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Mother of Light Center in Alexandria offers unconditional support

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Imagine living with no stable residence or ability to provide for the littlest needs. People in those situations often face cringes, disregard or referral to bureaucracies when they ask others for money or assistance. The world prejudges poverty as if it is a just judgment or a personal failure — which is why Catholic volunteers at the newly opened Mother of Light Center in Alexandria choose to offer unconditional support and help to people in hardship or distress.

“We will work with anybody. We will do anything,” said volunteer and treasurer Elizabeth Currier. “We will not refer Christ out.”

The center, founded by a group of lay Catholics led by Matilda Alvarado, officially opened Feb 2. at 421 Clifford Ave. in Alexandria. Father Robert C. Cilinski, pastor of Church of the Nativity in Burke and Episcopal Vicar For Charitable Works, represented Bishop Michael F. Burbidge. He formally blessed and opened the center with a prayer service attended by Alexandria Mayor Justin Wilson, members of the City Council, the police department, clergy and supporters from across the diocese.

Mayor Wilson told volunteers that they are in “exactly the right place” and that members of local government are “excited” about their mission.

Alvarado, a native of Honduras and a Falls Church resident for more than 30 years, felt inspired to start the center following the example of Irish philanthropist Frank Duff, who built hostels for the poor in Dublin, Ireland. It is an independent lay initiative not anchored to the diocese or a particular parish, which organizers say makes them “extremely flexible.”

Help given by volunteers, who call themselves “Light Bearers,” has included financial assistance, clothing, restaurant gift cards, toothbrushes, socks, job placement and volunteer medical assistance to people in need. Volunteers plan to improve society through concrete community charity.

“We’ll do whatever we can to get people on their feet. No problem is too big or too small,” said Currier. “We don’t lose the person ever. We don’t just pass them on to someone else.”

Volunteers at the Mother of Light Center believe real social change happens in human hearts, and that small charitable actions can improve lives everywhere.

“If lay people gave even two hours a week to do some kind of apostolic work for others, it could transform the world,” said Deacon Gerard-Marie Anthony, one of the center’s board members, describing the group’s philosophy.

A wide variety of people in society lack support and resources. Transient students house-hop because they can’t earn enough money to afford a residence. Other people have fallen into debt. Others cannot earn a stable living wage and lack food and a place to stay. Some fall into crime to survive. The center is non-discriminatory when it comes to those in need.

“It’s not necessarily what you would think of when you hear the word ‘homeless,’” said Deacon Anthony, describing the diverse circumstances of the needy of Northern Virginia. “The situation has changed so much.”

Volunteers at the center have partnered with Alexandria city police officers to distribute toiletries and clothing to those living on the street. Alexandria Police Officer E. Elam said people exposed to the elements on the street frequently develop health problems, and he believes that donated blankets from the center have saved lives this winter.

“Giving them (the homeless) something warm to lay on and lay under helps eliminate even a fraction of arthritis, frostbite and other health issues,” said Elam.

Volunteers brought about one unlikely transformation for an elderly man who asked for help using his television. Upon visiting him, volunteers noticed the man was suffering from poverty, illness and isolation. They freely improved his living conditions at their own expense.

The man, a veteran, initially was opposed to prayer. However, he quickly formed a bond with volunteers, recovered his health, and re-established contact with his estranged daughters. Witnessing the volunteers’ living faith also changed his attitude toward religion — he now welcomes prayer in his life, according to Currier.

“A lot of people think they are not loved by the church because they are homeless or don’t have money, or because of their life situations,” said Deacon Anthony. “People are not just their faults and failings. They are not just their financial situation.”

Center volunteers also have offered their aid to poor families, such as by distributing blankets, toys and stuffed animals to children in shelters. One volunteer gave stuffed animals to residents at a senior center, which brought much joy. The center also seeks to aid workers and is collaborating with the Day Labor Center in Arlington to assist in resume writing and job placement.

“It’s really Christ’s face unveiled. It’s a beautiful call to look at everyone in need as worthy people, God’s creations, and truly our neighbors,” said Currier.

The center welcomes material or financial aid from churches and organizations in Northern Virginia. Volunteers also welcome tips from local pastors about potential people in the community in need of help. The center hopes to collaborate with Fairfax County police for expanded homeless outreach.

Spring will bring new challenges, including a demand for bottled water, fast food gift cards, and volunteers willing to help organize goods in the center and pass out materials to the needy. The center offers training for volunteers on the second and fourth Saturdays of every month. Monetary donations will ensure that the organization is able to keep running.

Fletcher can be reached at zita.fletcher@catholicherald.com or @zbfltecherACH.


© Arlington Catholic Herald 2019