Faith-Based Activism

Cooperation between Catholics and Evangelicals grows as they join together in efforts such as 40 Days for Life.

The pro-life community had reason to celebrate recently when they learned that the executive director of the Planned Parenthood Abortion Center in Bryan/College Station, Texas resigned from her job. Abby Johnson had worked at the clinic for eight years, but had a “change of heart” after witnessing the ultrasound of an abortion in progress: “I could actually see the side profile of the baby on the ultrasound… and I could see the cannula going into the uterus, and I could see the baby moving away from the cannula trying to get away from the probe.”

Johnson’s story is a compelling testimony to the reality of the world of the unborn child. But there is more to this story. The bigger story is a story of faith—a story of ecumenical activism on behalf of the unborn, a story of fasting and sacrifice, and, most importantly, a story of perseverance and prayer.

Johnson’s Planned Parenthood Clinic was the site of the first-ever 40 Days for Life Campaign in the fall of 2004. For the more than 200,000 individuals in 240 cities across all 50 states who have joined together in 40 Days for Life campaigns to pray and fast for an end to abortion, Johnson’s story is just one more sign of the power of prayer in the battle to end abortion.

The 40 Days for Life Campaign has benefited from a subtle but steady shift in public opinion on abortion from the pro-choice side toward a growing respect for the sanctity of life. In fact, support for abortion rights has fallen to the lowest levels in decades—especially among Catholics.

The most recent Pew Research Center Survey reveals that support for legal abortion has declined 10 points among white, non-Hispanic Mass-attending Catholics. Among a total of 4,013 adults responding to the Pew poll, only 47 percent now believe that abortion should be legal in all or most cases, a drop from 54 percent a year ago. Although President Obama has made expanding abortion rights a priority through the policies he implemented during his first months in office, opposition to abortion has grown stronger among pro-life conservatives— especially Evangelicals and Catholics.

David Bereit, the national campaign director of 40 Days for Life, led the first campaign in College Station, Texas by building a local grassroots coalition that rallied 60 churches and thousands of people together in the region. He drew Evangelical Christians together with Catholics and pro-life Protestants from mainline denominations, tapping into the organizational strength of multiple religious groups. In fact, on the 40 Days website, they point out that “Planned Parenthood recognized the effectiveness of David’s efforts when it labeled his Texas town the most anti-choice place in the nation.”

Recognizing the power of faith-based activism—something that those on the ideological left have been exploiting for decades in organizations like ACORN, the Gamaliel Foundation, and the Pacific Institute for Community Organizations (PICO)—Bereit moved his prolife activism to Washington, DC, where he served as executive director of the American Life League and as national director of Stop Planned Parenthood until becoming the leader of the national 40 Days for Life Campaign.

The mission of 40 Days for Life emerges from the conviction that Christ told us that “some demons can only be driven out by prayer and fasting.” The campaign acknowledges that prayer keeps us rooted in our desire to carry out God’s will, and is based on the belief that fasting is a sacrifice that enables us to draw from God’s help to reach beyond our own limitations.

Although prayer and fasting are integral to 40 Days for Life, the most visible component of the campaign is “a constant prayer vigil outside a place where children are aborted.” The campaign calls for a 24-hour-a-day vigil, seven days a week for 40 days, as a prayerful witness to the abortion clinic’s patients and employees, and to the entire community that “evil is in our midst and with God’s help it will be defeated.”

In most of the 40 Days for Life campaigns across the country, Evangelical Christians have collaborated with Catholics to staff the 24-hour-a-day vigil at abortion clinics. In some locales, members of Mormon congregations and mainline Protestant churches have participated in the campaigns.

COMING TOGETHER

The Evangelical-Catholic cooperative effort is a welcome and historic sign. Like Catholics, Evangelicals have been active in the pro-life movement from the earliest days. The National Association of Evangelicals adopted a pro-life resolution in 1972 that decried the growing culture of death. Yet there was so little Evangelical activism during the 1970s that in May 1980, Moody Monthly magazine devoted an entire issue to abortion and published an editorial that sharply contrasted the quick Catholic mobilization on abortion with the Evangelical response.

Times have changed. Although many faithful Catholics are involved in the prolife movement, the majority of Catholic lawmakers in the current Congress continue to be among those voting in favor of some of the most radical pro-abortion bills, including government-funded abortion here and abroad. In contrast, most Evangelical lawmakers can be counted on as the most consistent pro-life voters in Congress.

Evangelicals have had a strong champion in Richard Land, president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention. Issuing “Fifteen Principles for Successful Health Care Reform,” Land’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission listed “Sanctity of Life” as the number one principle. In 1994, Richard Land was a signer of the document Evangelicals and Catholics Together. Land knew that Evangelicals and Catholics had much in common and would benefit by working together on initiatives to end abortion. 40 Days for Life is a powerful example of a national ecumenical pro-life initiative that is drawing Catholics and Evangelicals together.

In San Diego County, the 40 Days for Life Campaign was spearheaded by a coordinating committee composed of Elena DiVentra, Gene Villinski, Rhonda Oertle, Marie McRoberts, and Ted and Mary Rose Stearns. The Evangelical- Catholic collaboration was facilitated by Elena DiVentra, a San Diego Catholic who had been a long-time volunteer at Birth Choice of San Marcos, a local crisis pregnancy resource center.

