can stay for the meal, he said, but skip the message.
"We have dinner, and for those who want to stay, we have Bible study," Mir said. "We don't force them. We are there to help them."
Far from home
The Monday program begins promptly at 5 p.m. because the men are in bed early so they can be up long before the sun to make their appointed rounds. Alberto Torres knows all too well what it costs to make a living, to be able to send money back home — the kind of money, he knows, he could never earn there. Wearing a Redskins cap, the 22-year veteran groom looked back on his early days in the U.S.
"It was like I was in a dark room," he said softly. "I didn't know what I was doing. It was pretty sad. And I get homesick all the time."
Torres said while the money is good and the trainers provide health insurance, dangers lurk.
"We've got to fight the weather, rain or snow. We've got to do our jobs even if we're sick," he said. "And everybody has to be quiet because the horses can get scared and rear up. We weigh 180 pounds; they weigh 1,000 pounds."
The backstretch workers were not the only ones in attendance for a recent Monday service. A retired thoroughbred jockey, John Adams, also is a familiar face at the track kitchen. Riding professionally, which he did for 23 years, "is a hard way to make a living, especially when it's cold," he said.