"As I was walking through D.C ... I couldn't help but think that it's what God wanted me to do." - St. Augustine Parish Teen.
For the youth of today, discerning "what God wants" can be a challenge. Sometimes, even when they do, as Jesus told his disciples in Matthew 26:41: "The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak."
I serve as youth minister at St. Augustine of South Bend, IN - a historically Black parish. A few times, I'd considered arranging for our teens to participate in the March for Life in Washington, DC. I knew our Diocese sponsored an annual high schoolers bus trip. Yet, would our youth - and even I -- be up to marching in the cold, January air of DC? Would this cause even resonate with them? In prior years, I had talked myself out of it. This year, I heard the voice of Jesus saying: "Where is your faith?" It being the "Year of Faith," I figured I should at least try.
Then late fall, literally just as I began looking up previous correspondence regarding the March , I received a new email announcing that "no more spots" remained in the South Bend buses. That meant we'd have to travel 2 hours to Ft. Wayne - the other end of the Diocese - in order to participate. It seemed to me that God did NOT favor our participation this year! I thought (again): "Maybe we'll try next year."
However, just before Christmas, a new email arrived with a personal note: chaperones were still needed for the March for Life bus trip. Would I be interested? I had not told anyone of my interest. How did this invitation arise? Nevertheless, I responded that though interested, since no spots remained for my youth group, I would humbly decline. A few days later, another note: due to high demand, an extra bus had been chartered with room still for about a half dozen youth. Would I reconsider?
I began to suspect that this WAS something God wanted me to do. Now came the hard part! Our youth group had never been on an extended, overnight trip. Would they be interested? Would their parents allow it? Would my WIFE agree to it? And what of the $150 per person fee, and the mere three-week window before the March itself? â€¦ BUT, it being the "Year of Faith," I began contacting youth and parents about the March, encouraging youth to attend our next teen ministry meeting.
Fortunately, most were curious if not interested (and my wife EVEN agreed to serve as an additional chaperone). To the teens who had rarely been outside of the Midwest, the bus trip to Washington DC alone was appealing; so was missing a day of school! Many also were familiar with pro-life issues, although opinions varied.
Teen Ministry met just before MLK Day. It was providential: We showed video of the Civil Rights Movement, in particular the Birmingham movement and the March on Washington. The former succeeded only when teens like them took off school (as they were about to do) in order to march against injustice. When the teens remained non-violent in the face of police violence (dogs and fire hoses), the news images brought national outrage and success to Dr. King's strategy efforts. They could see that even teens can make a difference against injustice. Then, in the video of the 1963 March in Washington, which occurred right after Birmingham, they were excited to catch a glimpse of where we'd be going (most had never been to DC), but also the model for the current March for Life.
The videos -- and the prospect of marching for a cause themselves -- sparked a great, honest discussion about ALL "life" issues. Although the pro-life movement rarely engages the Black community or uses Black images, the teens were shocked that abortions disproportionately affect the Black community. Although in Jeremiah, God says: "Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you," many today don't know that every baby even in the womb is created in the image and likeness of God. At least 15 million Black babies have been aborted since Roe vs. Wade 40 years ago. Also, Blacks are 3-5 times more likely to have abortions than other groups; roughly 1,600 Black babies are aborted per day nationally. Abortion clinics are more apt to be situated in and marketed as "the most logical option" in Black communities. Abortions can also cause aftershocks for the babies' parents later in life: unintended sterilization, depression, greater rates of suicide, etc.
However, I can't just focus a pro-life discussion on abortion. Pro-life isn't just about the womb, but the totality of life from the womb TO the tomb! Therefore, we also touched on the death penalty, euthanasia, quality of life, suicide, etc). With no one pressed to form opinions or judge others, and inspired by the courage of the teens in the Civil Rights video, they grew more comfortable with the idea of marching. Even teens who couldn't participate in the March benefited from the great conversations it had sparked in our teen ministry group.
Also fortunate for us: one of our teens had attended the March through her school last year She is involved in the pro-life club at her high school, and had lots of glowing comments about the experience. She was also honest about the cold weather, accommodations, etc.: "Last year I over-packed. I packed for three days, but whatever you wear on the bus, you're going to sleep in it overnight and wear that same outfit the whole next day at the March. It's going to be extremely cold. You're going to sleep on a gym floor. You might not get to shower except once. Also, the food in DC is expensive, so bring plenty of snacks to save money." We shared all of this upfront with the teens. Would they still be interested?
For five teens, the answer was a resounding YES! Then came another blessing: contributions through our parish and assistance from the Diocese helped defray a cost which at first seemed prohibitive. God made it happen after all. Our youth group was going to Washington, DC!
Our five buses arrived in DC at 7am on the day of the March. Activities were already well underway. We attended a massive youth rally and then took the metro to the March (an adventure in itself!). Despite the bitter cold, numb hands and tired feet, the March was pretty amazing - hundreds of thousands of people! Here is what our young men and women shared afterwards:
"I saw so many people. I didn't realize how many people came to support the cause, so many that weren't even Catholic."
"When they showed on a big screen how abortions look after they're done ... It was very sad."
"I came across women who once had abortions who held up signs that said 'I regret my abortion.' I think it's amazing that those women went from pro-abortion to pro-life."
"As I was walking, there were slide shows of aborted babies. I saw a reality that made me feel like I was there for all the right reasons."
"I couldn't help but be moved that so many people were fighting against the same cause. It made me feel like I was doing something worthwhile. I couldn't help but think that it's what God wanted me to do."
The next day, we attended the mass for our Diocese with our Bishop, Kevin Rhoades, and then spent the day touring DC sites: the Washington Monument, the White House, the Lincoln Memorial, various war memorials as well as the new memorial for Dr. Martin L. King, Jr. Such events allowed us to bond with others from our Diocese who had made the trip. Beyond us, there were only a few other people of color who had traveled with our diocese, but we were all united in one Spirit, by the same cause. We were in DC fighting for justice, doing "what God wanted"; fighting to make a difference (like the teens in the Birmingham video!)-- and it made our youth very proud!
And yet, none of the mainstream media covered the event, leaving some to wonder: did our marching make a difference? Were the numb hands, lack of sleep and blisters on our feet worth it?
Well, what if we shared our story? What if significantly more African Americans - especially youth -- were to attend the March? What if the community most affected by abortions were to become more vocal about it, and to discuss it - in an honest, non-judgmental way -- in their youth programs nationwide?
What if we could peel back layers and discuss the deeper socio-economic and other factors which can contribute to unintended pregnancies and abortions? What about embracing young folks and their babies when they become pregnant rather than stigmatize them? What if we could encourage our community to engage in the national discourse and encourage ALL communities to embrace the seamless continuity between all life issues - to be not just pro-LIFE, but pro-LIVING?
Perhaps that could occur - IF people even knew we had marched. After all, for St. Augustine Parish, it was only a handful of us. But I believe in our youth. I believe in our community. So here I am, sharing our story. Why? Because, like one of our teens said: "I think it's what God wanted me to do."
After all, it IS the Year of Faith. I figure I should at least give it a try.