40 Days for Life returns for fall diocesan vigil

Parishioners gather for prayer, peaceful presence outside East Knox Planned Parenthood site

By Bill Brewer

Pro-life prayer warriors are out in force in East Tennessee, and for 40 days they will be storming heaven to intercede for the unborn and women in crisis pregnancies considering abortion.

The Diocese of Knoxville is one of more than 500 communities across the country hosting a 40 Days for Life vigil in support of life. Another 40 Days for Life campaign is taking place in Bristol, affiliated with St. Anne Catholic Church there.

Bishop Richard F. Stika kicked off the Knoxville campaign on Sept. 25 in front of the Planned Parenthood clinic at 710 N. Cherry St. at Washington Avenue, where drugs to induce abortions are dispensed. The bishop was joined by the Rev. Cecil Clark, pastor of True Vine Baptist Church at 2547 Washington Ave., and eight diocesan parishioners.

Standing vigil on a sidewalk outside of the clinic, the 40 Days volunteers waved pro-life signs, prayed the rosary, and waved at passersby, a number of whom honked and waved in support, a routine that will be repeated until Nov. 3. Bishop Stika picked up a sign, visited with the volunteers, and thanked them for defending life in such a prayerful way.

“It’s good to work together and to make statements of faith, but also statements of justice. There’s a point of justice here that we need to recognize. Justice for the child, that it be permitted to live. That is the most basic right for the vulnerable,” Bishop Stika said. “It’s good to be here.”

REv. Cecil Clark of True Vine Baptist Church is joined by Shirley Moore and Millie Crowley during the 40 Days for Life prayer vigil.

The bishop praised 40 Days for Life for illustrating the prayerful response everyone can give to one of the most crucial life-and-death issues facing every community.

“This is not only important for the diocese, it’s important for all churches in the Knoxville community. If you look at the founder of Planned Parenthood (Margaret Sanger), what she stated in the beginning was to eliminate people of color, eliminate the poor. Talk about being racist from the very beginning. There’s a Margaret Sanger award Planned Parenthood gives every year,” Bishop Stika said. “They place their clinics in poor neighborhoods and near colleges. Their message basically carries on from their founder.”

More than 400 people from 15 Diocese of Knoxville parishes, four Knights of Columbus councils, and six Protestant churches are volunteering to stand vigil during the 40 days, which began Sept. 25 and concludes Nov. 3, according to Paul Simoneau, who is organizing the effort with Lisa Morris.

Mr. Simoneau said this is the eighth year the diocese has sponsored a 40 Days for Life vigil, and he believes the prayer campaign and other diocesan pro-life efforts are making a difference.

“We have eight years of experience. All of our parishes are familiar with it, and we have a great group of parishioners who take part. They’re very enthusiastic, very committed, and desiring to provide a loving and prayerful witness in front of Planned Parenthood,” Mr. Simoneau said.

After a two-year absence, 40 Days for Life has returned to the diocese. The community-based campaign takes a determined, peaceful approach to showing local communities the consequences of abortion.

“It puts into action a desire to cooperate with God in the carrying out of His plan for the end of abortion. It draws attention to the evil of abortion through the use of a three-point program: prayer and fasting, constant vigil, and community outreach,” the organization states.

Mr. Simoneau, who is the Diocese of Knoxville’s vice chancellor and director of the Office of Justice and Peace, said a decision was made to return Knoxville’s 40 Days for Life to a fall campaign that aligns with Respect Life Month in October after it had served as a Lenten ministry for several years.

Mr. Simoneau explained that the local 40 Days outreach took a hiatus following the 2017 Lenten campaign when diocesan efforts shifted to the dedication of the new Cathedral of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus in March 2018. He noted that inclement winter weather in the Lenten campaign that affected scheduling of individuals and groups to stand outside in prayerful vigil also was a factor in shifting to a fall campaign.

And there was another factor.

“Everybody has been reinvigorated by Abby Johnson’s story in the movie Unplanned,” Mr. Simoneau said.

Unplanned, based on the book Unplanned: The Dramatic True Story of a Former Planned Parenthood Leader’s Eye-Opening Journey across the Life Line by Ms. Johnson, was a detailed look inside Planned Parenthood by a former insider whose conversion to a pro-life advocate was brought on by 40 Days for Life.

In April, Ms. Johnson brought her dramatic story to St. Mary Church in Athens, where she was greeted by a sold-out crowd of supporters from many faiths.

Another difference is that Mr. Simoneau and Mrs. Morris decided to scale back the logistics of set-up and tear-down of large pro-life signs used in the past and instead emphasize a more prayerful approach.

“Our emphasis is on prayerful gathering, praying for women who are in crisis pregnancies to have a change of heart and for clinic workers also,” Mr. Simoneau said. “It’s important for any woman in a crisis pregnancy to see that there are people who care about her and her baby and are not there to condemn, but to offer an alternative that is life-affirming.”

The corner of Cherry Street and Washington Avenue has become a focal point for many faith communities who are defending life. Women and men from all faiths make prayerful vigils on the sidewalks in front of the Planned Parenthood facility year-round.

Rev. Cecil Clark is a regular.

His church is across Cherry Street from the Planned Parenthood clinic, and he and his congregation give witness daily to the need for a pro-life presence in their community.

“To me, this vigil is very important. It’s good to see the diocese back with 40 Days. It gives you great support. Those numbers do mean something, and so do the signs,” Rev. Clark said.

