By ERIKA ANDERSON, Staff Writer | Published January 27, 2005
Dina Rowland was a junior at the University of Georgia in Athens when she had an abortion.
A graduate of St. Pius X High School, she was a straight A student and cheerleader who came from a large and loving family.
But when she became pregnant 19 years ago, the happy life she’d led threatened to come crashing down around her.
Rowland shared her personal experience of abortion with a room full of teenagers and young people on Jan. 20 at “Rise Up for Life Georgia,” an evening of prayer and action dedicated to the fight against abortion held at the Cathedral of Christ the King.
The event, created for students in seventh through12th grade, was well attended by teens from throughout the Archdiocese of Atlanta, who came to recommit themselves to saving the lives of unborn children.
Nicole Belongie, 17, a high school junior who attends St. Brigid Church in Alpharetta, said that it wasn’t until the second semester of her freshman year that she began to explore her faith.
“I am a cradle Catholic and I’d always grown up with Catholic views,” she said. “But kids who knew I was Catholic would say to me, ‘So you’re pro-life, right?’ I decided I needed to find out what it really meant for me to say ‘yes.’”
She’s been dedicated to the pro-life movement ever since, and believes that her age shouldn’t keep her from standing up for her beliefs.
“I think that I can make a difference, maybe if it’s just by starting a small ripple that will make waves,” she said. “There are a ton of sexually active kids in my school. Everyone knows it. But I’m not sure if they know what they’re really getting into. With wisdom comes responsibility.”
This was the second year that Belongie has attended Rise Up for Life. The annual event, held on the eve of the archdiocesan Mass for the Unborn and silent memorial walk downtown, was created by Father Kevin Peek, chaplain at Blessed Trinity High School in Roswell. The program features speakers and prayer, and gives many teens a chance to use their own voices to speak up for the pro-life cause.
This year, the third for the Rise Up event, held an air of anticipation as newly installed Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory celebrated Mass to kick off the event. Seven priests concelebrated the Mass.
In his homily, Archbishop Gregory referred often to his “young friends,” assuring them of his prayers and his desire to get to know them as he learns the ropes in his new hometown. When he first was appointed archbishop of Atlanta in early December, Archbishop Gregory visited the city and toured the archdiocese, meeting the priests and visiting parishes. He was especially excited that his visit included trips to both Blessed Trinity and St. Pius X high schools, and is convinced that it was God’s desire for him to interact immediately with the youth of the archdiocese.
“And now, tonight, at my first big public Mass in Atlanta, it is young people the Lord puts in front of me, as one of the first blessings of my new hometown,” he said. “And the reason this means so much to me is this. Youth means hope—the very nature of being young is that most of your life is before you, and for those around you who are older, and who know that much of their life has been lived already, your witness to hope gives us new life, new excitement, new blood,” he said.
The archbishop spoke animatedly to the teens. In turn, the young people listened attentively, clearly hanging on every word he had to say.
Archbishop Gregory spoke of the trying time he had as president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops during the sexual abuse crisis in the church. It is young people, he said, that have restored his hope and the hope of the church.
“Now, I must ask, what can I do for you? What can I give you in return?” he asked them. “And the most precious thing that a bishop can give to any of his people—young or old—is to speak to them again those words which God, and especially our Lord Jesus Christ, has spoken—has spoken so that they may have life—life here on earth filled with blessings and life in Heaven, which is the blessing of living forever.”
The mission of Christians has been described many times by Pope John Paul II, Archbishop Gregory said. The faithful must overcome evil by doing good. It’s a phrase, which at first may seem like common sense, he said, but it’s not one that everyone follows.
“The truth is, that most people attempt to overcome evil, not by doing good, but by talking about doing good. And talking about doing good does very little good. What if Jesus had just stayed home in Nazareth, talking all day with His mother and friends about the nature of good? What if the apostles had remained hidden in the safety of the Upper Room, discussing among themselves the possible effects of the gifts of the Holy Spirit? What if the saints had been happy to spend their days sitting in caves or cloisters, cogitating on the theoretical significance of Scripture?” he said. “If this had happened, then Christianity would be no more today than a book on a shelf in the library.”
The archbishop said he could not deny the possibility that some of the young people in the room had had an experience with abortion, maybe a close friend who had been faced with the consequences of an unexpected pregnancy. But in working to overcome evil, those who believe strongly in the fight for life must encourage those less convinced of the blessings and strength that God brings with new life.
