“We find the tables we need to be sitting at”

Second in a series of reports from the 2018 Pro-Life Women’s Conference. Part one is here

My first look at the long list of speakers for the third annual Pro-Life Women’s Conference (PLWC) told me that there weren’t enough hours on the clock for me to be able to hear all of them. And then at the very first gathering – a Friday night dinner – the organizers threw an unscheduled speaker into the already-full program. I had never heard of her.

Art contest entries at PLWC 2018
Montage of entries in art contest at 2018 Pro-Life Women’s Conference

I thought Really? Sticking someone right after Serrin Foster? That’s just unkind. The longtime leader of Feminists for Life had keynoted the gathering with a challenging talk. She’s a tough act to follow.

I needn’t have been concerned. Savannah Marten could take care of herself.

Revolutionizing the Conversation

Conference emcee Abby Johnson introduced Marten, who’s the director of The Pregnancy Center of Greater Toledo (Ohio). “She is someone who is willing to build bridges. What Savannah has done has absolutely revolutionized the conversation about what it means to be pro-life.”

What she’s done is push past her comfort zone, into working relationships with unconventional allies. That theme was to come up again and again during the conference.

Savannah said that three days into her job as The Pregnancy Center’s director, she was asked by a community leader what the Center was doing about infant mortality. “I said ‘I don’t know what you’re talking about.’ I was mortified that I had been in the pro-life community for seven years and hadn’t heard one person talking about infant mortality.”

I later looked up figures from the Centers for Disease Control: in 2016, New Hampshire’s infant mortality rate was 3.7 (deaths per 1,000 live births). Nationwide, the rate was 5.9. In Savannah’s state, Ohio, the rate was 7.4. “In my state, the state of Ohio, we are 49th out of 50 for African-American babies dying before their first birthday.

“The pro-life community should be number one in the community showing up for this topic. My life motto is…’what table do I need to be at to be able to use my voice of influence?’ We find the tables we need to be sitting at in order to effectively advance this cause. Where tables do not exist, we build them, and we invite our community to those tables.”

This is when I started taking notes. I knew I was about to hear a story worth sharing.

“I knocked on every door”

She began to educate herself by reaching out to people already working with at-risk women. “I knocked on every door I possibly could in my community. I said ‘I’m not here to talk about abortion. I’m not here to talk about politics. I’m not here to talk to you about anything other than why black babies are not making it to their first birthdays in our community.’ And they invited me to the table.

“These are people who have even stood outside of my pregnancy center with signs in protest. Now all of a sudden they’re welcoming me to the table.”

Faith leaders with whom Savannah had never spoken before were critical to the conversation. “We began to interact with the African-American faith community. Our center had existed for 32 years, and not one predominantly African-American church had any sort of partnership [with us]. I simply said ‘walk me through your neighborhood and talk to me about what is going on in your neighborhood. Talk to me about the babies.’

“And suddenly they began to talk. They began to want to sit down and hear about what we were doing at the pregnancy center.” Over time, mutual trust and respect developed.

Working with a hospital

Savannah’s next step was to approach the major hospital in her area, on behalf of her pregnancy center. “[Hospital representatives] learned that women come to my pregnancy center, at five or six weeks gestation, and they are the number one women at risk for infant mortality and low birth weight. [Later in pregnancy] this hospital cannot even get them to show up for their appointments. Most of them show up at the emergency room and deliver their children there. And we wonder why [children] are not making it to their first birthday.”

Meeting after meeting followed, progress coming by inches. Eventually, a breakthrough: “the largest hospital in northwest Ohio…gave us access to their scheduler.”

Now, “every woman who comes in [to The Pregnancy Center] for an ultrasound leaves our facility with an OB/GYN appointment scheduled for them. If they leave our center and they wait another six weeks to call [the hospital for an appointment], they’re not going to get in.

