On the first Saturday of every month, about forty of us gather outside Planned Parenthood on Bleecker Street in downtown Manhattan for an early morning Vigil for Life. We have been holding this vigil for almost ten years and neither wind nor rain nor blazing sun discourages us. My experience there has been so different from anything I’ve seen on TV or in the news that I’d like to share it with you.
Although all faiths are welcome, we have our roots in a Brooklyn-based Catholic group called God’s Precious Infants, founded by the saintly Monsignor Philip Reilly. I was privileged to attend one of Fr. Reilly’s last training sessions. “We are not doing this to save babies,” he told us, “we are doing this to save souls.” It helps me to keep in mind that we are praying for everyone involved in the tragedy of abortion: the child, the parents, the misguided workers and volunteers inside Planned Parenthood.
The Manhattan Vigil for Life was begun in the fall of 2008 by the Sisters of Life, Catholic nuns who have a special dedication to protecting the unborn. But Saturday being their order’s busiest day, in recent years the Sisters have turned over most of their leadership duties to the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal. We begin at eight a.m. at the Basilica of Old St. Patrick’s Cathedral at the corner of Mott Street and Prince, where a priest, lately Father Fidelis of the Franciscans, celebrates Mass for us. We are in the heart of what was once known as Little Italy, now the red hot neighborhood called NoHo (North of Houston Street).
The Mass is followed by Exposition of the Blessed Sacrament. People can either remain in the church to adore the Eucharist or join the Rosary procession to Planned Parenthood, two blocks away. Before we leave the church, Father Fidelis reminds us that we are there to pray for everyone involved in this tragedy, but we do not engage with hecklers. After that we file out, first a volunteer holding a crucifix and another with a banner of Our Lady of Guadalupe, then Father, followed by the rest of us.
Planned Parenthood is at the corner of Mott Street and Bleecker. A sign tells us that this is Margaret Sanger Square, which is almost funny since it’s a T-shaped intersection with no square in sight. The facility is a yellow-brick, seven-story, former loft building. A Planned Parenthood logo is on one side. The words “Health Center” are on the glass entry door. Recently, a poster has been added to the glass door. It features a young, smiling, veiled Muslim woman, with the headline “Everyone is Welcome Here.” In eight years of standing vigil, I have never seen a Muslim woman in a veil enter the building. Most of the clients appear to be working-class African Americans and a few Hispanics.
By the time we get to the center it’s about nine o’clock, but Saturday morning is pretty quiet on Bleecker Street. It’s too early for families and baby strollers. We see some young people still dressed in last night’s club outfits. Others are walking their dogs or making a coffee run. As the neighborhood has gotten fancier, so have the dogs—like last Saturday’s French bulldog sporting an argyle sweater. The Bowery is just two blocks away but the historic skid row is long gone. One morning a scowling and grizzled older man, who looked like a refugee from the old days, crossed the street and walked toward us, carrying a steaming cup of coffee. I found myself considering the real possibility that he was going to toss that hot coffee at me. Instead, as he got closer, he gave us a thumbs-up and smiled! (Later, I mentioned my concern to my companions and discovered that they, too, had been braced for a hot splash.)
Having arrived, we divide into two groups: “prayer warriors,” who stand across from the center and pray, and sidewalk counselors, who seek to make the parents of the unborn child aware of other choices than abortion. The counselors include a former high-school principal, a youthful retired cop who comes with his wife or college-age daughter, and a few members of Pro Bikers for Life, a (motorcycle) Biker chapter supporting the pro-life cause. The Bikers wear leather motorcycle jackets and park their Harleys nearby.
