(For Part One, click HERE)
Jennifer (not her real name) is a 42 year old NYC teacher. A cradle Catholic, she had not practiced her Faith for years. After a traumatic abortion experience, she reached out for help – and found herself directed to the Church, in the person of a priest in an amazing Brooklyn parish.
REGINA: What led you to seek help from the Church?
JENNIFER: Crippling despair led me to seek out my parish priest. I had the abortion in January, and I went to confession for it in March, on Ash Wednesday.
Father was supportive, and suggested I pray each night of Lent for my baby, and to let my baby continue to bring me closer to God, and to not pray from a place of guilt, but of compassion and love. Which I did. And it helped.
But it wasn’t enough. The pain of abortion, even if elected as a choice, if truly faced head on, is colossal. By summer, I knew I needed more help. I was sinking quickly and could not wait, so even though it was far away in Pennsylvania somewhere, I went to the next available Rachel’s Vineyard retreat I could find.
REGINA: How did you feel about that?
JENNIFER: The location itself was serene. Just the idea, the notion, that I was going there to meet God to get help for what I had done, began to help me. I was maybe a little scared, for although I did have God in my life, I did not want to become a religious nut or something.
However, the need for God and other’s help with this pain was far greater than any fear I could have had about driving to a strange location, to meet strangers and try to share about the most personal and shameful things in my life. I was grateful that help existed.
What I found at Rachel’s Vineyard were a group of compassionate people who were there to help me and other women like me.
Finally, real love.
REGINA: How did it begin?
JENNIFER: The first night I was given a prayer blanket that was knit while prayers were said. It was comforting and I often had it in our group talks. I volunteered to share my story first, I was used to speaking because of Al-Anon, and after the first video we watched, I had already learned so much. It was bittersweet to know that having an abortion was so powerfully painful because human life is precious. And I realized that if having an abortion caused so much pain because life is precious, then I had to apply that to my life as well. God used my time at Rachel’s Vineyard to begin to heal this great wound, to turn my greatest sins and weaknesses into life affirmations and hope.
REGINA: Can you describe your experience?
JENNIFER: Rachel’s Vineyard is based on meditations from excerpts of the Bible from Jesus’ life. They would read the scripture and then hold a meditation and then we would share. They were wonderful meditations. They are some of the first interactions that I have had with Jesus and His real presence in my life. In one visualization, we were instructed to look into Jesus’s eyes. I can still see the love and compassion that I witnessed that day. As I watched another women I met there find relief, she said to me, “I saw them, I saw my babies with Jesus.” I had seen mine as well. The meditations introduced us to God’s infinite love and healing through Jesus. I know my babies are with him, there is not a doubt in my heart or mind.
There were about 5 or 6 post abortive women on the retreat, we were sitting in a group circle, hearing the scripture and meditating and a woman was tearfully telling her story. I looked around the room and my eyes stopped on the priest who was working with us. He was a large man, with a cane. Big, grey, older, he sat there strongly in his chair, listening to this woman’s pain with complete attention. He was like this mountain. And as I looked at him, and I could see him absorbing this woman’s pain.
All of the volunteers and participants were absorbing this woman’s pain. These complete strangers were here to listen to our stories and help us find our way to God. They knew God well enough to be here for Him, to do His work, for us. I was very moved by it. God works though people. It was very healing.
I only have one photo from the retreat. It was from this beautiful tree-lined path you had to travel to get to the retreat house. When I was back home in Brooklyn, I posted the picture to the one girl that I had made friends with on the retreat. When I posted it she commented, “The drive that may have saved my life, or at least my spirit.”
REGINA: Does anything stand out in your mind?
JENNIFER: Rachel’s Vineyard was where I experienced my first hour of Eucharistic Adoration. Although raised Catholic, I had no idea what it meant or what I was doing. At 2 am I had to get up and take over for the woman that was there at 1 am.
I sat alone in the presence of Jesus. I think for me this was the beginning of possibility. I could feel the serenity in this presence and although theoretically I knew I was there with Jesus, I am still not sure I understand what that means. But I know I wasn’t alone, and that there was more to life than I currently understood.
REGINA: Wow, that is significant!
JENNIFER: We also had a memorial ceremony. I had invited my baby’s father to the retreat and ceremony, and Brian of course could not be there. We were given small dolls to represent our aborted babies to give to God, and a chance to speak. I felt safe and participated in everything. I wanted any help or healing I could get. As I spoke through tears, I regretted that my baby did not have his father there to acknowledge him, but that I was grateful to know that my baby had a father in heaven who would.
If we wanted, we could write a poem, which I did, which really sums up the extent of my experience at RV (its in haiku form):
Yield my heavy heart
The measure of its sorrow
Is matched by God’s love
Then a hug, a kiss
Bittersweet is the journey
From despair to grace
Accept and forgive
With humility I can
See your pretty face
All of the ceremonies, group discussions and meditations at RV were a blessing. Even meals were loving. RV was to be cared for, to be loved, by people in service of God.
REGINA: You were raised Catholic?