“We cannot be satisfied with handing these women pamphlet after pamphlet, and referral after referral.  Women who are in poverty, women who are in crisis, need more than referrals. They need a life raft. That’s what we’re committed to do.”

Anyone who has been involved in interagency collaborations knows that conflicts arise, some of them irreconcilable. Savannah was faced with one shortly after the scheduling breakthrough with the hospital. “The same week that this hospital gave us access to their scheduler, they signed a transfer agreement with our city’s last abortion facility. I was plagued with this question: do we back out from providing thousands of women health care, because a hospital didn’t make a church decision? Or do we live by our core principle that says we come to the table to effect change and influence those in our community?”

She made a decision that brought her criticism from some pro-life allies. I think her experience is instructive. “Among unpopular opinion, we chose to continue our partnership with this hospital. If the abortion facility is going to enter into a partnership and influence our hospital, then the pro-life community should be at that same table advocating [for] what women in our community need.”

And by the way, that hospital has just accepted Savannah Marten’s application for a board position.

“This is how we effect change. We go to the tables we’re not comfortable in, the tables we’re not invited to, the tables that cause us to think differently and look at things differently.”

“We need Esthers”

Savannah Marten is Christian, and she used a Biblical reference to challenge her listeners at the conference. “We need Esthers to arise. We need Esthers who will stand up and catch the ear of the men and women of influence in our community. But we haven’t done that. We hide in our little pro-life communities. There’s no excuse. There’s no reason for us to hide. Because I have been crucified with Christ, and no longer I who live but he who lives in me. You have nothing to be afraid of. We already have the victory. Be joyful. Stay hopeful. ”

(The PLWC is a non-sectarian gathering, but that doesn’t mean any speaker is bashful about expressing her beliefs.)

She spoke about a community leader, a big-time Democrat, whom she has come to know during her tenure at the Pregnancy Center of Greater Toledo. One day he said to her, “I  am now proudly pro-life, because you’ve shown me what true pro-life looks like.”

Savannah Marten could have dismissed as a distraction that long-ago question about infant mortality. She could have discounted it because it came from someone not supportive of her Center’s work. Instead, she had enough humility to acknowledge that she had something to learn. She had the guts to walk up to people she didn’t know and say “please show me around.” She had the patience to work to gain trust from hospital representatives.

And now, she wants to see more of us going out and finding, or building, those tables where conversations can take place.

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Blogger at work: greetings from PLWC 2018!

 

 

Arrival: Pro-Life Women’s Conference 2018

Months of planning and watching the pennies have brought me here to St. Louis, or rather St. Charles, Missouri. The third annual Pro-Life Women’s Conference is a few hours away.

From the conference web site: This is a three day event by women and for women to proclaim that women’s empowerment cannot be attained by the oppression of other human beings. Many groups are represented: And Then There Were None, Feminists for Life, the Radiance Foundation, Sidewalk Advocates for Life, Americans United for Life, and more.

The groups aren’t as important as the individuals here. Knowing that And Then There Were None is here is one thing. Listening to a woman who used to work in the abortion industry and who found ATTWN’s help in transitioning to other work is something else entirely. Continue reading “Arrival: Pro-Life Women’s Conference 2018”

“Do not accept anything as the truth if it lacks love…”

h/t to the U.S. Council of Catholic Bishops, Office of Religious Liberty for this meme with its quote from Edith Stein, AKA St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross. Something to think about, whatever the aspect of pro-life ministry in which we might engage.

from @USCCBFreedom

“Do not accept anything as the truth if it lacks love. And do not accept anything as love which lacks truth! One without the other becomes a destructive lie.”

Care Net: John Oliver Gets It Wrong About Pregnancy Centers

My idea of late-night TV is Twilight Zone re-runs, and I don’t subscribe to HBO. I was thus not in the audience when someone named John Oliver did a recent critical piece on pro-life pregnancy care centers. Care Net CEO Roland Warren was watching, though, having been asked for information by Oliver’s staff. Apparently, very little of Care Net’s information made it onto the show.

