Rachel’s Vineyard offers post-abortion healing and hope

Some members of Ann Arbor Rachel’s Vineyard team, left to right, Nancy Patel, Della Seeley, site leader Beth Bauer (kneeling), Fr. Nate Harburg and Pam McGowan are pictured with a statue of the Blessed Mother. Photos by Nancy Patel |
Special to the Michigan Catholic

Ann Arbor — It’s a decision that haunts one in four women, causing some to live in the shadow of shame and regret every day of their lives. Regardless of the reason behind it, abortion has a deep psychological, emotional and spiritual impact.

Healing this “wound of the soul,” as Theresa Burke, Ph.D., describes it, is at the heart of Rachel’s Vineyard, a post-abortive outreach ministry founded by Burke in 1995 and established in Michigan in 2003 by Beth Bauer. The growing ministry, which offers weekend retreats and resources for post-abortive women and men worldwide, includes two sites that operate out of the Archdiocese of Detroit.

“We welcome anyone impacted by abortion, regardless of their religious affiliation or where they live,” said site leader Wendy Anderson.

Rachel’s Vineyard is currently registering people for its Sept. 15-17 retreat in Detroit; the Spanish chapter, El Viñedo de Rachel-Detroit-Hispano, will hold its retreat Nov. 17-19. Site locations are kept confidential to protect participants’ identities.

Rachel’s Vineyard retreats are built on the concept of moving through the “Good Friday” suffering of abortion to the “Easter Sunday” resurrection and redemption, Anderson said. The primary emphasis of the weekend is entering and moving through the process of grief — recognizing and dealing with anger or numbness, mourning the lost child or children, renewing one’s spiritual life through Scripture exercises, and developing a spiritual relationship with their lost child. Every site uses the same manual and support group model.

“In church, we hear pro-life messages about the travesty of abortion, but we don’t focus on healing the woman or the man, which is so important because the healing they receive goes out to everyone around them,” said Anderson, who is post-abortive.

“It’s like a crack in the ice and you step on it, and there are all these different fissures. Everyone I met after my abortions was impacted by my abortions — my friends, my family, my co-workers. I wasn’t capable of being the person God willed me to be in the world until I received healing. For years, instead of operating from a place of love, I was operating from a place of darkness and fear,” she said.

Someone who understands

“Ann,” whose real name is being withheld by The Michigan Catholic to protect her identity, suffered an 18-year downward spiral of depression and anxiety, drug and alcohol abuse, never understanding her abortion was the root of the problem until she sought recovery in a 12-step program.

“I began to earnestly seek forgiveness and healing,” Ann said. “I tried everything — therapy, repeated confession, step work with my sponsor, Catholic deliverance prayer — but my soul was still aching.”

One day, Ann spotted a Project Rachel brochure for post-abortive women at her church and felt guided to pick it up. When she mustered the courage to call, she was directed to Bauer, who serves as site leader for Rachel’s Vineyard in Ann Arbor.

“Beth put me at ease right away. I felt safe talking to her,” Ann said. “I was relieved to find someone who understood and didn’t judge.”

Bauer told The Michigan Catholic the retreats are designed to take women — and men — out of isolation to find others who understand their sufferings and anguish.

“Participants meet others who have walked a similar path and who are grieving and struggling with shame, guilt, anger, unforgiveness, betrayal and intense grief,” Bauer said.

Bereavement dolls representing each child lost to abortion are placed in a cradle at the Rachel’s Vineyard retreat memorial service.

Touching Jesus

“Dawn,” another Rachel’s Vineyard participant who suffered with the aftermath of her abortion for 10 years, agrees.

“At my retreat, there was a powerful sense of unity that gave me comfort,” she said.

Retreats typically include eight to 10 participants and six to seven team facilitators, said Bauer, who originally brought the ministry to the Diocese of Gaylord, and has since trained teams in Detroit, Grand Rapids, Saginaw, Lansing and Petoskey. Every retreat team includes a priest or deacon, a mental health professional who has a deep faith in the healing power of Jesus Christ, a site leader, and compassionate lay people.

“The people serving on the team are typically post-abortive, so there’s a sense of safety and a trust that happens through the group sharing on Friday and throughout the weekend,” Anderson said. “I see people walk in Friday with a darkness and heaviness around them. Then something touches them during the weekend, some exercise, and you can see the change.”

For Dawn, symbolically touching the hem of Jesus’ cloak was the most powerful exercise of the weekend. “I felt unclean, like the woman with the hemorrhage. In that meditation, I truly felt like Jesus walked through the crowd past me and I was able to reach out and touch his cloak, and it freed me of all my sin and shame,” she said. “To know that He does not condemn me for my sins was extremely powerful and relieved me of the burden I had been carrying.”

During the retreat, participants are invited to receive the sacrament of reconciliation, participate in Mass and renew their baptismal promises.

“God’s mercy is bigger than any possible sin, including abortion,” said Fr. Nate Harburg, pastor of Nativity of the Lord Parish in Alma and a pastoral team member for Michigan Rachel’s Vineyard retreats. “When parents accept God’s forgiveness, God then enables them to forgive themselves.”

“I have seen many people experience healing and deeper freedom in Christ at these retreats, especially through the exercises and the sacrament of reconciliation. I thank God for the opportunity to help,” Fr. Harburg said.

Finding freedom

Ann found freedom in forgiveness at her retreat.

“On the first night of the retreat, I met Jesus, and I felt like he never left my side,” Ann said. “I was overwhelmed by his compassion, and I was finally able to accept his forgiveness and his grace to forgive myself.”

Anderson says in every retreat she’s conducted, by the last exercise of the weekend, there is always a tying up of loose ends by the Lord and a profound change in the atmosphere.

The retreat culminates in a memorial ceremony for the unborn babies.

“It hits me very hard when I think about all of the aborted babies who go unacknowledged each minute of every day, each month of every year,” Dawn said. “When we memorialize our unborn babies and light a candle for them, it gives meaning to these babies’ lives and it gives recognition to our great God, who is all-loving and ever-merciful. These children truly are in heaven waiting to meet us.”

Nancy Patel is a freelance writer who lives in Northville.


Upcoming Rachel’s Vineyard retreats

While exact locations are not made public for privacy reasons, those interested in attending a Rachel’s Vineyard retreat can contact the site coordinators below. For more information about Rachel’s Vineyard, visit www.rachelsvineyard.com or call the toll-free national hotline at 877-HOPE 4 ME (877-467-3463).

Location: Detroit

Dates: Sept. 15-17

Contact: Wendy Anderson, (248) 494-6363 or [email protected]

Location: Detroit (Spanish chapter)

Dates: Nov. 17-19

Contact: Silvia Pena, (313) 523-2191 or [email protected]

Location: Ann Arbor

Dates: Nov. 17-19

Contact: Beth Bauer, (734) 879-0427 or [email protected]

Location:  Grand Rapids

Dates: Nov. 3-5

Contact: Maggie Walsh, (616) 340-1824 or (800) 800-8284 (Michigan only); [email protected]

Location: Saginaw

Dates: Nov. 10-12

Contact: Lori Becker, (989) 797-6652 or [email protected]