JENNIFER: Yes. I had at least ten years of Catholic schooling, but none of it really meant anything to me at the time. There was a difference between knowing about one’s faith and believing it. It was all nice enough, but I didn’t think it was something to follow. And besides, way louder messages were being sent by society at large. Sex, drugs, rock and roll, the aftermath of the free love movement, the feminist movement, the perception of this weak role of women in society. We had to succeed! We had to succeed without a man! It was rebellion in a way I guess. I had to be humbled before truly knocking on Jesus’ door.
REGINA: Please tell us the story of how you came back to the church.
JENNIFER: I had gone to Al-Anon, which is a spiritual program, for seven years before the abortion, because I finally realized that the common denominator in my history of bad relationships was me. The 12 steps did bring me to God, and God definitely brought me to the steps. Thanks to that program, I was lucky enough to know to turn to God after I had the abortion and the walls caved in on me. But that seems to be where Al-Anon’s help ended and my return to the Catholic Church began.
I had started going back to church off and on before the abortion, and I liked it, but it wasn’t until the abortion when I started knocking and knocking and knocking that God answered and answered and answered.
The abortion was in January 14 and I went to confession on Wed March 5 after the Ash Wednesday service. My sister was at the service, and knew about the abortion, was very active in the church, and helped me get Father to hold confession right then. He told me, in the confessional, that my baby was bringing me closer to God. He explained to me how my sin was a grievous one, that ex-communicated me from the church, but that God was merciful and that my confession alleviated the excommunication. And that my baby was helping to bring me to God and wasn’t that wonderful? I relayed my penance already, I was to pray each night of Lent for my baby, not from a place of guilt and sorrow, but of love. Which I did. And still often do.
After that I carried on with my therapist, but it was not enough, so I decided to speak with Father again and made an appointment.
REGINA: Was there any conflict between your therapy and your return to the Church?
JENNIFER: When I decided to talk to my parish priest again, my therapist was worried. I think he presumed I would feel guilt and shamed by the church. The next week, he asked how it went, and I told him that it was quite the opposite, that the priest, in this case, Fr. Gelfant at St Finbar RC Church in Brooklyn was supportive and helpful. It was at that meeting that when Father told me to go to Rachel’s Vineyard.
After Rachel’s Vineyard, I went to Lumina’s Entering Canaan Day of Prayer and Healing. And I still needed help, so I went through an 8 week post abortion healing group with the Midtown Pregnancy Support Center. One night a week, I drove in to Manhattan. That’s desperation!
No, all kidding aside, the MPSC was a wonderful program. More hands on than maybe Rachel’s, in that there was a workbook and assignments and specific activities to deal with regret, anger, forgiveness. It really helped. Each effort I made to get help built on the others and I began to heal.
REGINA: Did you have a sense of conversion?
JENNIFER: While I do believe I am having a conversion experience, it wasn’t immediately in response to my abortion experience. God waited until the right opportunity for it and that came with my father’s death in 2014, two years after the abortion.
Things plugged along. I did feel a lot of relief because of all the help I sought. I found a degree of forgiveness both for myself and Brian. I had tools to help me with resentment, and was back in church every Sunday. But Brian was still around, the relationship was still on and off. It was still hostile, I was too grief-stricken because of the abortion to keep it up.
Finally in the summer of 2013, I began a novena to St. Jude about the relationship. Three days after starting a novena, Brian left and I seized the moment to turn to God as much as I could. This is because Brian left and I found out my father had cancer. During this time, I leaned heavily on my new relationship with Jesus and God. I was at church daily praying at the Blessed Sacrament, for the lingering pain of my baby and the frightening upcoming loss of my father.
It was this experience that God used to heal both of my greatest wounds. He used the circumstance of my father’s death to address …well, everything. Months after he died and the smoke had cleared, I could look back and see what God did for me, and that is when the real conversion took hold.
REGINA: What happened?
JENNIFER: That was when I contacted Theresa Bonapartis of Lumina, because she was local, and available, and I had worked with her at Lumina. I didn’t know where else to go. I was like, “I have had this experience, and I am completely overwhelmed by it and do not know what to do.”
I was already dating someone else and he had just moved in with me. She was super-helpful and referred me to a priest in a Brooklyn parish, who I speak with regularly now, during this conversion experience. I am right in the middle of it.
REGINA: What do you mean?
JENNIFER: In October of 2015, I asked my current boyfriend to move out. I could not live together unmarried. I was beginning to see how long I had hurt myself with sex, under the guise of freedom and strength. I knew now that sex was sacred, that I am a gift from God not to be given away so easily. I am beginning to respect all life, including my own. Jesus has been revealing himself to me in doses when I am ready to understand. I’m very caught up in it right now. I actually fear straying from this newfound path.
REGINA: If you could advise women who are now in the position that you were in when you had an abortion, what would you say?
JENNIFER: The after effects of having an abortion almost killed me. I regret having my abortion, and cried for months afterwards wishing I could undo what I had done. I wish I knew then, what I know now.