Early one Sunday morning, having passed through London’s silent streets, I arrived at a sun-filled, deserted square. The building I was searching for came into view.
Its imposing structure was empty now, abandoned, boarded up with a large “Do Not Enter” sign. There was nothing to suggest what it had once been; there was no evidence of what had also occurred here. And yet, for three years this corner of London had been the scene of a battle, albeit an invisible one between the forces of this world and those of another, and with an outcome altogether unexpected.
The story you are about to read has, for legal reasons, been anonymized. The dates are correct; the names of those who “fought,” for now, must remain hidden; the location generalized; the ending concealed—to some extent at least. Nevertheless, what must be impressed upon the reader is that it did happen, for I have spoken with those who were there at the beginning and who, through it all, stayed to witness its curious end.
In the early hours of Ash Wednesday 2011, a handful of individuals made their way to one of London’s many Georgian squares. Their only identifying feature was a banner carried by one of their number that bore the insignia of 40 Days for Life and a biblical verse: “…I formed you in the womb.” They took up position in the northwest portion of the square, directly facing one of the houses opposite. And, as they did so, battle had commenced.
At first the small group aroused little interest. Commuters walked by oblivious. Those accessing the building opposite took no notice—they were busy, very busy, as each day a trail of mostly young women furtively made their way up its steps to a door that opened and behind which they disappeared. This was no ordinary building, however, and no ordinary business occupied these premises. Nevertheless, there was little to advertise what took place there, but this did nothing to stem the never-ending tide of young women that seemed to daily “wash up” on its “shore.” This building was no safe haven, though; and whatever emotional shipwrecks these women were fleeing from they were about to confront worse, for the place they had come to was an abortuary.
The prayer went on outside, and would do so for all of Lent. From early in the morning to late at night. Slowly, people started to recognize this presence. Comments began to be made—few were positive, most were hostile, some were threatening. From inside the abortuary, they began to peer through its windows at those outside, and as they did so they started to comprehend what was taking place. The police were called. They came and questioned those whose only “crime” appeared to be praying in the open air of a London street. Those so doing were warned of their actions and of the possible consequences by police, in the hope that they could be convinced to leave, or at least to be as inactive as possible. Yet, all the while, just a few feet away, women were walking a legally sanctioned trail of tears to the building opposite.
The vigil remained—they had come for 40 days and they would stay for 40 days. Later, some were to liken their experience in the square to that of the Way of the Cross, a London Calvary, such was the baying and contempt about to be displayed. But for now, they continued to pray and to watch.
Others were watching too though. Groups diametrically opposed to what the pro-lifers represented started to take note. In due course, they began to descend: curious at first, they soon turned angry, with insults flung almost from the start. Word went out about what was happening in the square, followed by the appearance of newspaper articles decrying vigils of any sort taking place on British streets, with one outside an abortuary perceived as being particularly provocative.
The counter-demonstrations grew larger. The gathering mob rapidly attracting fellow travelers who came merely to sneer and mock. Soon anger turned to fury, however. And from then on it was not just insults that were thrown, but urine and excrement, as the invective became more pointed and more blasphemous. Perhaps unsurprisingly, satanic symbols began to appear on nearby streets. Physical assault was not long in coming either, if in a bizarre fashion. Without fail, like some latter-day Kamikaze pilots, a band of cyclists would regularly drive headlong into the prayer vigil, ramming the banner and those praying around it.
More police arrived; seen by the media as the source of the unrest, the vigil was debated and derided on national radio. Nevertheless, in the face of these massed ranks of hatred, the candles still burned in the square, and those who had come to give witness stood firm.
Wonders happened. One young woman walked past the vigil and mounted the steps opposite. Then she stopped, turned, sat down, and, with head in hands, began to cry. Eventually she spoke with those praying, and descended the steps, never to climb them again. Other young women began to speak to those at the vigil too. Some returned back the way they had come; some were sent to a pregnancy advice center nearby, run by the Good Counsel Network, where they received practical, emotional, and spiritual help in welcoming new life into the world. It is not inconceivable that these children so saved may one day pass through that same square, perhaps unaware of the all-too-real drama that had played out there, one with their very existence at stake.
Through wind and rain, official disapproval and public scorn, this protest for the value of each human life endured. Then Easter came, and with it the vigil ceased.
Nevertheless, they were to return the next Lent, only to be met with more of the same. Jeering and mocking, the opposition was relentless, but so too was the trickle of pregnant women who “turned.” And so, with each passing day, the vigil prayed more intently than ever, their entreaty directed at the building opposite—for the hearts and minds of those who worked there, and for those who approached its “consulting rooms.”
In Lent 2013, near the end of that year’s vigil, one of the workers from inside the abortuary emerged and came towards those praying opposite. Those kneeling expected more vitriol. It did not come. Instead, the woman paused, and then, looking into the faces of those in front of her, said, “Your prayers are working. The girls are not keeping their appointments.” And with that, she turned and walked away.
Later that year, abortions ceased at that facility. Shortly after, the whole place closed down, and a large “To Let” sign was posted at the entrance.
And at that, the small group who had been present throughout furled their banner and, as anonymously as they had arrived, quietly walked away.
But that was not to be the end, not quite.
For something even more remarkable was to take place.
The next year, on April 26, the feast of Our Lady of Good Counsel, another group accompanied by a priest was seen in the square. At their approach, the former abortuary’s door opened, and they mounted the steps and entered. The place, although largely derelict, still had some remnants of its former trade lying about. The priest began to robe as upon one of the tables left behind candles and a crucifix were placed, and bread and wine were brought forth.
During the height of the counter demonstration, one of the cries that rang around the square was, “My body, my choice.” Now, as the light from the candles flickered upon bare walls, and those present bowed their heads in prayer, the words that were to definitively end all that had taken place were at last spoken: “This is My Body…”
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