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Arlington diocesan churches house the pro-life movement

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For months, teens and young adults have fundraised, and saved their own money, too. They then will travel for hours in a cramped bus, and finally arrive outside the nation's capital. That night, they’ll sleep on the floor in an unfamiliar place and arise early to face a day of marching in freezing temperatures.


But each year they’re happy to do it, said Lambi Renner, the director of parish activities at Holy Spirit Church in Annandale, who coordinates hosting out-of-town pro-lifers at the parish. This year, more than 500 people from New Hampshire to Michigan will spend the night at Holy Spirit before the annual March for Life.


For the students, “it’s a pilgrimage,” said Renner. Though spending the night in a gym or cafeteria doesn't sound like much, “they’re incredibly appreciative.”


Going to the march is just a daylong affair for Northern Virginians, but for others it takes much more time, effort and money to stand up for the unborn. We take for granted all the sacrifices others make to attend the march because it’s in our own backyard, said Renner.


Locals might have an easier trek to the march, but they share their hometown advantage by hosting more than 3,000 guests at their parishes, said Franciscan Sister Clare Hunter, director of the diocesan Respect Life Office. Many groups contact her about finding a place to stay, while others have established relationships with the parishes who’ve hosted them for years.


“All our priests are so giving to the life issues,” she said, so it follows that they would open church doors to traveling marchers.


Blessed Sacrament Church in Alexandria will be filled to capacity with around 50 people, in addition to several Sisters for Life who will stay in the old rectory. St. Leo the Great Church in Fairfax will host two groups on the Thursday before the March, and another two groups on Friday night — around 180 people total. More than 700 students from the University of Notre Dame and other colleges in South Bend are divided between St. Agnes Church, St. Charles Borromeo Church and Marymount University, all in Arlington.


“They welcome in our road-weary crew each January, and help us for many weeks leading up to the march with all the general ‘on-the-ground’ planning from over 600 miles away,” said Brett Perkins, assistant director of sacramental preparation and catechesis for the Notre Dame campus ministry. “We simply could not coordinate such a well-organized pilgrimage without them.” 


Many groups use the churches for lodging and as a place to worship before or after the march. Holy Cross Father John I. Jenkins, Notre Dame president, will celebrate Mass for all the students at St. Agnes, said Father Frederick H. Edlefsen, pastor. St. Leo will have all-night adoration the evening before the march for parishioners and guests. Blessed Sacrament will have a youth Holy Hour.  Other groups will attend Life is VERY Good, a youth rally and Mass sponsored by the Arlington Diocese Office of Youth Ministry and held at Eagle Bank Arena in Fairfax.


In addition to providing a place to sleep, and when possible, access to showers, many parishes provide breakfast and dinner for the visitors. At Holy Spirit, the parishioners and guests have breakfast together, make pro-life posters and then head into the city.


Knowing free accommodations makes a trip to the March for Life possible for many groups, the churches who host them are happy to do it.


“It’s the ministry of hospitality,” said Marie Niernberger, Blessed Sacrament director of arts and environment. “If this is something we can do to support the sanctity of life, then we should do it.”


Carolyn Smith, director of adult faith formation at St. Leo, said every year there is a waiting list for people who hope to stay at her church, though the parish is nearly 20 miles from Washington.


“There's a lot of need,” she said. “It’s an important event and we should strive to have as many people come as possible. Why not make it easy for them?”


© Arlington Catholic Herald 2017