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Spiritual Leader Hands Out Hugs

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An Indian spiritual leader is drawing thousands of people into an Alexandria ballroom for a hug.
Markette Smith
An Indian spiritual leader is drawing thousands of people into an Alexandria ballroom for a hug.

Tightly packed into every corner of the 10,000-square-foot ballroom of the Hilton Alexandria Mark Center, people from all walks of life wait patiently for an embrace from the woman many call the Hugging Saint.

The woman is smiling, radiating, with her arms wide open. She is known as "Amma," which means mother in several languages. And although she has no children, she is world-renowned for her motherly hugs. First-time hugger Tracy Stevens says she was curious, so she decided to drive down from Rockville.

"I came here sort of with a beginner's mind," she says. "No expectations, and it was beautiful. I felt very held."

Jordan Casale of Bethesda has been hugged before, and is back for more.

"Just such an incredible gift I think you can give to your fellow human, just a hug from a stranger," says Casale.

The hugs come with a gift, usually an apple or some sort of candy. Once embraced by the Hugging Saint, many say they can feel healing powers beaming through her touch.

Not a believer? Greg Marzullo, of Rockville, says that's OK. "Whether you believe that or not I think is irrelevant, but the fact that someone will hug people for sometimes 22 hours at a time without a break is all the proof of overarching love that I need."

Amma arrived in Virginia early Friday morning and will hug until she leaves Saturday evening. When asked what her mission is, she says -- through a translator -- it's to spread love.

The event runs entirely on donations, which the recently hugged seem more than happy to give. The non-profit organization behind the embraces does quite well for itself. Three years ago, it purchased the Potomac estate of Sargent and Eunice Shriver. They also donate to charities around the world.

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