Prayers & Sermons
By Reverend Barbara Gerlach, First Congregational United Church of Christ, Washington D.C.
John 14:15-17, 25-27, 20:19-29
I was in ninth grade when Anna May dropped out of school, the first girl in my class to get pregnant. She disappeared in a whisper of rumors, never to be seen again. Such was the stigma and shame that surrounded women, in this case a 14-year-old girl, who got pregnant outside of marriage in the early 60's. If you are over 50, you know stories like this one. Girls who suddenly got married in what were called "shot gun weddings" or who were quietly sent away to a relative's home until the baby was born and an adoption arranged. Women whose mothers or friends, doctors or ministers secretly helped them get an illegal abortion or who died trying to end a pregnancy with harsh chemicals or a coat hanger.
On Sunday hundreds of thousands of people will gather in Washington for the March for Women's Lives to protect the right of women to reproductive choice, given by the 1973 Supreme Court decision known as Roe v Wade, which made abortion legal again after it was outlawed in the 19th Century. Since then the debate has continued to rage in Congress, state legislatures, and the courts between those who are "pro-life" and "pro-choice," with people of faith on both sides of the issue.
I can tell you the exact moment my own position in this debate became clear. It was 1971. I was in my last year in seminary and part of a women's consciousness raising group that met every Sunday night to share our experiences as women. One night the discussion turned to abortion. One of my classmates described her experience of getting pregnant while a student at Brown University and coming to New York City with her mother to get an illegal " back alley" abortion. The whole experience was shrouded indanger, secrecy, and fear. She was given an address and a special password to gain entry into a brownstone house. She was ushered in by a man wearing a mask, who quickly did the medical procedure in a dark cluttered room without ever speaking a word to her.
The second classmate, who had an abortion while she was in seminary just after a cliff-hanging vote made abortion legal in New York, described an experience as different as night from day. She went to a state-of- the-art medical clinic and talked to a counselor who carefully explained and accompanied her throughout the medical procedure. She felt safe and supported, respected and well-cared for. She also told us how getting pregnant and deciding to have an abortion became a time of deep ethical reflection, self-searching, and personal change and growth for her.
Six months later, after I graduated from seminary and John and I became co-pastors of a church in Scranton, Pennsylvania, those two stories led me to train to be a counselor with Clergy Consultation Service. Clergy Consultation Service was a group of ministers throughout the United States, who used their right to confidentiality in pastoral relationships to provide options counseling and referrals to women with unplanned, unwanted and "problem" pregnancies. Our job as counselors was to provide information on the various options�abortion, adoption, going through with the pregnancy and raising a child alone or with a partner and to create a supportive environment where each woman could weigh her choices and make the best decision for herself.
During the next two years, until Roe v Wade made abortion legal, I had the opportunity to witness the ethical decision-making process of perhaps 30 women�young teenagers, college students, older women with several children�as they made hard choices about their pregnancies, their lives, and their futures. Often I felt like I was on holy ground.
I never met a woman who made that decision lightly. Without wrestling with the particularity of her own life situation and the effect her decision would have on others. Without considering whether she was ready and able to raise a child. Without agonizing over what is meant to terminate the life of a fetus with a serious genetic or developmental problem. Without examining her personal values in light of the values of her family, religion and society. Nor did I meet a woman with an unplanned or problem pregnancy who didn't have to move through a complicated mix of emotions. Fear, guilt, sorrow, grief, confusion. Regret over her failure to use birth control or a birth control failure. Anger at herself for her poor judgment or at the man who may have raped or abandoned her or who simply was not the right person at the right time to become a life partner. A sense of unfairness at how the consequences of the sexual act fell far more heavily on the woman than the man. Pressures from people who wanted to dictate or influence her decision. Yet, in every situation I also witnessed the sense of relief and empowerment, personal growth and deepening ethical sense as each woman finally made and carried through on the decision that was best for her.
But when my own daughter Jessica came home from her first semester in college pregnant, I had to catch myself. I knew what I wanted. I wanted that pregnancy to go away. I wanted Jessica to go through options counseling and decide to have an abortion. I wanted her to finish college and get everything in the "right order" to fit the future I had imagined for her. But the more we talked, I realized that Jessica, whose biological mother had given her up for adoption, had already made her decision to have and keep and raise this baby. I had to remind myself that it was her life-decision and that I needed to respect and support her choice.
Let me close by putting the question of reproductive choice in a larger biblical and theological context. The United Church of Christ respects the "freedom of conscience" of each individual in matters of faith and ethical decision-making. This has led many in our congregation and denomination to be "pro-choice' and become strong advocates for a woman's right to choose and the separation between church and state so that the state does not interfere in a woman's right to reproductive choice or access to reproductive health care.
I chose the passage about Jesus giving the commandment to love one another and then promising an Advocate, a Spirit of truth who is with us and in us, teaching us what we need to know and reminding us what is most important because this is how I experience the Spirit at work in my life and the world. I certainly have felt the Spirit alive in Jessica's decision and the way our family came together around her pregnancy and Antonio's birth, and in the support of this church and the stories many of you have shared about your own reproductive decisions. It is true. Trusting in the active presence of the Spirit of truth, advocating for us in our most difficult decisions, makes us less afraid, increases our sense of peace, and deepens our ability to love one another.
In today's story, Jesus appears to the disciples huddled in fear behind closed doors. Jesus begins with where he left off before his death. He greets them with " Peace be with you." Then he breaths on them and tell them: "Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive sins, they are forgiven. If you retain sins, they are retained."
At my husband John's 60th birthday party, a friend asked people to share an image that described him. At the very end of the circle, Jessica said very softly, "Forgiveness."
Think about forgiveness in relationship to some of the big mistakes or messes you have made in your life, or the big grievances and disappointments you are holding against others.Think about the stigma and desperation that still surrounds unwanted pregnancies. Remember the recent rash of stories. Babies left on doorsteps, some found living, some already dead. Babies wrapped in blankets and thrown into the water to drown because the woman, probably a young teenage girl, felt all alone with no one to turn to, no human advocate to create a safe and loving space where she could make her decision, no one to help her plead her case with her parents, who may not have known what was best for their daughter. I think of Deborah, who told us how her mother forced her to have an abortion at 16. Or a Native American friend, whose adopted mother forced her at 16 to give up her daughter for adoption immediately after birth without even letting her hold the baby she carried for nine months. Experiences like these can help us understand why some people are opposed to the requirement that minors notify and receive parental permission before they can get an abortion. No state or religious authority, no parent or boyfriend should be able to force a woman to bear a child, abort a child, or put a child up for adoption.
When my mother first learned that Jessica was pregnant, she told my sister, "This is the worst tragedy that has ever befallen our family." When I reported my mother's comment to my sister-in-law, she said, "Well, it's good that one's behind you!" What seemed so difficult at the time, and must have been hardest for Jessica, became a blessing - the life of Antonio, the coming together of our family, the deepening of our relationship with Jessica.Watching Jessica take responsibility for her decision, care for herself through her pregnancy, be a loving mother to Antonio, grow in confidence and find her way back to the University of Maryland where she graduates on May 20, confirms my trust in a women's right and wisdom to choose what is best for her and leads me to march next Sunday to protect the right of each women to make her own decision.
April 18, 2004