He said many women who go to Planned Parenthood are under immense pressure from husbands and boyfriends to abort their babies.

“We don’t know the reason why these women are coming, but we can show them a different way to treat them better, we can love them better, we can witness to them and let them know that is not a glob of tissue. It is a human being. It is the same way Jesus came to us. That can really be inspiring. Jesus came the same way. We don’t come here to condemn, but to help them have a commitment to life,” Rev. Clark said.

Rev. Clark has spent many days through the years standing vigil, praying for an end to abortion and the closing of the abortion clinic, which is one of two in Knoxville. The other is adjacent to the University of Tennessee campus. A third abortion clinic on Concord Street closed in 2012.

Doing nothing is not an option for him and should not be an option for any pro-life supporter, the pastor said.

“I think silence in the face of evil is evil itself. If you have just one person who will stand for life, it will make a difference,” he said.

Mrs. Morris agrees, and she sees the differences already being made.

“There are many stories of people who changed their minds. One such story comes to mind of a couple who brought their baby to the sidewalk during a 40 Days for Life when we were on Concord Street. Two years earlier, the couple had gone in for an appointment to have an abortion. They said they saw the people praying, changed their minds, and came with their baby to show us and to thank us for being there that year,” Mrs. Morris said.

“It was such a blessing and truly the grace of God through the power of prayer. People go in for an abortion out of fear and thinking it is their only answer. We are not there to judge but to love them and help them to see there is another way, a way that leads to freedom and joy, and that is to choose life. For those who have made that tragic and heartbreaking choice of abortion, 40 Days for Life is there to help them see God’s mercy and love for them and that there is hope and healing after abortion,” she added.

Mrs. Morris said the diocese is bringing back the 40 Days for Life campaign because everyone realizes it makes a difference “one heart, one life at a time.”

“Seeds are planted by the presence and the prayers of the people who come out in all sorts of weather and challenges, and even though they may not know it, the people going into Planned Parenthood, the workers there, and those who pass by, are changed by the witness and prayers of the people,” said Mrs. Morris, who is president of the Sacred Heart Apostolate, a global movement for promoting the Enthronement of the Sacred Heart of Jesus as a way to renew communities.

Mrs. Morris believes 40 Days of Life volunteers are uplifted by participating, having the peace and assurance that they are doing what God is asking of them, to be present and to do His will to save lives, change hearts, and to show the world the beauty, value, and dignity of every human life. She also believes the campaign is prompting a spiritual reawakening for a world that has lost its way in thinking abortion is an answer.

“It is a peaceful, prayerful, powerful witness of compassion for all involved in the heartbreak of abortion,” she said.

Among the volunteers are Henry Usey and Orville Fisher of All Saints Parish and Knights of Columbus Council 15706, who agree that 40 Days for Life is a good way to support life.

“I’ve been a member of the Knights of Columbus for 37 years. The position of the Knights of Columbus and any Catholic is to stand against abortion. We call it a sin against God and man, and we need to take a stand to stop it,” Mr. Usey said.

Mr. Fisher, who is the Knights of Columbus respect life coordinator for the diocese, said he is grateful the diocese is behind regular prayer vigils for the unborn and an end to abortion.

Eddie Booth has been fighting abortion since 1973, when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that abortion is a protected right for women by the Constitution. Since that time, it is estimated that more than 60 million babies have been aborted.

Mrs. Booth, a parishioner at Christ the King Parish in Tazewell, participated in the 40 Days for Life on the first day.

“I believe the visible presence here of us praying in love can make a difference. I’ve watched the movie Unplanned, and that shows the difference we can make. And just look at the number of abortion clinics that have closed and the babies that have been saved,” Mrs. Booth said. “They thought we would give up, but we haven’t.”

Paul Carter of Our Lady of Fatima Parish in Alcoa recalls when 40 Days for Life vigils were held outside the abortion clinic on Concord Street in Knoxville. He believes that clinic and its 2012 closure illustrate the need to respect life from conception to natural death, the power of prayer, and the impact people who pray for an end to abortion can have.

The effects of 40 Days for Life through the years, and especially since Unplanned emphasized the power of vigil prayer and love, can’t help but prod a person to “get out there and pray,” said Debbie Donahoo, who prayed with her husband, Duane, outside the Planned Parenthood clinic.

“As I hold a sign and pray in front of the Planned Parenthood business, I reflect on those women and men who are troubled by a pregnancy and about to make a life-changing decision for themselves and especially for the human life growing inside the mother. God is so good. If only they would reflect on that for themselves and their child. So, I pray, wonder, hope, and simply witness for life,” said Mrs. Donahoo, who feels sure the prayer vigils make a difference.

She points out that in locations where 40 Days for Life vigils have been held, over 1 million volunteers have stood in prayerful vigil, nearly 200 abortion workers have quit, including directors, and more than 100 abortion centers have closed.

“Yes, these prayer vigils make a difference. Jesus wants this steadfast praying for life, and especially to change hearts. People see us and you never know when you’ve planted a seed, caused them to pause, to pray, to learn more about Our Lord, to feel hope, and to trust a little more.

“Yes, strength in numbers is effective, but just having a nonstop presence for 40 straight days cannot be ignored, nor can it be ineffective. People are watching and registering in their minds the effort of a convicted, prayer-filled vigil,” said Mrs. Donahoo, an All Saints parishioner.

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