Ahead of the storm, March for Life 2016 went on

Are we out of our minds? I’m sure I wasn’t the only person on the National Mall with that thought as thousands of pro-lifers began to assemble for the March for Life last week. A blizzard warning was in effect. Not a watch, mind you – a warning, meaning it’s no doubt coming. The leaden-gray sky promised to deliver Winter Storm Jonas with a vengeance.

March for Life at Supreme Court
March for Life 2016, in front of the U.S. Supreme Court.

I traveled with about 250 other New Hampshire pilgrims – I use the word intentionally; we were united in our religious faith – in a six-bus caravan to the 42nd annual March for Life, coming on the 43rd anniversary of Roe v. Wade.  Our particular group was associated with various parishes within the Diocese of Manchester. If you were passed on the Everett Turnpike the day before the March by a busload of rosary-praying Catholics, that was us.

My bus captain was Valerie Somers, who has been involved with bus trips to the March for more than 20 years. She was as close to unflappable as anyone could be with the word “blizzard” floating around. Our driver Ray (or ace driver Ray, as I will henceforth think of him) has been driving New Hampshire pro-lifers to the March annually for almost as long as Valerie’s been involved.

“I do this for you. I believe in what you’re doing,” Ray told us. He probably could have accepted another charter that day that would have kept him safely out of the path of Storm Jonas. He drove to the March for Life instead.

The March is nonsectarian, nondenominational, and as open to secular as to religious participation, as I have noted before. This year, I traveled with fellow Catholics, and our time together was heavily informed by our common faith.  My notes here reflect that.

The March’s biggest story came after the March

I didn’t know when we set out that the most remarkable part of the March would come after it was over. As we were returning to New Hampshire, marchers heading home to other states were stranded in blizzard conditions. The response of some of the Catholic students and clergy to being stuck in the snow led to more reporting about the March than I’ve ever seen.

I mention this before recounting my own experiences at this year’s event, because what happened among the stranded marchers was more important than anything I did on the 22nd.

Snow began falling in Washington as the March began at 1 p.m. on the 22nd. By 4 p.m., our New Hampshire contingent had made it back to our buses, and we began creeping up the highway in slick, snowy conditions. Our route let us outrun the storm. Anyone traveling south or west or northwest of D.C. wasn’t so lucky.

On the Pennsylvania Turnpike, a vehicle collision caused a giant traffic backup that eventually became a standstill, in heavy snow. Among the stranded travelers were students from Franciscan University of Steubenville (Ohio), University of Mary (North Dakota), and several Iowa Catholic high schools, among others returning from the March. Their plight came to my attention via the Twitter feed of writer Kathryn Jean Lopez (@kathrynlopez), who was traveling with the North Dakota group.

Others on the scene took to social media, but none to my knowledge have anything like the following enjoyed by Lopez. She’s the one who drew attention to what was happening.

News organizations began paying attention to what was going on, mentioning that some of the stranded travelers were returning from the March for Life. There was more mention of the March for Life on the 23rd than on the 22nd, when it actually took place. (See links at marchforlife.org to some of the coverage.)

So now we know how to maximize coverage of the biggest pro-life gathering in the nation: get stuck in the snow on the way home.  If the same news agencies do follow-up stories, they’ll be able to feature what these students do back home to promote and defend the right to life.

The Catholic students and their fellow pro-life pilgrims were stuck on the turnpike for more than 20 hours. The Catholic community of snowbound travelers redeemed the time. They organized an impromptu roadside Mass that was attended by students and chaperones and any other travelers, regardless of faith, who chose to brave the cold.

That’s when things really went viral. Catholics being pro-life is a dog-bites-man story. Young Catholics giving public witness to their beliefs and keeping their sense of humor about it shifts the story to man-bites-dog territory.

Deacon Greg Kandra at aleteia.com later snagged an interview with the principal celebrant of the roadside Mass, Fr. Patrick Behm of Iowa, who said,  “[C]redit for the idea, and credit for building the altar, and credit for going around to the various buses inviting people to join them belongs completely to the pilgrims from the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, particularly Mr. Bill Dill, their youth minister.”

The turnpike was eventually re-opened. Everyone in the traffic jam made it home safely, as far as I know.

Getting to hearings, witnessing outside an abortion facility, raising money to grow a pregnancy help center, providing respite care, visiting the sick: inconvenient? Hard? Not my thing? Those students on the Pennsylvania Turnpike have just shown us all what inconvenience looks like, and they’ve shown me how to meet it.

Thanks to them, the smallest March for Life crowd I’ve ever seen has had the greatest impact on media. Who saw that coming?

Still the nation’s largest pro-life event

While there are now annual pro-life marches in Chicago and San Francisco near the anniversary of Roe v. Wade, the Washington event is the March for Life. It’s not regional.