Not to worry. Warren answered back. And I didn’t need an HBO subscription to hear him. Neither do you. Enjoy these nine edifying minutes.

Bearing fruit, making progress: latest 40 Days for Life campaign concludes

A portion of this post is adapted from remarks I delivered at the closing rally for 40 Days for Life in Manchester, New Hampshire.

This has been one of those 40 Days for Life campaigns that I refuse to call a “Spring” campaign. Too darn cold and snowy. So what did we have for the closing rally? Temps in the mid-forties, and a forecast of rain. Spring rain! How good that sounded.

40 Days for Life participants in prayer
The winter/spring 2018 40 Days for Life campaign in Manchester, NH draws to a close with prayer. All photos in this post by Ellen Kolb.

I was blessed during this campaign to be able to participate in campaigns in Concord and Greenland as well as Manchester. Manchester’s sort of home base, and I’m grateful to campaign coordinator Sheila and her team. Traveling was good, though. I saw 40 Days for Life through fresh eyes as I visited different towns.

Leader of Manchester NH 40 Days for Life campaign
Sheila D. led the Manchester, NH campaign. She’s a volunteer, as are her colleagues on the leadership team.

One of the things I love about 40 Days for Life is its presence in so many cities at the same time. If I was praying at 7 a.m. in Manchester, even with just one other person, I knew we were praying and witnessing in solidarity with many other people.

We have good days – a conversation with a woman considering abortion, a “save,” maybe just a smile from a passerby – and bad days when we feel “what’s the point?” When that happens, remember that peaceful, consistent pro-life witness during 40 Days for Life is touching people not involved with the facility outside which we stand. The neighbors see us. So do the driver of the school bus rumbling down Pennacook Street, and the woman walking to the Rite-Aid on the corner, and the guy sweeping the streets. There’s no telling when or where or how peaceful witness will bear fruit.

We all know that it’s not bearing fruit at the State House at the moment. March was a discouraging month, legislatively. It would be easy for me to focus on that. Culture is about more than politics, though.

This was brought home to me at a recent hearing in Concord, where I met someone just getting started in pro-life work. At the same hearing was an old friend who’s been in the vineyard with me, so to speak, for about 30 years. The three of us got to talking. My new friend asked us if New Hampshire had made any pro-life progress over the years.

I felt like a know-it-all fifth grader. Ooh! Ooh! I know this one! I got ready to launch into a sixty-second rant about how terrible our laws are relative to the right to life. As I drew breath to start, though, my old friend said, “oh yes, definitely.” Knocked me right off my soapbox. New friend and I exclaimed at the same time, “what do you mean?”

My old friend then laid down a bit of truth that put politics in its place. “Thirty years ago, there were seven crisis pregnancy centers in the state. Now, there are 30 places, pro-life places, where women can go.”

Think about that. Thirty places. And they’re not just about crisis pregnancies, either. For example, what does every center publish on its wish list for donations? Toddler-size diapers and training pants. So much for only caring about babies until they’re born. And for moms and dads, many centers offer parenting classes and assistance with job-hunting. Some places offer housing for pregnant and parenting women who would otherwise be homeless.

Each of the 30 places began with one person seeing a need. It takes a team to open and sustain a pro-life project, but each one starts with a single person with compassion and vision. Think of that next time you’re in prayer, alone, wondering if you can make a difference. Yes, you can.

We begin laying the groundwork for the Fall campaign today. Let’s spread the news. If you have pro-life friends, if you’re in a service group or prayer circle, if you have a podcast, if you are part of any pro-life organization that needs a speaker, invite someone on the 40 Days for Life leadership team. I’m saying this without consulting any of them, but I feel safe in saying that they would welcome the chance to tell more people about what 40 Days for Life is about.

I want those team leaders to get so many speaking engagements that they can’t keep up. Let them get mad at me for putting them in that predicament. It’ll be worth it.

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