By NICHOLE GOLDEN, Staff Writer | Published October 14, 2013
ATLANTA—In the Bible, the time frame of forty days is often one of transformation. Forty-day periods set Noah, Moses, the disciples of Jesus and others on paths that changed the world.
The national organization 40 Days for Life uses that spiritual tie in both its name and approach with the goal of ending abortion through prayer and peaceful vigil.
40 Days for Life observes two campaigns of forty days each year, one of which is now taking place from Sept. 25 through Nov. 3. The other observed each year coincides with Lent. The first campaign took place in 2004 on the local level in Texas and expanded to a national campaign in the fall of 2007. This fall vigils are taking place in over 300 cities.
The program’s national director, David Bereit, visited Atlanta and Marietta rally kick-off events Sept. 25.
“There are three activities that we ask people to do,” said Bereit.
The three steps are to pray and fast, to set up constant and peaceful vigils at abortion clinics, and conduct community outreach. Bereit attributed most of the program’s early growth to word of mouth, which was “first and fastest in the Catholic community.”
While 40 Days for Life is an independent organization, more Catholics are joining its efforts and the program has the support of the Archdiocese of Atlanta.
“40 Days for Life has become a worldwide phenomenon, saving the lives of thousands of children, helping their mothers and even encouraging abortion workers to turn away, due to its reliance on prayer,” said Mary Boyert, Respect Life director for the Atlanta Archdiocese. “It was founded in prayer, it is rooted in prayer, and it continues in prayer.”
Atlanta area volunteers are praying at vigils at two abortion clinics—the Feminist Women’s Health Center on Cliff Valley Way in Atlanta and Abortion Services on Powers Ferry Road in Marietta.
The coordinator of the Atlanta vigil is Aileen Barreca, a parishioner at St. Thomas More Church, Decatur. The Marietta coordinator is Grisselle Lares-Bazzani of St. Joseph Church, Marietta.
Bereit was pleased with turnout at both of the events.
“I thought it went unbelievably well,” he said.
Bereit added that the supporters attending were “so clearly diverse,” yet coming together to pray for an end to abortion. A Spanish translator was on hand at the Marietta location to assist those attending in understanding Bereit’s presentation.
“I have great hope for Atlanta and the state of Georgia,” he said. “I believe abortion’s days are numbered.”
Barreca estimated that 80 people attended the Sept. 25 rally in Atlanta. Volunteers are maintaining a quiet vigil at the Cliff Valley Way location from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily. Priests for Life held a rally there Oct. 5, and a 100 Men March, beginning at the First Alliance Church on North Druid Hills Road, is scheduled to take place Oct. 19.
Barreca said that several Catholic schools have supported the efforts, including groups from Pinecrest Academy, Holy Spirit Prep, the Emory University Catholic Center, Georgia Tech Catholic Center, and Our Lady of Mercy High School.
Lares-Bazzani said many parishes are participating in the Marietta vigil hours. Parishioners lending their presence represent St. Joseph in Marietta, St. Francis de Sales in Mableton, Holy Family in Marietta, St. Catherine of Siena in Kennesaw and Transfiguration in Marietta.
A large contingent from St. Thomas the Apostle in Smyrna is also dedicated to the effort, said Lares-Bazzani.
“Father Jaime Molina is our greatest supporter,” she said. “He brings rivers” of people to the location each day at 5 a.m., she added.
Lares-Bazzani said that they simply come out to stand for the unborn, but don’t confront the women coming to the clinic.
“They don’t think they have another avenue,” she said about the desperation of the women going to the clinic.
One man who owns a nearby business told Lares-Bazzani that he was originally worried the volunteers would drive people away, but later came to thank them for their peaceful methods. “I could feel his prayers,” she said.
Bereit became an outspoken pro-life advocate after Planned Parenthood announced plans to build an abortion clinic in his Texas town, Bryant College Station, in 1998. He helped start and build a local grassroots coalition of 60 churches and thousands of people. According to 40 Days for Life, those efforts led to a 28 percent decrease in abortions in the region. Bereit led the first 40 Days for Life campaign in Texas. He later served as executive director of the American Life League in Washington, D.C., and as national director of Stop Planned Parenthood until being asked to lead the national 40 Days for Life campaign.
It was the work of 40 Days for Life and the Coalition of Life in Texas that prompted longtime Planned Parenthood director Abby Johnson to quit her job. After witnessing an ultrasound-guided abortion in 2009, Johnson remembered the kindness of the 40 Days and coalition representatives who were always outside the clinic. She immediately sought the help of the pro-life volunteers to become an advocate for life. Johnson wrote a book about her experiences, “unPlanned” and converted to Catholicism in 2011. She works to protect the unborn and also to help others leave the abortion industry.
Lauren Whittaker, a parishioner at St. Peter Chanel Church in Roswell, is at the Feminist Women’s Health Center every week as a sidewalk counselor to anyone who feels led to talk with her.
Whittaker had an abortion 39 years ago and holds either a sign that reads, “I regret my abortion” or “We can help” while quietly praying at the clinic.
“They are the ones who got me started,” said Whittaker about the 40 Days movement and Abby Johnson.
After a deep conversion experience, Whittaker began questioning the best methods of being part of the pro-life movement. While she would meet and befriend other women who were suffering post-abortion difficulties and she would participate in the March for Life, she felt “alone” in wanting to take a more peaceful, less antagonistic approach to clinic protests.
Whittaker felt Johnson’s story was the proof she needed and started praying outside one clinic regularly.
She doesn’t approach the women coming to the clinic, but lets them come to her.
“They really feel trapped,” said Whittaker. “You have one minute to capture their heart.”
Whittaker said she wants to be a quiet, gentle rock in “gratitude to God for forgiving me.”
Those who pray quietly alongside Whittaker stand behind the offer of help to the women. They have helped mothers who have changed their minds about abortion by giving baby showers, finding cribs, better jobs, and assisting with budgets.
She said the relatives of the pregnant women are often amazed that strangers would give their daughter or sister a baby shower.
“This is what it means to be Christian,” said Whittaker. “The empathy we have is genuine.”
Whittaker has been sidewalk counseling for more than two years and keeps in touch with several of the women who changed their minds and decided to keep their children.
Jan Chaput, while not directly involved in 40 Days, prayed peacefully every Friday for years at the recently closed Northside Women’s Clinic. Since 1988, Chaput and “prayer warriors” from St. Jude the Apostle, Atlanta, other parishes, and many priests of the archdiocese kept vigil there. The clinic closed June 1.
It was “God’s mercy, definitely,” said Chaput. She said they always prayed for the intercession of Our Lady of Guadalupe, patroness of the unborn.
Peter Badolato and his wife, Martha, begin praying at Northside in the mid-1980s.
“Originally started by Ms. Daphne Madol from my church, Holy Family, the rosary has been prayed by many participants, some for many years, and too numerous to name,” said Badolato in an email.
In 1990, the group joined in the National Rosary Novena for the Unborn. After the novena ended, several participants decided to continue with a perpetual novena every Saturday morning, using the 15-decade rosary and prayers from the national novena. Over the years the group got smaller, and numbered four or five regular participants by the time the clinic closed. Others would join in on different days or during 40 Days for Life.
“Is prayer effective? There is no doubt in my mind that it is,” said Badolato. “The reason that it took so long is only the weakness of our faith. We take no credit for the results. God did not ask us to be effective, only to be faithful. The victory is His and His alone.”
Now these prayer warriors have moved on to a late-term abortion clinic on West Wieuca Road in Atlanta.