We on the prayer line remain quietly praying while the sidewalk counselors approach those who appear to be headed for the Planned Parenthood center. They carry pamphlets with information about how to contact the Sisters for help. The Bikers are especially good with the fathers, who are often ambivalent about the decision to abort. They will offer a young man a cigarette (they’re always nervous) and initiate a chat. They tell him that he and the mother have other options, describing the work of the Sisters of Life, whose assistance is limitless. Sometimes a young man will text his girlfriend who is already inside the center. Sometimes she changes her mind. If the Sisters are nearby, they immediately come over to meet with them. (Thank God for the cell phone!) Otherwise, we’ll send the couple uptown to the Sisters’ convent. We have had many turnarounds this way. If the young man is worried because he is unemployed, the Bikers assure him they can help him find a job. Biker Lou even hired one of these young men to work in his electrical shop.
Mike, the ex-cop, likes to stand near the entrance, which greatly irritates the guardians at the door. But he keeps a copy of McCullen v. Coakley on his cell phone so that he can show them he is within his rights. A newcomer among the counselors, a tall, Ryan Gosling-type from Connecticut, has an unexpected approach: He wears a pink apron that is the same color as the apron worn by the volunteers at the door, minus the Planned Parenthood logo. He even fooled some of us at first. Nothing malicious is intended, it just enables him to get close enough to hand out pamphlets before PP guardians intercept them.
Meanwhile, we continue quietly to pray. Our group is very mixed but I know it includes a couple of lawyers, a psychologist, a former Broadway dancer, and several social workers. It’s the crowd you might see when you go to vote. My friend Angela, who dragged me to my first vigil, was successful in the financial world, but after 9-11 she felt she needed to make a change. She went back to graduate school and is now a licensed psychotherapist, specializing in post-traumatic stress syndrome. Our vigil is not far from the site of the World Trade Center and I suspect that 9-11 marked a turning point for many of us. Another prayer warrior, John, comes out of gratitude because he and his wife conceived a healthy child after years of infertility. At least two of my fellow prayer warriors have mentioned abortions in their own pasts.
Tourists often take photographs of our prayer line, as do our friends at Planned Parenthood, who are very conscientious about this because they would love to catch us with more people than our City of New York permit allows. Sometimes we get hecklers. They shout at us, but rarely linger because this is New York and everyone is in a hurry. The boldest are the ones in cars who blow their horns and shout at us as they speed by. A guy on a pedal bike might give us the finger. On the other hand, there’s a steady stream of taxis, car-service vehicles, and delivery trucks bringing seafood and provisions to the restaurants in the neighborhood. Many of those drivers make the sign of the cross as they pass us. I feel blessed.
By ten o’clock we have concluded our Planned Parenthood vigil and are ready to return to Old St. Patrick’s for a few more brief prayers. Then we head to the parish house on Mulberry Street for a coffee social. John, the church sexton, has already started the coffee. We put out donuts and the Sisters bring bagels donated by one of their many friends. We break our silence and the room fills with chatter. Father Fidelis might say a few words, then some of the sidewalk counselors share their stories. Although we on the prayer line try not to be distracted by the interactions taking place across the street, we can’t help but be curious. And everyone wants to hear a turnaround story.
The Sisters also have stories to share. They might update us on a couple who were turned around and have now delivered a healthy baby . . . and found employment. Or a technician working for Planned Parenthood in the Bronx whose work had troubled him for years, but was fearful about finding another job. At last he has found something at a respectable hospital and is grateful for our prayers.
There are always surprises. Like the four evangelical Christian women who recently joined us at Bleecker Street. They’re training with the Bikers for Life to become sidewalk counselors. And this past fall there were two women from Nigeria in colorful dresses who upheld their country’s reputation for fashion and faith. They had paid their own way to New York and were staying with EMC Pregnancy Centers in order to learn about our pro-life methods to prepare for the struggle at home. Occasionally the counselors have even brought a young couple back from “Margaret Sanger Square” to join us and feel the love and support available to them.
By eleven o’clock we are winding down, and people are leaving to enjoy the rest of their Saturday. Some will be back during the week, or, like Mike and the Bikers, they’ll be serving at other abortion centers outside the City. We are all enriched, but at the same time troubled by this experience. There is so much love and support available to the women and men we encounter outside Planned Parenthood. Yet we know that, for those who don’t turn around, their suffering is only just beginning.