The Gospel of life

Front line of abortion conflict is on Tennessee-Virginia border

By Bill Brewer

Bristol has become an unlikely front line in the U.S. abortion debate as the nation’s leading moral conflict plays out in a city divided by more than the Tennessee-Virginia state line.

It’s where the region’s faithful are facing a new reality in the fight for life.

Catholics and Protestants in Southwest Virginia and East Tennessee are joining together to support pro-life efforts as Tennessee continues to ban abortion while Virginia is embracing the practice and is welcoming women to cross its state line to terminate pregnancies.

St. Anne Parish in Bristol, Va., sponsored a Lenten 40 Days for Life, which began on Feb. 14 and concluded on March 24. 40 Days for Life is a national group that organizes vigils in U.S. communities to campaign against abortion.

Motorists passing by give shout-outs and blow their horns in support of those keeping prayer vigils on Palm Sunday in support of the sanctity of life. (Photo Bill Brewer)

From Ash Wednesday to Palm Sunday, members of several faith communities gathered at the corner of Gate City Highway and Osborne Street in Bristol to show—and voice—support for life. The site is next to an abortion facility that opened on the Virginia side of town only weeks after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade and the state of Tennessee almost immediately banned all abortions on demand. The abortion facility had been located about a mile away on the Tennessee side of town.

Among the Diocese of Knoxville churches represented during the 40 Days for Life were St. Dominic in Kingsport, St. Mary in Johnson City, and St. Anthony of Padua in Mountain City, whose members recall that not too long ago Bristol’s only abortion facility was located in Tennessee.

They would gather on sidewalks in front of that abortion building at the corner of Slaughter Street and W. State Street and take part in vigils and rosaries, praying for an end to abortion.

When the U.S. Supreme Court issued its landmark June 2022 ruling in the Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization case, which held that the U.S. Constitution does not confer a right to abortion, thus striking down the 39-year-old Roe v. Wade decision, abortion on demand was banned statewide in Tennessee due to strong pro-life legislation that had been passed in the state legislature.

As a result, Bristol’s lone abortion facility was forced to close, albeit temporarily, while another location was secured about a mile away on the Virginia side of Bristol. Bristol Women’s Health now operates at 2603 Osborne St., across the street from the Hard Rock casino and hotel now in business and under construction on Gate City Highway.

On Palm Sunday, Angie Bush of St. Anne led a group of faithful from Southwest Virginia and East Tennessee in praying for an end to abortion in Bristol to conclude the 40 Days for Life vigil.

“This is such a heartbreaking issue. Articles and videos from the past two years illustrate the brokenness that the evil of abortion is bringing to Bristol, our state, and our country. And the brokenness I am referring to doesn’t even include the death of approximately 150 innocent lives each month,” Mrs. Bush said.

“Why is 40 Days for Life important in Bristol and Virginia? The Bristol abortion business is affecting the lives of people—children in the womb, pregnant mothers, fathers, and families—in the whole southeast region of the United States. 40 Days for Life is about reaching hearts one heart at a time. Changing hearts is something only God can do, and so we pray, and we fast, and we keep our hope in the One who can heal all things and make all things new, Jesus,” she added.

The group of about 25 holding vigil prayed, sang hymns, and waved to people in vehicles passing by, most of whom honked or waved in support. There were some motorists who shared their disagreement with the pro-life supporters by yelling, cursing, and hand gestures.

However, support greatly outnumbered opposition in this southwestern outpost of the Diocese of Richmond. Southwest Virginia is rich in the Catholic faith, with many parishes to prove that. But attitudes about abortion, which the Catholic Church teaches is morally, spiritually, and canonically wrong, differ widely between the southwestern and northern parts of the state.

“Prayer is what will win this battle,” Mrs. Bush said. “And the battle is fierce down here. When we are praying for the end of abortion here in Bristol, we’re praying for a whole region since people from eight states come to Bristol seeking abortions. So, it’s very important to have 40 Days for Life here to end this abortion stronghold here in Bristol.”

According to Mrs. Bush, the eight states whose residents are frequenting Bristol for abortions are Tennessee, Virginia, West Virginia, Kentucky, Alabama, Georgia, North Carolina, and South Carolina.

Mrs. Bush shared that their prayers were answered in Bristol, Tenn., when abortion on demand was outlawed in 2022, forcing the only abortion facility to close. That’s when their prayers shifted down the street to the Virginia side.

