Reenergizing Grassroots Activism

40 Days for Life begins its fourth nationwide campaign on Ash Wednesday.

The number one cause of death in the United States is abortion. Planned Parenthood receives one third of its billion-dollar annual budget from taxpayer funding. Radically proabortion politicians now control the executive and legislative branches of the federal government.

“However, we have every reason to be optimistic about the profound prolife shift that is beginning to take place below the radar.” So said David Bereit, national campaign director of 40 Days for Life, in a teleconference on December 9, 2008, at which he announced that their fourth nationwide campaign is scheduled to begin on Ash Wednesday, February 25, 2009.

FROM A MUSTARD SEED

This new form of prayerful, non-confrontational pro-life witness has reenergized grassroots pro-life activism. The 40 Days for Life phenomenon began in 2004 as a local campaign in one town: College Station, Texas, which is home to Texas A&M University, one of the largest universities in the United States. The town and its sister city, Bryan, have a combined population of about 150,000; one third of the residents are college students and a good number of the locals are Hispanics. Planned Parenthood built an abortion facility there at the cost of over a million dollars. It opened its doors in 1999 and soon was performing 400 abortions a year.

Bereit admits that 40 Days for Life “was born out of frustration and prayer.” He and three other staff members of the Coalition for Life, a grassroots pro-life organization that specializes in sidewalk counseling, gathered around a kitchen table to pray for an hour and brainstorm. They “felt convicted” to do something for a period of 40 days, because on many occasions in biblical history God used 40 day time frames to bring about spiritual change. The group agreed that a project with a defi nite beginning and end would allow more people to get involved.

The three key elements of 40 Days for Life were all present from the very fi rst campaign: asking people of faith to pray and fast for an end to abortion in that locality; keeping constant vigil outside the abortion facility over a 40 day period; and reaching out to present the pro-life message to the wider community.

Shawn Carney, executive director of the Coalition for Life in College Station and one of the original four planners, explains that they began their outreach program in 2004 by visiting churches and schools that already had some form of pro-life activity. They met oneon- one with pastors over coffee, told them about the 40 Days for Life project and asked for the support of their congregations. “Some of the first clergy we ran it by were priests, and they really jumped on board.”

A second component of the community outreach was visiting homes. Carney, who had sold books door-to-door while living in New Jersey, trained a team of 10 volunteers to pound the pavements and respectfully present a pro-life message. “Most people didn’t even know they had a [Planned Parenthood] clinic in their town,” Carney said. The volunteers, who usually traveled in teams of two, explained the “40 Days” campaign, invited the people whom they met to pray for an end to abortion, and told them about their website.

During the fall of 2004 they contacted 25,000 households, many of which displayed “Kerry for President” signs. “People are very receptive, even those who clearly don’t agree with you…. Besides going out there and actually praying at the site, there’s no stronger message that you can send to the clinic than to go door to door, because they know that you’re willing to spread your message to every single person who lives in that town,” Carney said.

For logistical reasons the coordinators decided to avoid student housing. Instead they obtained an on-campus permit to hand out flyers while tens of thousands of people, including visiting alumni, entered the stadium for home football games.

The first 40 Days for Life campaign produced strong results. It brought more than a thousand people into the local pro-life effort. At the end of the academic year the number of abortions in that town had dropped by 28 percent. Several dozen people got involved in post-abortion healing ministry. Planned Parenthood was kicked out of the public schools and the municipal chamber of commerce.

THE MOVEMENT SPREADS

When the movement immediately spread to the Southeast, without any prompting or input from the original founders in Texas, they decided to take an active part in introducing 40 Days for Life to other localities. In four years it has compiled an impressive track record.

During the third national campaign last fall, 76,000 people from 179 localities in 47 states and two Canadian provinces participated; around 2,800 churches were involved. As a result of the presence of pro-lifers praying outside of abortion facilities, 614 babies and their mothers were spared. Eight clinic employees quit, one abortion mill went out of business, and there were many reports of post-abortive women who experienced healing.

More often than not the intense focus on prayer and witness over a 40 day period inspires the individuals who participate and galvanizes local pro-life activism. In some places it has helped to overcome the fragmentation that is inevitable when groups take different approaches in promoting the pro-life
cause. After doing guard duty on the front lines, many pro-lifers seek training to become sidewalk counselors. Others volunteer or take jobs at pregnancy centers. A few have even decided to run for political offi ce.