Although the volunteers at the crisis center belong to many Christian denominations, DiVentra points out that they all share one desire: “To serve God in saving the unborn by assisting mothers and fathers challenged by their pregnancies, and in praying for the conversion of abortion industry workers.”

DiVentra said that her friendship with many Evangelical Christians at the pregnancy center helped her to reach out to the Evangelical churches in the 40 Days Campaign. Calvary Chapel contributed the greatest number of volunteers among the Evangelical churches in the area, but there were many other Evangelical Christian groups and ministries that helped to build participation.

“It was a great experience to pray side-by-side with Christians of different faith traditions and recognize that we love and serve the same God,” Di-Ventra said. “Our theological differences become smaller when compared to the gravity of abortion. It may be that God wills to use even this most grievous of the evils to bring forth his plan for the unity of his Church.”

More than 30 percent of those who participated in the 40 Days Campaign have never before been involved in prolife activism. As Ted Stearns, an Evangelical Christian, points out, “Not everyone is called to volunteer at a pregnancy resource center, but everyone can pray.”

The prayer focuses on converting clinic personnel, encouraging priests and pastors to be more vocal about abortion, and moving politicians to play an important role in shaping legislation that could hasten the end of abortion.

Father Frank Pavone, the leader of Priests for Life, says that “abortion will end when local communities say it will end—no sooner and no later. We have the power to stop abortion, even while it remains legal.”

THE POWER OF PRAYER

In the 40 Days for Life Campaign in San Diego, many of the prayers were focused on the conversion of Dr. George Kung, a San Diego County abortion provider at a clinic that has been in existence for more than 20 years. Each year more than 25,000 abortions are performed at clinics like Kung’s throughout San Diego County.

Recruiting volunteers from San Diego’s Catholic parishes was facilitated by the Diocesan Office for Social Ministry. But DiVentra credits San Diego Bishop Robert Brom’s involvement in the campaign as important in encouraging Catholics to become more engaged in this form of peaceful pro-life activism.

In addition to writing a letter of support, Bishop Brom personally participated in a prayer vigil with campaign participants outside the North County Women’s Medical Clinic. In his remarks, Bishop Brom drew parallels between abortion and the crucifixion of Jesus on Calvary. He reminded those gathered that just as there were those who cooperated with or facilitated the crucifixion of Christ, there were also those who were faithful and stayed with Jesus at Golgotha. In his concluding remarks, Bishop Brom thanked the participants for “remaining with Jesus” and reminded them that “Calvary is extended to every time and place where there is human suffering and death.”

This was not the first time San Diego’s bishops have been involved in pro-life activism. Bishop Salvatore Cordileone, formerly the auxiliary bishop of San Diego and now the bishop of Oakland, California, encouraged ecumenical involvement on pro-life and pro-family initiatives throughout his tenure in San Diego.

A leader in the Proposition 8 battle against gay marriage in California, Cordileone became known as a strong champion for traditional marriage and a courageous warrior for the unborn. When the Rev. Walter Hoye, a Berkeley pastor of the Progressive Missionary Baptist Church in Berkeley, was imprisoned for violating Oakland’s abortion clinic “bubble ordinance” by standing on a sidewalk with a pro-life sign, Bishop Cordileone visited him in prison. “Getting a visit from him did my heart so much good,” Hoye said. “I am in love with this bishop.”

The 40 Days for Life Campaign is one among other signs that an ecumenical movement to protect the unborn is emerging. On November 20, 2009, Orthodox, Catholic, and Evangelical Christians gathered in New York City to formulate the Manhattan Declaration: A Call of Christian Conscience—a document that calls on Christians to “proclaim the Gospel of costly grace, to protect the intrinsic dignity of the human person and to stand for the common good.”

Those drafting the document included Robert George, McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence at Princeton University; Timothy George, professor at Beeson Divinity School, Samford University; and Chuck Colson, the Evangelical founder of the Chuck Colson Center for Christian Worldview. Professing that they are “especially troubled that in our nation today the lives of the unborn, the disabled, and the elderly are severely threatened,” 150 Catholic, Orthodox, and Evangelical Christians signed the document—including most notably, 11 Catholic bishops: Cordileone, Chaput, Kurtz, Maida, Malone, Myers, Naumann, Nienstedt, Olmsted, Rigali, and Wuerl. Those signing the declaration pledged that “no power on earth, be it cultural or political, will intimidate us into silence or acquiescence.”

Those involved in pro-life activism through prayer and peaceful protest maintain that they are making a difference and can point to tangible examples of it. A Florida abortion clinic that had been open for more than 25 years closed this past October just as the 40 Days for Life vigils at the site were drawing to an end. On the 40 Days for Life website, Bereit says that this is the fifth closing of an abortion facility that has been the site of a 40 Days for Life vigil.

Mary Rose Stearns, the director of the San Diego pregnancy resource center, says, “In my 21 years of pro-life work, I cannot remember a time when the subject of abortion has had a higher profile and been the subject of more thoughtful debate…nor a time when men and women have spoken out against the pain that abortion brings with as much passion.” Stearns, DiVentra, and their faith-based leadership team are already organizing support for San Diego’s next 40 Days for Life Campaign in February.

 


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About Anne Hendershott 95 Articles
Anne Hendershott is professor of sociology and director of the Veritas Center for Ethics in Public Life at Franciscan University of Steubenville. She is the co-author of Renewal: How a New Generation of Priests and Bishops are Revitalizing the Church (Encounter Books).