She said a faith-based group had been praying for an end to abortion on the Tennessee side for at least 10 years before she got involved.

“We didn’t break vigil. We went right from the Tennessee side to the Virginia side. We’ve had a vigil consistently for about 15 years, whether or not I was leading it,” she said.

She feels like the 40 Days for Life vigil has gone well, and she is proud that St. Anne is growing its pro-life ministry.

She noted that St. Anne has received a grant from the Diocese of Richmond to support its pro-life efforts in Bristol.

Mrs. Bush explained that while Virginia has a pro-life governor in office, the state’s legislature is decidedly pro-abortion.

She said there are efforts underway in the legislature to have abortion enshrined in the state constitution.

She pointed out that while Southwest Virginia tends to lean pro-life, the state overall is influenced to a large degree by the pro-abortion northern two-thirds of the state.

“We are being affected by how people in northern Virginia feel about this. This is really a fight for life, not just for Southwest Virginia but for Northeast Tennessee. People are coming from Knoxville for an abortion here. They’re coming from Kentucky and West Virginia. It’s heartbreaking,” she said. “We’re not just fighting for Virginians. The laws in Virginia are going to affect several different states.”

She also said social media is a platform that women from all over are using to find out about abortion availability in Bristol.

Mrs. Bush, who is the mother of three adult sons, described 40 Days for Life as a unifying ministry, not only within St. Anne but also around the region and its faith communities.

“It’s not just a Catholic thing. 40 Days for Life draws us together as the body of Christ to speak for and be hands and feet of Christ and to be witnesses for Jesus,” she said.

“I met two women here who were fighting for life. I was here praying for an end to abortion as part of 40 Days for Life, and two young women had driven up from Knoxville. One of them said she is part of a Facebook group of young women, and she noticed on the Facebook feed that women were discussing women’s issues, and they were telling each other that you can get an abortion in Bristol. So, the two young women come up periodically from Knoxville to witness for life here. I was blessed to meet them. It was our common baptismal bond that brought us here to speak for the truth of Jesus and the Gospel of life,” she added.

Tom Egan, a member of St. Mary Parish in Johnson City, said he was lending support to the Bristol 40 Days for Life campaign to prayerfully bring an end to one of the most “horrendous” issues in society.

“It’s a huge issue with violating God’s laws. And I totally am opposed to any type of action that ends life or changes God’s laws,” said Mr. Egan, who lamented the widespread opposition pro-life supporters face around the country.

“We are blessed to not have an abortion clinic in the Tri-Cities area in Tennessee. That’s why we are here. This is the closest place where abortions are done in our area,” Mr. Egan pointed out. He noted that at St. Mary Parish, the Council of Catholic Women and the Knights of Columbus partner to offer a novena for life.

“Prayers work, whether we pray individually or as a family or group. We should be here, but we can pray anywhere. God hears us anywhere,” Mr. Egan added.

The Bristol group expressed interest in lobbying Bristol elected officials to support designating Bristol as a sanctuary for life city.

Betty and Jim MacDougall of St. Dominic Parish in Kingsport also took part in the 40 Days for Life vigil to pray for an end to abortion.

“We are here to pray that abortion ends and that we stop killing little babies as well as pray for the moms who are pregnant to get the assistance they need to raise their children to be children of God,” Mrs. MacDougall said.

“I’m here because of the sanctity of life. As a practicing Catholic, I believe that life begins at conception and ends with natural death. We want to really support the 40 Days for Life movement,” said Mr. MacDougall, who is in the Knights of Columbus at St. Dominic.

Although they attend Mass in Kingsport, the MacDougalls said abortion affects everyone, regardless of parish boundaries or state lines.

“Abortion affects us all. There are no boundaries with states or nations. We’re all part of God’s kingdom, and this is a fight for all of us,” Mr. MacDougall said.

“And in Tennessee, they are now referring people to Bristol for abortions. Where we are, there is Hope House, and we help them, giving for moms who need car seats, outfits, diapers, and things like that. We have been supporting them financially as have groups we are in. But this (Bristol) is ground zero, where people are going to kill the babies. So, we want to be here and help support the people who are coming here and pray that God changes their hearts,” Mrs. MacDougall said.

