Praying for an End to Abortion
Peaceful, stalwart presence at facilities is saving lives worldwide
After my conversion to the pro-life worldview, I googled the terms “pro-life” and “violence” — and was surprised by the results. As a former abortion facility worker, I had been on the receiving end of threats, vandalism, and trespassing, and personally knew people affected by violence.
Ironically enough, my search terms also yielded a link to 40 Days for Life, a pro-life organization that prays outside of clinics and hospitals where abortions are performed. Its website was one of the top hits because participants sign a pledge of nonviolence before attending a prayer vigil. In a nutshell, I went looking for violence and found peace!
40 Days for Life was begun by David Bereit and Shawn Carney in 2004 in Bryan-College Station, Texas. The intention was to hold a single 40-day vigil including prayer, fasting, and community outreach at the local abortion facility.
Inherent in this plan was an unwavering dedication to creating a peaceful, positive, law-abiding, and non-confrontational presence. It would be a strong reminder to people going into the abortion facility that nonviolent alternatives to abortion exist — and that strangers are praying for them to choose life.
Word got out about the success of this first vigil and several U.S. cities followed suit. The first nationwide coordinated 40 Days for Life campaign was in 2007 — and since then the organization has expanded internationally. According to its website, more than 700,000 individuals have participated in vigils in more than 630 cities, in 36 countries, and on five continents.
A volunteer still remembers how one woman said, “My abortion solved everybody’s problem but mine. Now I have to live with this.”
Prayer vigils are held twice a year, in the spring and the fall, and are led by local volunteer leaders who oversee scheduling participants, organizing rallies, and coordinating with pregnancy resource centers and social service agencies to provide practical support for mothers who choose life. The next campaign begins Sept. 28 and runs through Nov. 6, 2016.
While the national leadership, employees, directors, and many volunteers of 40 Days for Life are all Christians, there is no specific denomination affiliation — people of all faiths are welcome. Many vigils run for 24 hours a day during the full 40 days of each campaign.
Each 40 Days for Life campaign comprises three components: prayer and fasting, constant vigil, and community outreach. While many people think of fasting in terms of refusing food (and this is true), participants are also encouraged to consider fasting from whatever keeps them from spending more time with God, or choosing to make a personal sacrifice specifically for the cause. Some choose to fast from TV, electronics, or alcohol. The daughter of a friend of mine gave up her pillow as a sacrifice and to help focus her prayers on the unborn and their families.
In Orlando, Florida, 40 Days for Life recently held its first leadership symposium, and I was blessed to be a part of it. I met volunteer prayer vigil leaders from around the country and the world. There were presenters from cities across the United States, Mexico, Nigeria, England, Colombia, New Zealand, Hong Kong, and Croatia. Petra Tišljarić and Lidija Dugan traveled from Vukovar and Zagreb, Croatia, respectively to talk about the 40 Dana Za Život prayer vigils held in 27 cities in their country.
Closer to home, Paulette Matthews has been the coordinator for the 40 Days for Life vigils in Chester County, Pennsylvania, since 2007. She first heard of 40 Days for Life through a church representative who asked her to come out and pray, and her initial response was, “I don’t even know where Planned Parenthood is!”
She and her husband, Donald, agreed to take one of the hour-long prayer shifts in the middle of the night because, as she said, “We didn’t know anything and thought if we were there in the middle of the night, nobody would ask us any questions.”
They quickly learned that the 40 Days for Life prayer volunteers would teach them what to expect during the daytime vigils and where to find the closest pregnancy resource center (three blocks away). Soon they both felt called to assume leadership of the campaigns when the original leader stepped down nine years ago.
Paulette Matthews became involved in pro-life activism while living in Michigan in the late 1970s; she had heard stories of grief, remorse, pain and regret from women who had had abortions. She recalled being particularly moved by one woman who said, “My abortion solved everybody’s problem but mine. Now I have to live with this.” Matthews began volunteering to answer calls to a crisis pregnancy hotline and has not slowed her efforts to encourage mothers to choose life in the nearly 40 years since.
The organization 40 Days for Life has fundamentally transformed the landscape of public pro-life advocacy. The peaceful (and persistent) activism of all the 40 Days for Life volunteers is inspirational — and as Paulette Matthews told me, “Even if just one baby is saved, it was all worth it.”
Jewels Green is a mother, writer, public speaker, and advocate for the right to life from conception to natural death. She lives in a suburb of Philadelphia.