“My body pines for you like a dry, weary land without water” (Psalm 63).
When Matilde Alvarado told me her story, she used this passage of Psalm 63 to describe herself when she was in her early 40s. “I was completely broken, an unhappy woman looking for power, prestige, and money, and intent on getting my own way.” By this time she had been away from the Church for many years and without even realizing it had slowly become this “dry, weary land without water.” Unbeknown even to herself, her heart was crying out for life and for love.
On Ash Wednesday 1991, Matilde was on a business trip and had planned to spend that evening shopping for Native American jewelry. On the insistence of two of her colleagues, however, she found herself, instead, reluctantly walking into St. Maria Goretti Church in Scottsdale, Arizona, for the evening liturgy. As she tells the story:
“I was not happy about having to forego shopping that evening, but I went to please my friends. I can’t really explain it, but suddenly, as I entered the church, my attention was drawn to a large bright poster with the words, ‘I Thirst.’ That evening—the first time I had attended Mass in what seemed a lifetime—I could feel every word penetrating my heart. I was unexpectedly moved to tears. I didn’t understand what was happening to me, but as each moment passed I felt as though I were being separated from my past life and from sin. To this day I can’t forget the power of the Mass that night. What Padre Pio says is true. I have known it. ‘It is the sacrifice of the Holy Mass that immediately and infallibly produces effects in favor of souls.’ My soul was filled with unexpected warmth and peace, a peace that until that moment I had never known.”
A seed had been planted that night in Arizona that would bear fruit twenty-eight years later in Alexandria, Virginia. Now in her late sixties, she felt drawn by God to open the Mother of Light Center, a place that would provide hope and love and mercy for others who found themselves struggling to survive in the deserts of life. Mother of Light Center is a warehouse tucked away on a tiny street, barely the size of a two-car garage. As I spoke with Matilde in the middle of the boxes of donated food and bags being packed for families, she frequently excused herself. I watched her quietly attending to someone who had knocked at the door asking for a couple bags of food for their family.
Teresa Cotter, one of the full-time volunteers, shared with me about the work the Center carries out:
“In the big picture, the bulk of the work is a food pantry. Monday through Saturday we receive donations from the Capital Area Food Bank, and a number of stores and restaurants in the area, including Panera and Wegmans. With the donated food we prepare the bags of food for distribution. These bags are placed in our city-provided van and taken to designated local neighborhoods. Before going out to deliver food, the volunteers pray for the grace to see Christ in the poor. In addition, about thirty people will arrive to pick up food at the Center each day. On one level it is very simple: potatoes in and potatoes out. We delivered 45,958 pounds of food to 1,025 families in January. On another level it is very profound. Among the volunteers there is a deep Eucharistic and Marian spirituality. I know as sure as I’m sitting here that the power of Jesus Christ goes out with all those bags that are being delivered and makes a difference in the lives of those we serve.”
When I walked into Mother of Light Center, my attention was drawn to the images of Mary that adorn the walls. A large image of Mary, Mother of Light dominates the room. Behind a curtain is a tabernacle and altar. In addition to Marian devotions and the recitation of the Rosary, Mass is often celebrated here for the intentions of the families they serve. Volunteers on Fridays will kneel in adoration before Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament while the work in the warehouse continues quietly. Teresa affirms, “It is all about Jesus Christ. We adore him. We want to love him, for if we don’t love him how can we show that love to anyone else?”
Matilde’s personal conversion experience at the Ash Wednesday Mass in 1991 has now led the way for the flowering of Eucharistic living for forty volunteers. The central work of Mother of Light Center is to faithfully pursue a relationship with each person whom God brings to them in need of food, clothing, and other life necessities.
“We do what Jesus wants us to do,” Matilde told me. “I felt that he called me to open Mother of Light to feed those in need. I just do what he asks me. We are constantly witnessing miracles. Jesus provides everything the people need. Many times I’ve said to him, ‘Lord, we don’t have bread today. Send us manna from heaven.’ Then a big donation of bread arrives. One week we needed beds for children. We received a donation of 10 beds along with a truck to deliver them and even the bedding. It is all Divine Providence.”
Along with providing food, Mother of Light is also about building lives and the salvation of souls. On Good Friday they sponsor a street retreat and on October 7 an outdoor Eucharistic procession. Father Paul Berghout and ministry volunteers walk the neighborhoods of the families they serve, stopping to speak in parking lots and on street corners. They bless the sick, minister to people sitting on porches, pray over a loudspeaker, and draw people to join them in song, prayer and adoration. “We want the people to behold the God who loves them!” Matilde said.
Over thirty years ago Matilde found the grace of conversion while attending a Mass. Now she lives a Eucharistic life in receiving with deep love and respect anyone who needs assistance. She and the forty volunteers around her provide the ongoing gift of food that for many makes the difference for survival.
Recently a woman from El Salvador, a new arrival to our country, walked into Mother of Light Center. Her attention was suddenly riveted on the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe that hung on the wall. She said to Matilde, “That’s the woman who gave me water in the desert.”
“Do you know who that is?” Matilde asked her.
“No,” the woman responded. “But that lady gave me water in the desert. And now I am here. Can you help me?”
“We are called to show mercy because mercy has been shown to us.”