Hope House is a maternity home and crisis pregnancy resource center in Kingsport whose motto is “We Care About Life.”

The MacDougalls said they have been supporting 40 Days for Life for over a decade.

“They are doing awesome work,” Mrs. MacDougall said about the pro-life organization.

Warren and Maryann Hanrahan and John and Karen Hoak of St. Anthony of Padua Parish in Mountain City drove 100 miles round trip to be a part of the Bristol 40 Days for Life vigil.

For them, support for life is that important.

“We don’t come as often as we want to. We’re pretty far away. But we come as often as we can,” Mr. Hoak said.

Mrs. Hanrahan said someone has to speak for the babies.

“We want to be out and be the light that the world needs because you can’t do that being hidden. That’s why we’re here,” Mr. Hanrahan said.

“We’re also here to support the mothers who are in crisis pregnancies. We want to let them know that there is an alternative to going into that place (abortion facility),” Mrs. Hoak said.

Mr. Hoak added that they are praying for fathers, too, whether those men are suffering from the loss of a child or helped procure an abortion for a woman.

Mr. Hanrahan expressed hope that what happened in Bristol, Tenn., will happen in Bristol, Va.

“That’s why we’re here. We closed that one after participating in this program. So, this gives us hope that this will be next. Prayers work,” he said.

Mrs. Bush was grateful that so many Protestant churches and Catholic parishes took part in the Bristol 40 Days for Life vigil, including a representation from the Diocese of Knoxville.

Orville Fisher, who lives near Maryville and attends St. Mary Parish in Athens, has been driving to Bristol regularly to participate in the Lenten 40 Days for Life vigil.

Actively supporting life, no matter the distance, is central to his faith.

“I realize how big the issue is, and I realize there are a lot more pro-life people than there are active pro-life people. I’m blessed to have time to get out there and do what I do,” Mr. Fisher said.

Mr. Fisher is grateful to St. Anne Parish, Mrs. Bush, and the people in the Bristol area as well as those in other parts of Upper East Tennessee for taking such an active stance for life.

“Here in Bristol, Va., we’re right next to Tennessee. So, the pro-life group up here is doing our work. They are doing the work of pro-life people in Tennessee by being here when the women from Tennessee come to the abortion business by standing, praying, and representing life. It’s important to recognize that abortion is a lot closer to us than we think,” Mr. Fisher said.

“We can all do our part to get out there sometime and be there when the women from Tennessee arrive at the abortion business,” he added.

Mr. Fisher credited the faithful in Southwest Virginia and Northeast Tennessee for doing so much to promote and pray for life.

“To be able to operate a 40 Days for Life campaign up here shows a lot of commitment on the part of the people here,” he noted.

Paul Simoneau, Diocese of Knoxville vice chancellor who leads diocesan 40 Days for Life campaigns, is grateful to the volunteers who have actively prayed for an end to abortion in Bristol and believes their efforts resonate from the sidewalks to the pews and even to the halls of government.

“Though Tennessee was blessed to effectively outlaw abortion after Roe v. Wade was struck down, efforts to promote and protect the sanctity of life have become even more important—legislatively, for pregnancy and adoption centers like those offered by Catholic Charities of East Tennessee, and through programs to assist new mothers. But in the city of Bristol, with its main street marking the divide between Tennessee and Virginia, an abortion facility is but a relatively short few steps across the border. So, I am particularly grateful and edified by the incredible volunteers who have continued to keep their 40 Days for Life campaigns going in Bristol in order to pray, provide a public witness, and to offer counseling and assistance to women in crisis pregnancies,” Mr. Simoneau said.

“The importance of their ongoing efforts underscores the importance also of our legislative efforts in Nashville, where efforts to weaken and undo the Human Life Protection Act continue, even by some supposedly self-acclaimed pro-life Republicans. So, I thank our Lord for the good volunteers supporting the 40 Days for Life campaign in Bristol, Va., and Tennessee Right to Life in their efforts to protect the sanctity of the unborn from legislative efforts to permit their destruction,” he added.

And while the Lenten 40 Days for Life campaign came to an end in Bristol on Palm Sunday, that doesn’t mean the prayers, hymns, uplifting talks, waves, smiles, fellowship, and  sidewalk Christian witness won’t continue.

Mrs. Bush is determined to keep praying for life.

“This isn’t going away, and neither are we,” she said.

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