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.
It drove him to improve his soul, and the kitchen mission does the trick.
"There's fellowship, there's the word and there's the food," Adams said. "There's … togetherness."
The people who make up the track's support system, he added, "don't come from here. Everything is different for them."
Standing near one of the benches covered with green vinyl tablecloths, Don Dean, a horseman, said an organization based in Lexington, Ky., the Race Track Chaplaincy of America, places 25 chaplains at 39 U.S. tracks. The mission of the nonprofit group, according to its website, is to help people in the horse racing business build and maintain "a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, resulting in a life that is full and abundant."
Dean, who lives in Rockville and also owns a horse, said the men look forward to Mondays at 5 p.m.
"It's important to the people who come," he said. "Their families are all at home. We have a real mix here."
Dinner featured laughter to go around. For the most part, however, the seven Hispanic men stayed seated at their table by the front door, eating politely and conversing gently. Their bright orange Bibles, labeled Santa Biblia, are donated by the Race Track Chaplaincy. They are open to the Gospel of John, 3:16. The King James translation of the verse reads: "For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life."
"This is one of the most important stories Jesus taught," declared Mir. "He completely revolutionized the world. He didn't go to any great university and he wasn't a famous Greek philosopher. He didn't have a house, a car, a credit card, a private jet, a boat. He lived a humble life … he shared in the pain people suffered, and for that reason, he was hated by people in power."
Mir, animated and cheerful, stood by the food table and engaged his small circle of partakers.
"What do we have to be thankful for?" he quizzed, his eyes darting around the room, as he makes contact with each of the people at the three or four tables.
The responses came faster than pampered thoroughbreds out of the starting gate.
"We give thanks to God we got our first real day of spring," offered LaCourse, before also inserting gratitude for the snowy winter, she explained, "because when it snows, we always get a full house here!"
"I pray for everyone getting ready for the Preakness at Pimlico, which is a big deal," said Dean. "I also give thanks that my foal is healthy, and that we survived winter."
"I am thankful to have a place to live, a roof over our heads," one of the workers said in Spanish, with LaCourse interpreting.
"Are there any prayer requests?" LaCourse asked. Prayers focused on families: for families back in Mexico and elsewhere, for the families of the lost Malaysia Airlines plane; for the victims and the families of the horrendous mudslide north of Seattle. A prayer also was offered for the guy, a track worker, who was in jail on charges of breaking into the track kitchen. He also happened to be a regular at the Monday night gatherings.
By 7 p.m., the program had wrapped up for another week. As the workers rose to head back to their rooms, one of them, David Garcia, stepped forward. The 43-year-old groom, on the job for 20 years, said he's up and out the door at 3:30 a.m. every day. Then, with gloves and pitchfork, "I turn on the lights in the barn and clean the stalls." Garcia, a father of two, said he may leave the racetrack a few times a week to buy groceries or clothing. Asked how he viewed his temporary residency so far from home, he answered candidly, "I feel like a foreigner because I am a foreigner."
But the long hours spent in isolated surroundings, he emphasized, are enriched by his Christian beliefs.