PORTLAND, Oregon — Christina and Vinh Nguyen’s lives are centered on three things: Their two children, their faith and their food cart.
Now the couple’s Portland mini-kitchen on wheels — its Vietnamese fare of noodle salads and “banh mi” sandwiches, their sole source of income — is temporarily shuttered because of the coronavirus.
“We’ve put money into a small savings and that might be able to sustain us for a bit, but I’m not sure how long,” said Christina, a parishioners at St. Rose and Our Lady of La Vang churches, both a block up from her food-cart pod.
There were a few days when it seemed the virus wouldn’t significantly affect the Nguyens’ cart, Vivi’s Yummy Rolls, but soon orders dwindled.
Even under normal conditions, the food cart business can be brutal. Some sunny days, they might welcome 100 customers, other days, a mere handful. Despite a tight budget, though, the family often gave food to people in need.
The Nguyens learned March 16 that Oregon Gov. Kate Brown had ordered bars and restaurants statewide to close for four weeks to stem the spread of COVID-19. No on-site consumption of food is permitted, but drive-through and delivery meals, along with takeout, are allowed.
Feeling fortunate they weren’t forced to close, they shifted their focus to takeout orders. But they had fewer and fewer customers due to the growing practice of social distancing.
The final decision to suspend food-cart operations was not because of a lack of customers, however. It was out of concern for their community.
When Brown made her announcement, there were 39 known cases of coronavirus in the state. Two days later, the last day the food cart was open, that figure had more than doubled. As of April 1, Oregon had at least 690 confirmed cases and at least 18 deaths.
“The more we thought about it, we felt we should stay home,” Christina, 52, told the Catholic Sentinel, newspaper of the Archdiocese of Portland. “We are not going to panic. But the government is saying it’s best to say home and we want to do our part to stop the spread.”
Father Matt Libra, pastor of St. Rose, knows the Nguyens and others like them who are suffering financially due to the coronavirus. A few members of the parish community have lost jobs and at least two have had to close their businesses.
“These families are going to find a lot of open arms through St. Rose,” said Libra. “People are ready to help; people are ready to live the call to discipleship in very practical ways.”
He described the Nguyens as “wonderful individuals who never ask for anything; they are always the ones helping.”
Christina came to the United States from Vietnam when she was in her early 20s and became Catholic in 1994. Her faith is as essential to her well-being as noodles and spices are to her cooking. In the orange food cart hangs a crucifix visible to diners, who have often sought her solace. She also has a votive candle at work she’d light when offering a prayer.
The whole family is looking for ways to stay positive amid the crisis and live day by day. The children, students at St. Rose School and Central Catholic High School in Southeast Portland, have been spending more time with each other while participating in remote digital learning at home. “My son is helping his sister with her homework, and they are talking more to each other,” said Christina.
She’s also been reflecting on additional, spiritual benefits.
“I think we’ve been living a very fast-paced life,” she said. “Maybe this is a good time to slow down, to reflect on blessings we have right now.”
Christina said she’s not sure when the food cart will reopen. “But looking around us, everyone is affected one way or another, so we are staying calm,” she said. “At this point, we should be embracing each other in love and with support and kind words. What else can we do?”
Scott is special projects reporter at the Catholic Sentinel, newspaper of the Archdiocese of Portland.