The weather forecast kept attendance down, but “down” is relative. In other years at the March, I’ve been in the midst of hundreds of thousands of people, when just getting off the Mall to start marching can take over an hour. No such delay this year, although the crowd was still impressive. Look at this panoramic photo from LifeSiteNews.com, taken at this year’s event.

As our bus left Nashua southbound, my fellow passengers and I exchanged news reports about cancelled buses. I heard about night-before panicky texts and phone calls among New Hampshire’s trip organizers. Larger groups, such as the Archdiocese of Boston, cancelled their buses. I knew this was going to be a down year in terms of numbers.

More than fifty students from Northeast Catholic College (Warner, NH) made it down to D.C., though, as did students from Thomas More College of Liberal Arts (Merrimack, NH). Our caravan included people from Nashua and Woodsville and Rochester and many points in between. There’s no telling how many Granite Staters went to the March on their own or in groups unrelated to the Diocese.

I knew only a few of my fellow passengers before we started out. It was great to meet and talk with new acquaintances. While this is the first year I’ve been to the March with a diocesan group, it was obvious that many of my companions had traveled together before.

Rally before the March

The morning of the 22nd, I looked uneasily at my watch as the pre-March rally kept going on and on. Free unsolicited advice to the March organizers: when the National Weather Service says “blizzard warning,” it’s time to shake up the schedule: less talking, more marching.

But where to cut? Would I have wanted Jewels Green to get the hook? No, no, no. Would I have cut Carly Fiorina, the only presidential candidate to speak? Nope. And I sure wouldn’t have wanted to miss Sue Ellen Browder, for whom I cheered as she said, “Prolife pro-family feminism is the authentic women’s movement of the twenty-first century.” (That’s from a formerly pro-abortion writer. Note to self: find her new book, Subverted.)

Of course, the rally is the time to look around the National Mall and check out the banners held by other marchers: Secular Pro-Life. Lutherans for Life. Churches from too many states to list. New Wave Feminists. Students for Life. And Then There Were None. Plenty more, reflecting the breadth of the pro-life movement.

Enjoy this: 15 Epic Signs from the March for Life (churchpop.com)

Also worth checking out, from NewBostonPost: “‘Pro-life, pro-women’: #MarchforLife hits D.C.” (Storify post, aggregating photos, tweets and social media posts from several sources)

The Expo

This was the first year I actually had time to visit the expo associated with the March, held at a local conference center. Unfortunately, some exhibitors took down  their displays early in a rush to get out of town ahead of the blizzard. It was worth the walk anyway, especially in the company of three other Granite Staters who were likewise seeing the expo for the first time.

I brought a bag with me, knowing I’d probably pick up books and pamphlets and what-have-you. By the time I was done, I had enough reading material for a week (and I probably have the makings of a post or two in there somewhere.)

My favorite discovery was the information table for Brazil 4 Life International, staffed by the mother-daughter team of Ina Silva-Sobolewski and her daughter Rebecca Sobolewski. Ina spoke about the crisis pregnancy centers she has worked to establish in Brazil, where abortion is illegal but also not uncommon.

Vigil Mass at National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception

By longstanding tradition, there’s a Mass the night before the March at the Basilica of the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in northeast Washington, D.C. All are welcome, but it’s primarily a youth Mass – and it’s packed, every single year.

This is one event on which the forecast had no effect. It’s been years since I attended one of these vigils, and I was bowled over then and now by the turnout.

The basilica has one of the most beautiful interiors I’ve ever seen in a church or indeed in any public building. It’s worth a visit for that alone, with or without a Mass.

Back to work

No kidding here: I hate traveling when words like “blizzard warning” are flashing on highway signs. I wouldn’t have ventured anywhere near the March for Life this year without the aid of an experienced professional driver. I almost bailed out anyway.

And would that have mattered? In the greater scheme of things, no. Pro-life work is fundamentally local, one-on-one, built on relationships and not on rallies.

But oh, what I would have missed had I done the prudent thing and stayed home! Local, one-on-one work can too easily devolve into a siege mentality: I’m all alone hereI’m not getting anywhere. Nothing ever changes. What I do makes no difference. 

There’s solidarity and strength in meeting other people with the same commitment to the value of human life. There’s refreshment and inspiration in finding myself in a sea of pro-life people a generation younger than I. It’s good to hear from other people about what they’ve done in their own areas, learning what has worked and what hasn’t.  I learn new things from listening to people whose background and beliefs are different from mine in every respect except being pro-life.

And then there’s the reason Nellie Gray founded the March in the first place, back in 1974: to put the Supreme Court and the Washington politicians and the news media on notice that Roe v. Wade settled nothing.

I’ll be back. An annual trip to the March for Life is financially out of reach for me. An occasional trip is essential. It really is a pilgrimage. We said a prayer to that effect on the bus, with a simple antiphon: whatever happenshelp me remember that I’m a pilgrim, not a tourist.

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