Participating in any phase of 40 Days for Life involves stepping out in faith to resist a widespread, deeply rooted evil. It takes considerable zeal and a lively sense of solidarity to recruit many individuals and congregations to help cover 960 one-hour time slots. It takes a supernatural perspective to witness to the sanctity of human life by standing silently outside a place where preborn babies are executed for a fee. It takes moral courage to speak calmly and courteously about abortion after greeting a stranger at his door.

Those who participate in 40 Days for Life sometimes meet with vocal opposition. Carney, who traveled to 44 cities during the fall 2008 campaign, says that it is not uncommon for those keeping vigil near an abortion mill to encounter passersby making rude gestures, cursing, or screaming. “Abortion has hurt so many people, so there’s a lot of pain there.” Nationwide, however, only isolated incidents of potential harm occurred: objects thrown from moving vehicles, an SUV driven up onto a curb to threaten the demonstrators.

Pro-lifers in urban areas who want to implement the 40 Days for Life program often have security concerns. Safe and successful round-the-clock vigils have been held in Houston, Texas, outside a Planned Parenthood facility in a rough area of the inner city. The coordinators took due precautions: they notified the police in advance and encouraged men to sign up for the hours between dusk and dawn and to bring flashlights and cell phones and cameras. Members of the local Knights of Columbus council considered it an honor to “work the Knight shift.”

Bereit noted that around one third of the campaigns in inner-city locations last fall had 24-hour coverage, but he says, “Local campaigns…can make a better decision about what’s in the best interest of their people and what can be most effective in their community.” The 40 Days for Life program is flexible: in some localities participants adapted the schedule and maintained a prayerful presence for twelve hours a day, during the daylight hours or during business hours only.

AN ALTERED LANDSCAPE

The national team is always available to share their experiences with local coordinators and to support them by their prayers. During a 40 day campaign they issue daily e-letters with news, developments, and inspirational readings. In mid-November of 2008, they conducted an online survey for those who had just participated in the last campaign, and received over 6,000 responses. Remarkably, 35 percent of the respondents (many of them young) said that the recent 40 Days for Life was the first time that they had been active in the pro-life movement.

The results from the survey have helped the national team to improve and streamline their training programs. Most importantly, it gave them the green light to go ahead with two 40 Days for Life campaigns in 2009.

The wide-ranging comments also confi rmed that a shift of seismic proportions is taking place on the pro-life landscape. As Bereit put it, “We can’t continue to focus effort on some areas as in the past; it just won’t be effective or fruitful…. Local pro-life efforts are more important than ever before. Not a single abortion is performed in the Supreme Court…. 40 Days for Life has taken up a strategic position on the cutting edge of the pro-life movement.”

A recent Planned Parenthood fundraising letter mentions 40 Days by Life by name among the “well-fi nanced enemies of choice.” Bereit points out that he is one of only three contract workers in a very simple national organization that relies exclusively on donations, spent less than $100,000 on its last nationwide campaign, and has had to raise funds only twice since 2007.

If 40 Days for Life has any clout, it derives from the power of prayer and fasting. Those who participate, in the hopes of restoring respect for preborn human life by changing hearts and minds, discover that they change their own first. The overwhelming majority of respondents to the November 2008 survey reported spiritual growth as a result of their experience. The supernatural motives and methods of the 40 Days for Life movement have enabled it to touch hearts, not only of women who are contemplating abortion, but also of many post-abortive women and men.

The 40 Days for Life movement mobilizes a large-scale, communitybased Christian response to a formidable evil. It offers hope to abandoned pregnant women through the selfsacrifice, compassion, and cooperation of the hundreds of believers who participate in any given local campaign. Although Evangelical Christian in its inspiration, the movement was soon supported by Catholic chaplains and pastors and now enjoys the collaboration of Priests For Life, American Life League, the Sisters of Life, and the Knights of Columbus.


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About Michael J. Miller 125 Articles
Michael J. Miller Michael J. Miller translated Priesthood and Diaconate by Gerhard Ludwig Müller for Ignatius Press and Eucharist and Divorce: A Change in Doctrine? for the Pontifical John Paul II Institute.