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Second Presbyterian Church in Roanoke, Virginia, hosts an emotional and ecumenical dedication service on Mother’s Day

Newly renovated Alexa House and an accompanying playground will serve families experiencing homelessness

by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service

An ecumenical dedication service held on Mother’s Day at Second Presbyterian Church in Roanoke, Virginia, celebrated the renovation of Alexa House. Here’s a shot of the interior. (Photo courtesy of Second Presbyterian Church)

LOUISVILLE — Second Presbyterian Church in Roanoke, Virginia, hosted a moving and joyous ecumenical service on Mother’s Day, dedicating a newly renovated Alexa House for hosting families being served by Family Promise of Greater Roanoke. Watch the hour-long service here.

Much of the funding for the more than $700,000 renovation came in response to three tragedies, the first two with connections to the church:

  • Dan Yardley was killed in an automobile accident on Thanksgiving in 2017. An amazing father and husband who left behind three children, renovation to Alexa House was done in his memory.
  • Alexa Cannon, a student at Radford University, was killed in a violent attack on Jan. 24, 2019. To honor her spirit and heart for others, contributions by her family, friends and community were given, and the house renamed in her honor. The interior design of the house reflects her love of art and photography.
  • Rita Magnus was killed as a young girl during the Shoah, the mass murder of Jewish people under the German Nazi regime. Her two sisters, who survived the Holocaust, provided the major funding for constructing the Rita Magnus Memorial Playground behind Alexa House.

“The renovation of Alexa House is the result of the entire community responding to tragedies in a way that will help prevent tragedy in others’ lives,” said Second Presbyterian Church’s senior pastor, the Rev. Dr. George Anderson. “A tragedy can dominate one’s view of life if one were trapped into looking back. Today, we look forward, largely because family and friends of those who died are committed not to dwell in the past, but rather on a better future. This is a service that will witness to love and life and hope.”

In partnership with Family Promise of Greater Roanoke, Alexa House helps serve families experiencing homelessness. (Photo courtesy of Second Presbyterian Church)

Rabbi Dr. Kathy Cohen of Temple Emanuel Synagogue offered a prayer for the renovated house that included these words: “May the doors of Alexa House be wide enough to receive all who hunger for love, all who are lonely for friendship,” Cohen said. “May it provide families with a shelter from the harshness of experiencing homelessness and be a refuge to those in need. May the doors of this house be narrow enough to shut out pettiness and pride, envy and enmity. May its threshold be no stumbling block to young or strained feet. May the children who stay here feel God’s love and God’s goodness. May this house be for all who enter, the doorway to a richer and more meaningful life.”

Alexa’s mother, Cathy Cannon, said Alexa “inspires me in a real sense” by “the way she continues to live with me.”

“She was drawn to open-hearted people,” Cannon said. “I have felt her love for others bursting within me. This love turns my heart away from what happened in the past to what is now possible. In this way, love is the only path to true freedom.”

Marie Muddiman Beebe, executive director of Family Promise of Greater Roanoke, said that between 2022 and 2023, the Roanoke Valley experienced a 200% increase in family homelessness.

“We are grateful to the many, many people who have helped to renovate Alexa House to be used for sheltering families experiencing homelessness,” she said. “The memories of Alexa Cannon, Dan Yardley and Rita Magnus will be kept alive through the families that receive a soft, warm place to lay their head, a nice hot meal to fill their stomachs, and a loving volunteer to give them hope.”

Helga Morrow, Rita Magnus’ sister, said Rita was the youngest of five children spirited away late one night in 1942 from their home in Holland when the family learned the Nazis were preparing to take the Jewish family to one of the death camps.

“That night, we all changed our names, and through the help of the Underground, dispersed to different families” throughout the country, Morrow recounted.

Rita, then 2, was taken to a small place “with a Catholic family who adored her,” but she contracted a terrible case of diphtheria. “Because she was a hidden child, she couldn’t get medical help,” Morrow said. “My mother traveled to where she was to be with her dying daughter.” When Rita saw her mother, she cried. “I don’t want this mommy,” she said. “I want my new mommy.” She died in that woman’s arms.

“My mother and father never forgot that moment. It was one of the most painful parts of our Holocaust experience,” Morrow said.

Many years later, “it came to me that with Alexa House in progress and the synagogue having a piece of land, wouldn’t it be wonderful if children had a place to play, a place children can be happy and share their good fortune with others,” Morrow said. “I see children from Alexa House and children from the synagogue playing together, being happy with that they have. I thank you for listening to me.”

Alexa House as seen from the back. (Photo courtesy of Second Presbyterian Church)

In a homily based on the New American Standard Bible’s translation of Romans 8:28, Anderson said, “Our witness is not that senseless tragedies happen for a good reason, but that with God’s help, we can respond to tragedies in ways that can work good in the world. … That is what the renovation of Alexa House and the building of the playground are about. Family and friends of three people who died chose to respond to shocking loss with grace and renovate a house of hope.

“In response to what should not have been, we have worked on what good can be,” Anderson said. “We are helping to prevent tragedies in others’ lives by providing this place of safety, of dignity, of hospitality — this resting place for families who are working toward a more secure and promising future.”

“That is why this dedication of Alexa House is one of the holiest moments I have been a part of,” Anderson said. “Yes, God is working good things through those who love. We will not be defined by the worst that can happen, but rather by the good that we can do. That’s our witness. That is why all of us who are connected by three lives and by a shared mission celebrate today.”

When it came time to offer a benediction, the Rev. Dr. Bill Lee, the retired pastor of Loudon Avenue Christian Church, said that “everything in me says that somehow everyone with me wants to shout, ‘Hallelujah!’ Having heard what people have said, all I wanted to do was stand up and say, ‘Lord, thank you.’”

Lee invited those in attendance to rise as they were able to “applaud everyone who has made Alexa House possible.”

“My heart is overwhelmed by what I have heard and seen,” Lee said, inviting worshipers to first listen to the choir sing its choral response, “then rush out of here with excitement for what the Lord is doing.”

The service was followed by a reception and tours of the renovated Alexa House and the site of the Rita Magnus Memorial Playground. Read an article about Second Presbyterian Church’s Mission Build Campaign here.

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