John Schmidt makes an unlikely angel. With a rough beard, dressed inboots and jeans, he talks and lives like something of a rebel.
But to the Hispanic population of Anne Arundel County, he may be God's messenger.
Wednesday, Schmidt launched a Christmas tree sale, with half the proceeds going to help the county's Hispanic immigrants, who number somewhere between 6,800 and 14,000.
The tree-selling venture openedat seven locations around the Baltimore area, including the parking lot of the Epiphany Episcopal Church in Odenton. The trees and greens, delivered fresh-cut from North Carolina, will be on sale until Christmas Eve, along with Christmas items from Central America.
Schmidt comes to charity work in a round-about sort of way, influenced by years of traveling in Latin countries -- and as many years of hearing racial slurs against a people he has come to love. Every time someonemade a nasty remark about Hispanics, Schmidt thought of his own children in Mexico, and he got angry.
But when he met the Rev. Miguel Vilar, who supervises the Episcopal Diocese's Hispanic Mission in Maryland, Schmidt got inspired.
"Vilar puts his money and his soul where his mouth is," says Schmidt, who converted to Christianity after observing Vilar's life.
Following his mentor's example, Schmidt began to channel his anger by selling Christmas trees and giving half the profits to the Episcopal Diocese's Hispanic work, called Friends of Hispanics.
Schmidt and his partner, Miguel Novoa, a member of a newly created advocacy board for Hispanics in the diocese, have hiredHispanics to work the tree sale.
Said Novoa, "We wanted to hire Latin people who are unemployed and pay them a decent salary -- more than minimum wage."
The venture started eight months ago, when Schmidt read an article about the problems of Hispanics in Maryland, who are often taken advantage of and victimized because they speak littleEnglish and are afraid of the police.
"In the countries many of them come from, like from El Salvador and Guatemala, you have no one you can trust but the church," he explained.
Schmidt, in his late 30s, wanted to help. He tossed around ways that a person without much extra cash could make money for charity, and he came up with the tree-sales.
Vilar liked the project, but the vestry at his Baltimore congregation, the Church of the Holy Evangelist, declined to support it,so Schmidt and Novoa formed an independent company, which they dubbed Santa's Trees.
When the two contacted parishes in the Baltimorearea, seven agreed to support the sale, including Epiphany. The church isn't formally sponsoring the event but is lending its 1-acre parking lot in Odenton to Santa's Trees Inc., says church pastor Phoebe Coe.
"We're off the beaten track, but we do have the space," she explained.
Coe's interest in the Hispanic community stems from a conviction that the Christian church is bigger than her individual congregation.
"The Hispanic mission is my church," she says. "It's partof my diocese. I'm not doing something for them; I'm doing somethingfor us."
According to the U.S. Census, 6,815 Hispanic residents live in Anne ArundelCounty, about 1.6 percent of the total population.Coe, however, believes the number is closer to 14,000.
Hundreds of thousands of Salvadorans have come to this country from their war-torn homeland in the last 10 years, seeking work. But when they get here, they can easily fall through the cracks of the social system, Schmidt said.
Vilar works with the U.S. government to obtain green cards for immigrating Hispanics, but Schmidt is ready to defend those who slip into the country any way they can.
"People come into America on the bus or walk from the mountains of Mexico, and somebody says, 'You're not legal,' " he says. "These people are scared and they don't know anyone. I hope America is still great enough that we can assist these folks. And these sales -- even if a drop in the bucket -- are a start."