As older pro-life prayer warriors keep the faith, a new generation finds its voice

Jennifer Laird, 26, and her boyfriend, Michael Nagrant, pray in front of the Planned Parenthood clinic on Woodward Avenue in Ferndale in October 2021 as part of the twice-annual 40 Days for Life campaign. As older prayer warriors, some of whom have volunteered for decades, become unable to volunteer because of health concerns, younger Catholics like Laird and Nagrant are stepping in to continue praying and witnessing for life. (Courtesy of Nancy Peterson)

Veterans of pro-life prayer vigils such as 40 Days for Life say it's crucial for younger volunteers to take up the mantle of prayer — and they are

FERNDALE — The fight for the unborn is never-ending, but passion in the pro-life movement is growing and new voices are being heard.

Joining the fight is an increasing number of younger people, including 22-year-old Nick Marcum.

“I am very passionate about the pro-life movement,” said Marcum, a member of Corpus Christi Parish in Detroit who also attends Mother of God Chaldean Catholic Parish in Southfield. “It breaks my heart the number of women who choose to get an abortion.”

Marcum participated in 40 Days for Life, a twice-annual, worldwide movement of prayer vigils, last fall, though it wasn't the first time he's been involved in the pro-life movement. As a student at Bowling Green State University, he often speaks with mothers walking into the local abortion clinic, and participates in street evangelization.

The last 40 Days for Life was held Sept. 22 to Oct. 30, with volunteers praying in front of abortion clinics in 612 cities worldwide, making it the largest vigil yet. The next 40 Days for Life will take place during Lent, beginning Ash Wednesday, March 2, through Palm Sunday, April 10.

Young people pray in the foreground as volunteers hold banners of Our Lady of Guadalupe alongside Archbishop Allen H. Vigneron, left, and Fr. Eric Fedewa during a prayer vigil in front of an abortion clinic in Eastpointe in August 2021. (Valaurian Waller | Detroit Catholic)
Young people pray in the foreground as volunteers hold banners of Our Lady of Guadalupe alongside Archbishop Allen H. Vigneron, left, and Fr. Eric Fedewa during a prayer vigil in front of an abortion clinic in Eastpointe in August 2021. (Valaurian Waller | Detroit Catholic)

Volunteers sign up to pray for one hour at a time, but many stay longer than that. The goal is to have a near-constant prayerful presence.

“This is completely separate from any protest, and our volunteers must abide by an official peace pledge,” Nancy Peterson, who coordinates the Ferndale vigil, told Detroit Catholic. “They are there out of love of neighbor — including (love for) those who work in the abortion industry.”

A simple message: 'God forgives'

Jennifer Laird, 26, has been part of the pro-life movement since her university days in San Diego.

“It was at this time that God started tugging at my heart to lead my own campaign at the nearby Planned Parenthood,” Laird said. “I was pro-life before I came to God, so the idea of tying my anti-abortion stance with any kind of religious reason or method was a hurdle for me."

Laird said her heart was moved after seeing the movie "Unplanned," in which Abby Johnson, a former Planned Parenthood clinical director, shares with her husband her immense guilt at being responsible for so many deaths.

"Her husband responded by saying that God forgives," Laird said. “This was powerful for me because it showed that despite the scientific and humanistic reasons behind the pro-life position, it is important to bring in the Creator, since ultimately He is the one who causes changes of hearts,” said Laird, a member of St. Nicholas Byzantine Catholic Church in Clinton Township.

Laird explained that her own 17-year-old mother chose life when she became pregnant with her and her twin brother.

Jennifer Laird, 26, said her own mother chose life for her and her twin brother when she found herself pregnant at 17 years old. Laird's mother chose to give them up for adoption, a decision that was difficult, but for which her daughter is grateful. (Courtesy of Nancy Peterson)
Jennifer Laird, 26, said her own mother chose life for her and her twin brother when she found herself pregnant at 17 years old. Laird's mother chose to give them up for adoption, a decision that was difficult, but for which her daughter is grateful. (Courtesy of Nancy Peterson)

“She also wanted very much to keep us, but she chose to adopt us out,” Laird said. “She still struggles with this decision of hers — abortion isn't the only decision that hurts pregnant women, unfortunately. I am very thankful for her decision that my brother and I got to grow up together, and that I was able to reconnect with her after 17 years.”

When Laird moved to Michigan, it became a priority for her to find a local 40 Days for Life location, which led her to the Ferndale vigil.

There are many ways to become involved in the pro-life movement, “from traveling to the March for Life (in Washington, D.C.) in January to volunteering at a pregnancy resource center or raising funds or collecting baby items,” Peterson said.

But perhaps the easiest way, she said, is simply to pray.

“Sadly, there are busy abortion clinics around us, but that makes stopping to pray there accessible to most everyone,” Peterson said.

Peterson said the movement has been buoyed by an increasing number of energized young people looking to make their voices heard.

“Young people are returning from events such as the March for Life fully inspired and wondering, ‘How can I make a difference locally?’” Peterson said.

An Everest Collegiate High School student holds a sign during a peaceful prayer vigil outside the school in January 2021. (Valaurian Waller | Detroit Catholic)
An Everest Collegiate High School student holds a sign during a peaceful prayer vigil outside the school in January 2021. (Valaurian Waller | Detroit Catholic)

On-campus groups such as Protect Life Michigan have continued raising awareness of the harm abortion causes, Peterson added. While the pro-life position isn't limited to Christians, faith plays an important role.

