By Jessica Able, Record Staff Writer
Mimi Graves puts on a pot of coffee and sets out bananas and oranges at Christ Chapel as men and women who work on the backside of Churchill Downs begin to trickle in for a quick refreshment and a chat with friends and chapel staff.
As Graves greets each man and woman with a soft smile and a warm “hello,” her best friend of more than half a century, Betty Mittler, rolls out racks of shirts, pants and jackets. Backside workers may choose clothing items from the “clothes closet” free of charge.
This is one of the realities of the horse-racing industry — on the front side millions of dollars exchange hands and on the backside workers scrape by. Ministries such as Christ Chapel help meet the workers’ physical and spiritual needs.
Christ Chapel is located on the backside of Churchill Downs, just steps from the barns that house the world-class thoroughbreds that millions will watch run a mile and a quarter this Saturday in the 143rd running of the Kentucky Derby.
Graves and Mittler, both graduates of the old St. Boniface School and Mercy Academy, are among the dozens of volunteers who serve in a variety of roles at Christ Chapel each week.
The two women began volunteering with the “backside ministry” at Christ Chapel six years ago and said they “receive so much more than they give.”
“We want this to be like their home. We strive to be their extended family,” Mittler, a parishioner of St. John Paul II Church, said in an interview last week.
The Clothes Closet and refreshment station are open on Thursday mornings and volunteers said they see about 50 men and women each week. Both ministries operate on donations from area churches, including many Catholic parishes.
Mittler said those who pop in for a quick respite are often far from their families and support systems.
“They always have their cell phones ready to show pictures of their children and families,” she said.
Mittler said she becomes defensive when others deride or speak in pejorative terms of those who work on the backside.
“I say ‘Tell me one person you know who will get up at 3 a.m. and do the kind of work they do and not get paid a lot,’ ” she said.
Graves said she enjoys interacting with the men and women she meets in Christ Chapel.
“I love the people. They are so good and very friendly and appreciate every thing you do,” Graves, a parishioner of St. Margaret Mary Church, said.
Network of volunteers
Volunteers have formed a network at Christ Chapel to offer a variety of outreach.
The chapel holds an ecumenical worship service each Monday at 7 p.m. Prior to the service, several churches, including Epiphany, Our Lady of Lourdes and St. Edward parishes, provide a meal.
Angie Gimmel, who volunteers in public relation for the chapel, said the support from area churches is not limited to one church or one denomination.
“We have Presbyterians, Baptists, Catholics, Methodists. Big churches, little churches out in the country. It’s a wonderful fellowship of churches serving together,” she said.
The way the churches come together to serve the men and women who live and work on the backside, Gimmel said, is “what Jesus wanted us to do.”
“What we have in common is Jesus Christ. We focus, not on our differences, but on being the hands and feet of Christ through our volunteer efforts,” she said.
A trio of new staff at Christ Chapel now serves backside workers. Dan Hatfield, senior chaplain, began work at the chapel last fall. And, Joseph Del Rosario, chaplain, and Daisy Baez, the women and children’s associate, officially joined the ministry team earlier this year. All three are fluent in English and Spanish.
Demographics among workers on the backside have shifted dramatically in the last decade, Gimmel said. Ten years ago the majority of horseman were white or African American and English-speaking. Now the majority of the nearly 1,000 backside workers are Hispanic and speak Spanish, Del Rosario said.
Del Rosario, 26, who expects to complete his master’s in divinity at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary later this month, said he can relate to the men and women with whom he ministers. His dad came to the U.S. from Peru and his mom is from Puerto Rico.
“My dad came up with the hope of a better life and to provide for his family back home,” Del Rosario said. “I can empathize and sympathize with their struggle and desire to better their lives.”
Del Rosario spends time each day walking among the horse barns greeting workers and offering a prayer or two if requested. He said he seeks to bring a smile, hope and “to point them to Christ.”
“I’m here to listen to their struggles and to rejoice in their joys,” he said. “I care about them.”
The workers’ struggles largely include worries about immigration status, money and family dynamics, Del Rosario said.
“Many are concerned about immigration issues,” he said noting many were anxious immediately following the inauguration of President Donald Trump. But, he said, in the months since tensions have relaxed.
One thing Del Rosario said he does to alleviate the concerns of those he ministers to is to keep them informed.
“If they are not watching the news or keeping up, I let them know there are many of us, including government officials, who are advocating for them,” he said.
Christ Chapel is sponsored by the Kentucky Race Track Chaplaincy (KRTC), which serves race tracks in Kentucky and one in southern Ohio.
For Pat Day, president of the KRTC, Christ Chapel serves as a quiet place of reprieve for the horsemen on the backside of Churchill Downs.
“They work seven days a week. Even if there were a church across the street, many can’t get away,” said Day, a Hall of Fame jockey and four-time winner of the Eclipse Award for Outstanding Jockey.
He also noted that the Christ Chapel chaplains minister to workers at Trackside Louisville on Poplar Level Road and at two horse training facilities in Oldham County.