Every day is a day to respect human life. Still, just as months are designated to bring attention to suicide prevention and human trafficking and child abuse prevention, October is Respect Life month. Coincidentally, this month comprises the bulk of the Fall 2015 40 Days for Life campaign. I offer the links for your consideration.
The post below is adapted from remarks I made at the opening of Manchester, New Hampshire’s Fall 2015 40 DFL campaign. There’s still plenty of time to sign up, for those who accept the statement of peace.
Speaking at 40DFL kickoff. Photo courtesy 40 Days for Life/Manchester NH.
“Be at the service of the frailty of your brothers and sisters.’ – Pope Francis in Cuba, 9/20/15
I’m an ordinary New Hampshire neighbor of no particular courage or distinction, with real frailties. Yet I believe I have something in common with you: faith in God, and a commitment to protecting the lives He created in his image and likeness.
I learned about 40 Days for Life when many people did – when Abby Johnson wrote about it. I was deeply impressed by the Texans who spent years in peaceful prayer outside her place of work. To this day, Abby talks about the need for pro-life presence outside abortion facilities. I am not comfortable out there. My knees knock together whenever I’m standing on that sidewalk. And still, we need to be there.
We are two days away from a 40 Days for Life campaign. The fact that you’re here is tremendously encouraging. The fact that many of our sisters and brothers in faith aren’t here is sobering. This is a faith-based effort to end abortion, grounded in peaceful action and cooperation with lawful authority. What more could our sisters and brothers be waiting for? How can we connect?
Public events like this rally are important. I think the Lord wants to use private, low-key things in this effort as well. And he’s looking to us to do them.
My principal pro-life work has been the same thing many of you spend your lives doing: caring for my husband and kids and parents, grinding through the little stuff and facing the big stuff together. Something author David Foster Wallace said captures this:
“The really important kind of freedom involves attention, and awareness, and discipline, and effort, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them, over and over, in myriad petty little unsexy ways, every day.”
Myriad petty little unsexy ways: that’s exactly what goes into the day-to-day business of being part of a family or a community. That’s the level where most pro-life work is done. So much of our service to the Lord is just like that. I wonder if reluctance by my sisters and brothers in faith to getting involved in pro-life work is that they associate pro-life with politics instead of with service to others.
It can be hard for me to keep political action in its proper place. I’m steeped in it. I used to bring my kids to Concord when I testified, which is probably why none of my kids goes near politics these days. I’ve lobbied as a volunteer and as a pro. I’ve worked on political campaigns. That’s almost at odds with 40 Days for Life, which is avowedly nonpolitical.
Even so, politics and peaceful pro-life action can’t be separated completely. Andrew Breitbart said that politics is downstream from culture. A culture of life fosters public servants who want to affirm life – promote the general welfare, if you will – and who want to make it easier, not harder, for people to live out their faith in God without interference. A culture of death fosters cronyism between politicians and the abortion industry. It fosters an entitlement mentality among abortion providers who have their hands in our pockets.
A culture of death also fosters violence. Twenty-one years ago, December 30, 1994, John Salvi of Hampton murdered abortion workers Lee Ann Nichols and Shannon Lowney. Those of us who were in New Hampshire back then can remember the aftermath of those womens’ violent deaths. I can remember the Cardinal in Boston cancelling a special pro-life Mass – the murders were committed just a few weeks before January 22 – lest it seem inflammatory. I was upset at that decision, by the way, until I realized that every Mass is a pro-life Mass.
Pro-lifers were accused of creating an atmosphere of violence and hatred. We were “all alike” not only in the eyes of abortion defenders but I believe also in the eyes of women seeking abortion. And even today, to some of our neighbors in the pews, we are “all alike” in a negative sense.
And that is a huge factor in keeping many of our fellow believers home and away from the sidewalks: Politics. Noise. Fear.
So how do we cut through all this to get back to the one-on-one care and attention and relationship that changes hearts?
It starts with prayer. Of the three aspects of 40DFL, “prayer and fasting” is listed first. When we lift our hearts to God, we begin to shut out noise. When we pray and fast, we begin to detach ourselves from distractions. We turn away from the headlines. We enter a quieter place where voices that were drowned out are suddenly distinct: an uncertain mother, an ambivalent father, a helpless invisible child.
Most of my 40DFL hours in Manchester are early in the morning, despite the fact that I am not a morning person. The street is quiet, with more dogwalkers than cars. I notice the seasons changing. I can’t NOT pray. The very building PP occupies looks different to me when I’m there to pray.