"As Christians, there is a natural desire to protect others from abortion and to help those who were harmed by it to find healing," Peterson said. "We can’t do that without taking action.”

A need for younger volunteers

At the Planned Parenthood clinic in Ferndale, registered prayer volunteers are there from 8 a.m. through 8 p.m. throughout the 40 Days for Life vigil. Volunteers may pray one consistent hour a week, while others fill several hours or attend sporadically as they are able, Peterson explained.

“They can pray quietly together, such as a rosary or Divine Mercy chaplet, or silently in any form they like,” she said. “We try to cover all 12 vigil hours per day, but on average, we only fill about half of the hours at our site. Some of our longtime, most dedicated participants are no longer able to be there for health reasons, so our hope is that more young people will join and stand in the gap.”

A longtime prayer warrior is David Donnellon, 78, who first became involved in the pro-life movement when the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision allowed women to choose to have an abortion.

At the time, the idea of protesting didn't appeal to him, “because protesting was not in my perspective of a Christian response; however, I prayed for those innocents,” he said.

About 15 years ago, Donnellon discovered 40 Days for Life, and was drawn by its mission: it wasn't a protest, but a peaceful, public prayer.

David Donnellon, 78, has been volunteering to pray outside abortion clinics for about 15 years. Donnellon said he's not much for protests, but sees the vigil as something else: a chance to pray for mothers and their children and to show his support and love. (Courtesy of Nancy Peterson)
David Donnellon, 78, has been volunteering to pray outside abortion clinics for about 15 years. Donnellon said he's not much for protests, but sees the vigil as something else: a chance to pray for mothers and their children and to show his support and love. (Courtesy of Nancy Peterson)

“I found out you could just go out and pray for the innocent,” recalled Donnellon, a member of Guardian Angels Parish in Clawson. “I walked up, did it, and then did it a few more times that year. I think the following year, I did it almost 30 times in a 40-day period. So why not go to the streets and pray for the innocent?"

Donnellon said participants do at times experience pushback, but he's grateful for the support of his wife of 52 years, Jeanette, and their two children and seven grandchildren.

“Everybody is exposed to peer pressure. Even I am exposed to peer pressure at 78,” Donnellon said. “I just follow my commitment and convictions and be responsible for those decisions.”

Marcum, the 22-year-old college student, said whenever he feels discouraged, he reflects upon the faith that drives him.

“My friends are also seemingly happy that I am out there,” Marcum said. “Support from family and friends are in words, not deeds. I have had two friends come out and join me on the street. Many say they will be praying for the end to abortion.”

Katie Woodstock, 32, became involved with 40 Days for Life after she attended a vigil led by Norbertine priests in front of a Planned Parenthood while visiting friends in Orange County, Calif.

“It was beautiful, and I was completely moved,” Woodstock said. “This sparked a desire to get more involved locally in Detroit.”

“I have always had a big heart for vulnerable women and children,” Woodstock added. “Life is the single most precious gift we are given as humans, and it is important to help empower mothers and their families — to help them understand that their circumstances don’t have to define the rest of their life or the lives of their children, and that God’s timing is perfect compared to our own.”

A woman prays outside an abortion clinic in Eastpointe in August 2021. A "fast-growing" community of young adults has been taking up the mantle of pro-life prayer in Metro Detroit, Woodstock said. (Valaurian Waller | Detroit Catholic)
A woman prays outside an abortion clinic in Eastpointe in August 2021. A "fast-growing" community of young adults has been taking up the mantle of pro-life prayer in Metro Detroit, Woodstock said. (Valaurian Waller | Detroit Catholic)

Woodstock said she's noticed a "fast-growing" community of young adults getting involved in pro-life ministry “from all walks of life — not specific to one religion or political background.”

“There’s a big emphasis on how we can engage those who hold different views in civil, respectful, loving dialogue," said Woodstock, a member of the National Shrine of the Little Flower Basilica in Royal Oak. "It’s important for younger generations to get involved in order to connect and be relatable to people of all ages, races and creeds.”

While prayer is a good start, Marcum said he always encourages volunteers to do more.

“We must never be passive and only pray,” Marcum said. “Our prayer should move us to charity, to go out and get into the lion's den. Faith plays a huge role in my passion. Without the understanding that God gives us all life, and that God desires all to be saved and to have eternal life, including the unborn, I do not know if I would be driven to go out and fight the spiritual battle.”

To those hesitant or fearful to display their commitment or to pray in public, Marcum has a simple reminder: "God is with you."

"Take action. Go with a friend. If you truly hate abortion, this does require action, and for some that means more than prayer," Marcum said. "If you are able-bodied, I hope you will come out and pray and speak to mothers.”

Participating in a prayer vigil "can put you out of your comfort zone," Woodstock agreed. “But it is a humbling, beautiful experience. You are showing up for women and their families, and for our society’s most vulnerable — children in the womb.

“There is strength in numbers,” Woodstock added. “We have heard some of the most miraculous stories that come from the power of prayer. You meet some of the most humble and loving people.”

To find a local 40 Days for Life vigil near you, visit www.40daysforlife.com.

Editor's note: In an earlier version of this story, a photo caption misidentified Michael Nagrant. Detroit Catholic regrets the error.



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