What is it like to participate in a prayer vigil outside an abortion clinic?

It’s hard to make yourself show up.

After locating a prayer vigil through an organization called 40 Days for Life, I felt uneasy about actually going because I didn’t know any of the other people, I felt vulnerable because this is an emotional issue, and I was unsure of how I’d feel once I got there. It was 37° outside that morning which is cold in Atlanta. I wasn’t sure where to park. No one knew I was going that morning, so my commitment was just to myself, and maybe to God and He’s super forgiving….
I arrived a few minutes late. The soft notes of a hymn my grandfather loved calmed my apprehensive thoughts as I joined a group of about 20 strangers softly singing as we huddled on a muddy right of way across the street from the Feminist Women’s Health Center.  We gathered to pray for the women and girls who were considering having an abortion, for their babies, for the fathers, for the medical and clerical staff—for all involved at the clinic across the street. After a few hymns, we took turns reading scripture verses about love.

"This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters. If anyone has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need but has no pity on them, how can the love of God be in that person? Dear children, let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth."  1 John 3:16-18

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It’s OK to cry a little.

I felt self-conscious about my tears but then decided if you can’t cry a little in front of an abortion clinic while reading scripture then maybe there’s something wrong with your heart. I just allowed myself to let my heart feel, in a prayerful way, where I was and what I was participating in without becoming a distraction to myself or to anyone else. The other people had loving gentle expressions and as I met their eyes I realized we were all weighed down by the tragedy of what happens in that bland building across the street, and yet we had joy in God’s merciful love.
Where shall I begin to lament the deeds of my wretched life? How shall I begin, O Christ, to relieve my present tears? But as Thou art deeply compassionate, grant me forgiveness of sins....

Arise, O my soul and consider all the deeds which thou hast done, and set them up before thine eyes. Now pour out the drops of thy tears and boldly confess to Christ of thy deeds and thoughts, and so be thou justified.

Canon of Saint Andrew

Forgive me a sinner.

Praying at the vigil, even among a gentle group of Christians, with no confrontations with anyone at the clinic, was more arduous than I expected. It was spiritually exhausting. By the time my hour at the vigil was over, I felt an almost Lenten bright sadness. There was a part of me that felt a sense of healing, of growth after the hurt of struggle.

When I described this to my husband, he related it to the part of The Voyage of the Dawn Treader  by CS Lewis when Eustace, a boy who has been turned into a dragon (the dragon body sort of physically symbolizes Eustace’s sins) tries to scrub off his scales as part of his process of becoming a boy again.  Eustace was able to get off some scales, but all that itching and rubbing was frustrating and painful. Aslan, the Christ figure in the book, helped him. This was how it felt to pray in front of the clinic-- like a really good scale scrub. Lent is a beautiful time to scrub off the scales.

Bring the Word of God.

A friend came with me when I returned to the abortion clinic prayer vigil the next week. Margarita, the woman who organizes our local vigils, told me the most important part is prayer- prayer and being loving. My friend and I prayed by reading the Psalter. Hearing those beautiful words while standing across the street from a place of such despair pierced my heart in places I can’t describe. We saw very few people entering the clinic that day.

Someone might say we don’t know that being there had any impact, but then again doesn’t prayer always have an impact?

It’s better to go with a group so get your peeps and go.

Going with a group protects you. The group will know where to stand- in our case, we must stand in front of the no trespassing signs. They’ll give you resources in case someone changes their mind and needs help. They’ll pray with and for you.  40 Days for Life holds peaceful prayer vigils.  

Margarita said they’d love to see more Orthodox people come out. She asked why more of us don’t come out for things like this. She said I was the first one she knew of at our vigil and they’ve been doing it for years. I was ashamed and didn’t know how to answer. Praying at vigils is what we do, isn’t it?

My seventeen-year-old son, Andrew, came with me to the vigil the third time I went. Andrew suggested that we pray a Paraklesis to St. Styllianos. Here is an excerpt:

...Behold, and hearken to the groans of mothers, O godly-minded one, who have taken refuge in you, and hasten to deliver their children from the frenzy of the enemy, O thrice-blessed Stylianos.

As vibrant and joyous flowers, beautiful in appearance and innocent in manner, O wise one, invisibly keep our children, O all-blessed Stylianos, for those who praise you.

Having boldness before Christ, O thrice-blessed Righteous one, do not cease to entreat for those who ask for your aid, that we are delivered from every danger...   

All the ranks of Angels, God's messengers...

We experienced harassment from people driving by. Some young men yelled at us and made rude gestures. My friend Margarita, the vigil coordinator, was there with us and she remained calm and loving, reminding us to count it all joy (James 1:2-8) when we are persecuted for Christ’s sake.  Is it scary to put yourself in such a vulnerable public position? Yes, until you contemplate the truly vulnerable in the clinic across the street. Besides, maybe angry responses indicate a broken heart.

We prayed while reading Psalms again. Andrew said that as long as he was actively reading the Psalms, he felt calm, but as soon as his eyes were off the scripture he felt a sort of physical threat. He was worried someone would hurt me and he felt on edge. Andrew is a burly, brave, muscular guy so I was surprised at this reaction. We’re going back next week with a group (of Orthodox friends!) and I’ll be curious to see how he feels.

Go with love in your heart.

It’s not easy to pray vigil outside an abortion clinic; some people think you’re judging them. We’re not judging, we understand that a woman can be overwhelmed and upset about being pregnant. It’s not easy to choose to have a baby when she thinks it will ruin her life, the world tells her that she doesn’t need to carry on with the pregnancy, it seems no one will help her, and people in her life persist in telling her she’s a fool for doing so. Abortion clearly seems like a way out of a tough situation or so many women wouldn’t choose it.

A few months later, it can all be very different. A baby who is aborted may leave behind a feeling of unexpected loss and grief that a woman carries for the rest of her life. The mother’s quality of life is at stake here too- her life will be forever changed by her decision and abortion is not the easy solution that we’re told it is. It is a traumatic experience and often causes a negative ripple of unexpected reactions.

Praying outside the clinic is a way to remind women they do have another choice. Choosing life for their child will open up a world of love they can’t even imagine.  There are resources available to help women with medical care and other needs. That is part of the vigil- offering help.

If you are considering praying at a vigil like this,  40 Days for Life  holds gentle, loving prayer vigils in front of abortion clinics in 377 locations in over 25 countries.   This is done for forty day time periods throughout the year. There is one going on right now and you can join in at any time.  Bring your friends and go!

*C.S. Lewis described Eustace as a boy who almost deserved his name. Before he transforms into a dragon, readers of the book get fed up with  Eustace’s selfish obnoxious ways but also squirm a bit because he reminds us too much of ourselves.
*The movie Unplanned tells the story of how vigils from 40days for Life had a major impact. Unplanned will be in theaters March 29th and is available for churches to show as well. Check out the trailer: