Hundreds take part in Knoxville March for Life

Pro-life community joins together in support of women and their unborn children

By Bill Brewer

Women, men, and children of all walks of faith joined together Jan. 22 to pray for an end to abortion and show solidarity to mark the 44th anniversary of the Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion across the country.

Knoxville’s annual March for Life, coordinated by the Knox County chapter of Tennessee Right to Life, attracted 542 pro-life enthusiasts who held babies, banners, signs, and rosaries as they voiced their support.

It was a precursor to the national March for Life that was held in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 27. Vice President Mike Pence addressed the national march and was joined by people of all faiths from around the country, including a contingent from the Diocese of Knoxville.

Members of the Diocese of Knoxville urge others of faith to join in praying the rosary for America.

The Knoxville march began at the Tennessee Amphitheater in World’s Fair Park with prayer, music, and remarks before participants walked six blocks from the amphitheater to the front of Knoxville Center for Reproductive Health at Clinch Avenue and 16th Street near the University of Tennessee campus. The center offers medical and surgical abortions for Knox and surrounding counties.

Among Diocese of Knoxville participants in the march were Father John Dowling, pastor of Holy Ghost Church; Father Tim Sullivan, CSP, associate pastor of Immaculate Conception Church; Deacons Scott Maentz, Mike Gouge, and Gordy Lowery; and members of the Religious Sisters of Mercy of Alma, Mich., the Evangelizing Sisters of Mary, the Sisters of St. Francis of the Martyr St. George, the Diocesan Council of Catholic Women, and the Irish Fighting for Life student group from Knoxville Catholic High School.

Stacy Dunn, director of TRL’s Knox County chapter, gave a brief update on Amendment 1, an amendment to the Tennessee Constitution approved by a majority of voters in November 2014 that allows the state to regulate clinics in Tennessee that provide abortions. Even though the amendment passed with 53 percent of the vote, Planned Parenthood challenged the results in federal court. A federal judge sided with Planned Parenthood and ordered a recount of the ballots.

But she said that ruling has been challenged, and the matter is now before the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati.

More than 500 people marched from Tennessee Amphitheater through Fort Sanders to the Knoxville Center for Reproductive Health, which performs medical and surgical abortions, during the annual Knoxville March for Life on Jan. 22.

She told the marchers that recently released statistics show abortion numbers are declining in the United States. Citing statistics from the Guttmacher Institute, a research arm of Planned Parenthood, Mrs. Dunn said the number of U.S. abortions has fallen to 926,190 based on 2014 data, down from as high as 1.6 million a year. The Guttmacher report showed that in 2013 and 2014 the abortion numbers were below 1 million for the first time since 1975.

“Even though the study was compiled by Alan Guttmacher, the research arm of Planned Parenthood, it did reluctantly admit that pro-life laws passed at the state level were making a difference,” Mrs. Dunn said. “In Tennessee, we are very proud to be one of the states where protective measures have been passed.”

“Another reason for the decline in the number of abortions in Tennessee is the incredible spiritual support we have from dedicated pastors and spiritual leaders who are not afraid to stand for life. We are all aware that abortion is a spiritual battle that manifests itself in so many ways. So we are thankful for leaders who take part in building a culture of life,” said Mrs. Dunn, who is a parishioner at Holy Ghost Church in Knoxville.

It was the first time participating in the march for Father Sullivan, who was one of the area pastors to address the marchers. The Paulist priest was assigned to Immaculate Conception Church in Knoxville on July 1.

O’Brien and Katie Bennett marched with their children, Tucker, 4, Evan, 2, Kyrie Joy, 2, and Justus, 8 months.

Acknowledging St. Mary, the mother of Jesus, Father Sullivan led the multi-denominational group of marchers in praying the Hail Mary.

He then told them, “We walk for the children, the innocent victims of abortion who never were able to take their first step. We walk for them. We walk for the hearts of those who are forcing abortion upon our country. We pray for them. We stop by the Knoxville Center for Reproductive Health, and we will pray for those women who go there for abortions. We pray for a conversion coming around to understand the sanctity of human life, made in God’s very image, each child conceived.

“How do we care for each other; how do we love those children yet to be born? We walk together arm in arm, our hearts together moved by the notion that one day Roe v. Wade will be reversed, that we can become a nation of love and care. Blessed is the fruit of thy womb, each child a blessed moment in God’s creation,” Father Sullivan told the marchers.

The long line of marchers that filed its way through the Fort Sanders community to the clinic, escorted by police, made an impression on Father Sullivan.

“I was so touched by the faith and spirit and love, people putting faith into action and publicly demonstrating their belief in life,” he said, urging prayers to overturn Roe v. Wade. “This is the most important issue of our lives. The miracle of God’s creation, to destroy that is the tragedy of our human race.

Mike and Brooke Wesley are joined by their five children for the annual Knoxville March for Life. The Wesleys were among dozens of families supporting the pro-life movement during the march.

“Being here empowered me. I just pray that people will have a change of heart. If you hear God, then you hear, ‘Harden not your hearts.’ Our hearts have become hardened. We must soften our hearts to hear the truth of God’s message. We must have change legislatively, and most importantly, in our hearts. I was inspired by being here.”

At the end of the march, Father Sullivan gathered a small group of Catholic parishioners behind the abortion clinic to pray the rosary.

Brent and Elizabeth Blake of Knoxville marched with their daughters, Ella, who is 13, Laney, 10, Heidi, 8, and Ayele, 6.

Mrs. Blake, like Father Sullivan, was inspired by the turnout of marchers.

“Being with all these other people of faith lets me know we can help stop abortion. God is the creator of life, and I want to help stop abortion,” she said.

Mr. Blake believes prayer is important, but more is needed.

“I’ve been a believer for a long time, and I’ve known the evil of abortion. I’ve prayed it would end. I believe God calls us to more than prayer. He calls us to be light in the darkness and to stand with other people of faith,” Mr. Blake said.

Tucker Bennett, gripping a “Stop Abortion Now” sign while clinging to his mother and father, shared his family’s motivation when prompted.

“We’re here to save babies,” said the 4-year-old Tucker, who was joined by brothers Evan, 2, and Justus, 8 months, and sister Kyrie Joy, also 2.

Tucker’s mother, Katie Bennett, echoed his sentiments.

Father Tim Sullivan, CSP, associate pastor of Immaculate Conception Parish, leads a group of marchers in praying the rosary.

“We’re here to stop abortion and overturn Roe v. Wade. We are praying for the Supreme Court justices,” she said.

Her husband, O’Brien Bennett, said the family was joining others of similar beliefs to support women and their unborn children.

“It’s wonderful to see a crowd come out and be a voice for those who don’t have a voice yet. It’s amazing to see a community come and rally around those without a voice. It is people of faith, but it also is people who care about others, especially women and babies,” he said.

Mike and Brooke Wesley’s children were enthusiastic in their support for the march, displaying signs and broad smiles.

Describing the family as “very pro-life,” Mrs. Wesley said the movement is very important to them.

“I have a brother and sister who are adopted. Their mother chose life even though the father wanted abortion,” she said. “We have fostered nine children. Thank God their mothers chose life for their children even though they had challenges.”

Immaculate Conception parishioner Eddie Allen was encouraged by the March for Life participation and said all the prayers for unborn babies and a solution to abortion sends an important sign to women who are in crisis pregnancies: support in numbers.

Another Immaculate Conception parishioner, Sonia Justiniani, prays the rosary every Friday outside Planned Parenthood’s abortion clinic on Cherry Street in East Knoxville. But on Jan. 22, she brought her prayers to the March for Life and the Fort Sanders abortion clinic.

“To me, it’s very important. I think it’s a good thing that it is the one time we are not just Catholics or Protestants, but we are one,” she said. ■

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