When Michael Kershaw stepped out on his first Walk for Life in 2011, he didn’t know what kind of reaction he would encounter from those around him – guards and fellow inmates. But he did know that he would honor three of his children he had lost to abortion years ago.
“The impact of my irresponsibility when I was young (the abortions occurred when he was 14 and 17) left a loss in my heart that I needed to acknowledge,” he explained in a letter from California’s Valley State Prison. “I needed to acknowledge the loss of my kids and honor them through this walk – to share my story, my hurt, my shame – to heal, remember and love.”
“At the time,” he said in a phone interview, “what I didn’t think about were the consequences when it came to sex.”
His mother drove his girlfriend and him to the Planned Parenthood facility in Sacramento, Calif. for the first two abortions. “I thought this was just a regular doctor appointment – like a ‘do-over’ when you didn’t want a baby.”
Now, he added, “I want to apologize because it was so shameful, but it needs to be heard. I want to speak up because I didn’t know what it meant to become a man. Reflecting on my life now, I don’t want any man to live through what I had to go through.”
Michael, who has been incarcerated for 20 years of a life sentence, is now 44 and hoping for parole soon under California’s revised Youthful Offenders Law or a retrial and new sentencing with credit for time served.
When he was 24, the mixture of a party, alcohol, marijuana, and consensual sex with an underage girl he thought was 17 landed him behind bars. He opted for a trial after refusing a plea deal for 16 years because, he said, “I did not want to tell the truth. I was too ashamed to admit I had done this.”
Being truthful and working for what is right is now paramount for Michael, who has served as an addiction counselor at the prison for the last five years.
He began organizing that first prison Walk after learning of the Walk for Life West Coast from his wife, Julie.
Julie, a lifelong Catholic and parishioner and confirmation teacher at St. Edward in Stockton, Calif., became acquainted with Michael through her work as the recreation officer at the Sierra Conservation Center in Jamestown, Calif. She didn’t start “seeing” Michael until after her retirement in 2011. The two had many discussions about the Catholic faith and prolife issues over the years which greatly influenced Michael as he joined the Church and received his sacraments in prison. The couple married in 2015.
After Julie participated in her first Walk for Life West Coast some nine years ago, she told Michael about it and encouraged him when he expressed the desire to organize one in the prison where he resided at the time.
“It touched my heart,” he recounted after learning of the Walk and the number of people participating in it. “So in 2011 I started organizing and inviting men to walk with me during the Walk for Life to show our solidarity.”
He has continued to organize Walks in a number of prisons where he has resided over the last nine years and hopes to be able to one day walk with his wife and family in the West Coast Walk in San Francisco where Julie has participated every year since her first Walk.
This year’s Walk at Valley State Prison was on January 26, to coincide with the Walk in San Francisco.
“Our turnout was great,” Michael recalled. “We had around 75 to 80 just in my D Yard willing to walk.”
He organized them in groups of five with his group first, carrying a “Walk for Life” sign. There are three other Yards in the prison and he sent the men messages encouraging them to walk from 1 to 3 p.m. or to tune into Catholic radio to listen to the broadcast from the Walk in San Francisco.
The prison Walk continued for two hours with Michael sharing his personal story of how abortion had affected his life. He invited others to share their stories. He said some of the men watching the proceedings gave them funny looks, but some asked questions.
“I didn’t want to stop walking, so I encouraged them to walk with us and to talk about what prolife means,” he said. “Some joined, some didn’t.”
Michael encouraged the men to talk using thought-provoking questions, including asking them if they believed in God or a higher power and connecting that to the sanctity of life, beginning at conception.
“I would ask if abortion has affected their lives personally or the lives of someone they cared about,” he said. Then he would explain that the Walk, even though it was in prison, was the right venue to show solidarity with others walking for life.
“Let us walk with our brothers and sisters in doing what is right,” he would tell his fellow walkers, “committed to standing up for those who have no voice.”
“This is truly one of the most amazing things I‘ve heard in my 15 years of organizing the Walk,” said Eva Muntean, an Ignatius Press employee and one of the founders and co-chairs of the Walk for Life West Coast. “We’ve had stories of transformation before, but the image of these tough, hard men – men from who knows what kinds of backgrounds, what kinds of childhoods – yet marching for the littlest and most defenseless people of all—little babies.
“When I heard about this and envisioned that toughness transformed, softened into tenderness by compassion for the littlest among us, even from behind the walls of a prison,” recalled Muntean, “I knew that there are no walls, no barriers, and no prisons that will ever stop the prolife movement.”
Julie Kershaw couldn’t agree more.
“Michael’s prison sentence doesn’t define him,” she said. “My husband is beautiful and he is awesome.”
And Julie has much hope for the future.
“I hope that people begin to understand that abortion hurts – it hurts the babies and the women and the men,” she said.
“And I hope that my husband can come home soon and that we can live as a family and can continue to be active in helping others.”
Michael concurred, “This is something that doesn’t stop tomorrow or in a month or in 10 years. We are committed to life and will be there for as long as it is needed.”
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