“Dear young people, in your witness to those of your friends who are not perhaps as devoted to the cause of life as you are, and as our Church helps you to be, these are the thoughts that you must keep in your mind, and offer to those who seek from you, the truth, the way, the life,” he told them. “They are free to believe, or not to believe—but you are free only to tell them what you know to be right and good.”
Archbishop Gregory drew a laugh when he expressed his pride in the young people.
“You haven’t looked at your watches once,” he said.
“Dear young friends, this is a long sermon, but this is an important occasion, as I said at the beginning, and I want you to feel the importance I attach to it,” he said. “But I am not going to talk much longer, since I hope I have covered the important reasons we are here—to get to know one another, to remember the action-oriented life of our Church, to prepare to help those who come to us in distress, and to remain ourselves, faithful to God’s laws, and to the life He has given us.”
Following the Mass, the teens went into the Cathedral parish hall where they dined on pizza.
Many teens wore red sweatshirts with the “Rise Up for Life” logo as they prepared to hear the program’s speakers.
After watching a short video with testimonies given by women who had had abortions, Father Peek reminded the pro-life supporters that they are often portrayed in a negative way in the media, despite their intentions.
“Some say that focusing on the abortion issue is hurtful, that it’s hateful and judgmental,” he said. “My friends, what’s hurtful and mean and hateful is what abortion is doing to these young ladies and their children.”
State Rep. Mike Coan spoke to the teens about the political climate of the pro-life fight and talked of his own fight for the unborn. He reminded those in attendance not to let their age limit their voices.
“God can use every one of you,” he said. “You can make big things happen.”
He especially encouraged them to write to their government officials about the Women’s Right to Know Bill, which would require women to have all the facts about abortion prior to the procedure.
“It’s basically informed consent,” he said. “When you write to your representatives, make sure you say that this is not a pro-life or a pro-choice bill. If you get a tattoo in Georgia, you have to have all the facts before you get it. I had a tooth extracted and I was told what they were going to do, all the possible side effects and the long-term care that was needed. But you don’t have to have that for an abortion. This bill would require that a woman receives all the facts.”
Rowland was one woman who didn’t receive all the facts before her abortion.
At the Rise Up for Life event, Rowland shared her story for “the very first time since February 1986.”
“I am an abortion survivor. The pain—physical, emotional, spiritual, that you go through (like) those women spoke about on the video—that’s exactly what it’s like,” she said.
Rowland spoke honestly and bluntly about her abortion, at times becoming emotional over the memories. Since she had her abortion 19 years ago, she has encountered many physical problems as a result. She has also dealt with the “mental and emotional trauma” that has resulted from her abortion.
“The sadness never leaves you. My abortion ruined my life,” she said. “My child was not the only one who died that day. A piece of me died, too. I’ve found happiness, and occasionally I’ve found joy. But it’s not the same. It will never be the same.”
She acted out of fear when faced with an unexpected pregnancy, she said, and in that vein, she left the teens with a final question.
“Where would we be with our eternal salvation if Mary had acted out of fear?”
Rowland received a standing ovation from the young people.
Mark Houck and Robert Steward are two young adults from Generation Life, a movement of young people who speak out against abortion and encourage chastity for unmarried men and women.
They spoke to the teens using humor and anecdotes and challenged them to live chaste lives.
“There will be consequences if you have sex before marriage, both physical and emotional,” Houck said.
Houck said that the way to avoid temptation is by “frequent Communion and frequent confession.”
“We have to meet, greet and eat our God as often as possible,” he said.
After the program in the parish hall, the teens went back into the Cathedral to pray a rosary for life.
Jonathan Grundel, a high school senior who attends St. Brigid Church in Alpharetta, called the annual event an “amazing experience.”
“I’ve been really getting into my faith in the past year and a half,” he said. “I really wanted to know what I believed about abortion. I think before I was sort of leaning on the fence. I was lukewarm. I did some research and I realized it really is like another holocaust, all these babies being killed.”
Grundel also believes that he can make a difference.
“I like to think that I can change things—maybe not globally, but on a small level, just by giving my viewpoints and planting seeds. You never know if something I have said might make a difference to someone later down the road.”
Many of the young people spent the night at the Cathedral in a lock-in and woke up the next morning to join others from the archdiocese in the annual Mass for the Unborn at the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, Atlanta. Others made appointments with their representatives and senators and went to speak to them about pro-life issues.