Sure, in politics I can be an advocate. So often, I live and die by the latest roll call vote. But sometimes I have to slow down and remind myself who I’m advocating for. Abby Johnson said something in Nashua the other day that cut right through me: “We have to be outside those clinics. Abortions aren’t taking place in the halls of Congress” (or Concord, for that matter). On the sidewalk during 40DFL, my encounters are with people, not “issues.” That can mean a client or a worker or the fellow living across the street who yells out his window to tell me to go away. Prayer prepares me for those encounters, scared though I may be.
Our neighbor in the pew who’s put off by pro-life politics could find something very compelling in those quiet prayerful moments on the sidewalk.
Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote about the efforts he and other ministers made to create the highly disciplined organization that helped bring about an end to segregation in Birmingham, Alabama. Not all the volunteers were allowed to be on the front lines. Only those who signed a statement of peace – not unlike the one you sign with 40DFL – were sent out into the streets. The civil rights activists’ commitment included spiritual preparation for what they were doing. It included praying for those who opposed them. And that came before Dr. King and his followers took to the streets.
Prayer must precede politics. The founders and participants in 40DFL recognize that prayer, not politics, is what prepares our hearts to meet the people who are hurting. Prayer prepares us to do the myriad petty unsexy sacrificial things.
A political pro-life commitment might be enough to make someone sign up for a vigil hour once, but it won’t be enough to make her sign up twice. Only the spiritual foundation can keep the effort going. Private and communal prayer paves the way for the sidewalk prayer that’s the most obvious part of 40DFL.
When you’re out there praying on the quiet days without rallies or special events, particularly when it’s only one or two of you at a time, you’re living proof to a skeptical world that “noise” isn’t the defining trait of the pro-life movement. Your witness and service are going to touch more people than the ones entering the abortion facility. Those neighbors of ours who sit in the pews with us on Sunday and think pro-lifers are “all alike” will have reason to take another look.
Even in our own faith communities, there’s reluctance to embrace the fullness of a peaceful, ongoing project like 40 Days for Life. Overcoming and changing that attitude begins here. “Community outreach” is another basic part of 40DFL. In some states, that has meant door-to-door petition drives or widespread use of signs. Here, let’s make that outreach where it’s most needed: in our own churches. God bless the pastors who have a huge job. I’m grateful beyond measure for the ones here tonight. I’ve listened to pastors, good solid pro-life pastors, who have the same problem many of us have: they’re too busy to take on one more thing. We can assist our pastors – and I mean all of us, not just the organizing team. Ask our pastors what we can do to help them in pro-life ministry. Can you speak at a religious education class? May you create a bulletin announcement about 40 Days for Life? Can three or five or ten of you from one church get together and commit to an hour a week at a 40DFL campaign?
Politics doesn’t have to be a total loss in this effort. Is your representative pro-life? Ask if she’s willing to take a vigil hour – leave her legislative badge home, and pray for an hour, and maybe meet and listen to a client or a worker at the facility.
I recall an encounter I had more than twenty years ago with a young woman at the University of New Hampshire. I was with New Hampshire Right to Life at the time, and I was invited to join a NARAL spokeswoman to address a UNH freshman sociology class. The topic was abortion. When I was only a couple of minutes into my opening statement, a young woman asked haltingly “but what about …?” She suddenly stood up and ran out of the room, crying. I was rattled – I certainly hadn’t intended to cause anything like that. The professor signaled to me to keep going while she went out to tend to the student. The remainder of the hour seemed endless. All I could think about was that student. When the class ended, I hurried into the hallway to try to find her.
You know what it’s like in the hallways in a big school when classes change: crowded, noisy, hurried. I was ready to despair of ever finding the young woman, when suddenly she found me. She told me her name was Patty. She apologized for running out – although I quickly told her there was no need – and she said she wanted me to understand her reaction. This was her story:
When she was twelve, her parents called her and her brother together to announce that her mother was pregnant. It was happy, exciting news. The family was looking forward to the new baby. Then a month or so later, her parents called her and her brother together again, but this time in a much more solemn tone. Her parents told them that the baby was very sick, and that they had decided to abort the pregnancy. Imagine the devastation everyone in that family must have felt.
Patty finished the story by saying to me, “I love my mom, but I know I had a little brother or sister.”
Politics made no difference to Patty. What she needed was a listening ear. If I had tried to make it a political moment, I’d have lost her twice. To tell you the truth, I don’t remember what I told her. I can only pray that it did no harm.
For Patty, for our reluctant neighbors in the pews, for the people living on Pennacook street, for all who are put off by noise and politics and who think pro-lifers are “all alike,” let’s turn to prayer. Let’s turn to those quiet little sacrificial things. 40 Days for Life lets us focus on that work.
Will you join me on the first hour Wednesday morning? Need a place to start? Let this be it. Thank you for all you do.