The faithful activism of Rev. Bill Kirby, a United Methodist pastor who helped lead the Missouri Clergy Consultation Service on Abortion, is tied to his long-held belief that God is love. Guided by Jesus’s commandment to “Love the Lord your God and love your neighbor as yourself,” Rev. Kirby felt called to assist nearly two thousand women experiencing unplanned pregnancies in the early 1970s, at a time when abortion was illegal, offering them non-judgemental, compassionate counseling known as All Options. “Even the use of the word ‘abortion’ was illegal,” he said. “We lived in the realm of knowing we could be in trouble.” If a woman in his care chose abortion, he and his colleagues made sure she could get one, even if it meant arranging a secret round-trip flight from Missouri to New York, where abortions were performed safely by trained physicians.
Rev. Kirby was one of three featured speakers at Faith in Women’s September event, “Called to Resist: The Pre-Roe Faith Movement that Saved Women’s Lives,” co-sponsored with the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice (RCRC). More than forty local clergy, churchgoers, health educators, and representatives of Mississippi-based reproductive health and rights organizations gathered in Jackson to learn about the history of the Clergy Consultation Service (CCS) and how its legacy continues to inform the prophetic work of reproductive health, rights, and justice advocacy today.
Historian Dr. Gillian Frank, a postdoctoral research fellow in the Program in American Studies at the University of Virginia, gave a brief overview of CCS’s history. At a time when abortion was a punishable crime, more than 2,000 Protestant ministers, Jewish rabbis, and dissident Catholic priests and nuns banded together to fight publicly for reproductive rights and to counsel hundreds of thousands of women on how they could access safe, compassionate abortion care. The underground networks they formed were robust: members were active in 40 U.S. states, 2 Canadian provinces, and in the city of Tokyo, Japan.
Why were these faith leaders willing to risk so much–their careers, their livelihood, even their freedom–for these women? They saw the devastating impact that illegal abortion was having on their communities. Back-alley abortion providers took advantage of desperate women, charging exorbitant fees to terminate their pregnancies and even worse, they often endangered their health and their lives in the process. “It became increasingly clear to clergy across the country that abortion restrictions were not preventing abortion,” noted Dr. Frank. “Rather, they were creating a public health crisis.”
The 1973 Roe v. Wade decision was a landmark moment for the CCS, whose members had advocated tirelessly for the legalization of abortion. But in Rev. Kirby’s eyes, it was also a moment when the CCS made a strategic error. “Once we got Roe, we quit. And that’s the mistake we made,” he commented. “We need to recover the moral high ground. We’ve given it up, and we can reclaim it.”
Dr. Willie Parker, a Christian abortion provider and author of the bestselling memoir Life’s Work, offered his insight as to how we reclaim our prophetic voice in this moment when the future of reproductive rights in the United States seems increasingly tenuous:
Let’s say hypothetically…that Roe goes away. Our task still doesn’t change. Women don’t lose their right to bodily autonomy and safe management of pregnancy. The question becomes what do we do next? If it’s non-negotiable that women have a right to safe termination of pregnancy and control of their lives, how creative are we going to be as people of goodwill?
Dr. Parker also emphasized that the intersectional analysis of the reproductive justice movement continues to be central in responding to the relentless political destruction of reproductive health and rights that has occured since the Roe decision. This expansive framework, he said, lends itself to the kind of coalition building we need right now—and that we will continue to need in the future.
Audience reaction was overwhelmingly supportive. For many attendees, the event was their first introduction to the history of the CCS. “I continue to be surprised to learn just how deeply involved faith leaders have been in this movement from early on, including advocating for safe, legal abortion and helping to provide care when it was still illegal in most states,” said one Jackson-based United Methodist minister. “I was also impressed with how strategic the CCS was in crafting an incredibly holistic movement that spanned several states and accounted for every detail of the process to help women have as smooth and safe an experience as possible. It was an amazing operation!”
Others considered their own faith perspectives as they listened to the speakers. “It’s so easy to lump all religious perspectives into one belief system or moral understanding of faith, grace, and health and healing. The movement is lead by people who are doing the work not in spite of their faith, but because of their faith,” commented one attendee. “That most resonates with me and my approach to life.”
To learn more about the Clergy Consultation Service on Abortion, check out RCRC’s interactive timeline.
Everyday we’re inspired by the tireless efforts of so many advocates to improve the lives of women, girls, and families in Mississippi and beyond. To honor that work, this month we are highlighting three of our colleague organizations working at the intersections of faith and reproductive health, rights, and justice: Exhale, the Religious Institute, and SisterReach. Read on to learn about their prophetic leadership in these areas, and how you can get involved with their ongoing work.
With its uniquely “pro-voice” approach, Exhale honors the breadth of abortion experiences and uses storytelling to shift the public conversation away from divisive labels and towards compassionate listening. Exhale’s Executive Director Rev. Susan Chorley, an ordained Baptist minister, preaches about her abortion experience to congregations around the country as part of Exhale’s Pro-Voice Tour.
In an interview with SELF magazine about the tour, Rev. Chorley said, “[Abortion] feels like an area that I’ve recognized the church is lacking in terms of supporting women’s experience—not that churches have to be supportive of abortion, but more that this is a reality for some women that are sitting in the pews.” By addressing the stigma surrounding abortion from the pulpit, Rev. Chorley brings visibility to a common, but invisibilized experience that many religious women have been too ashamed to name in their faith communities.
To learn more about Exhale and how you can support their work, visit exhaleprovoice.org.
The Religious Institute advocates for sexual, gender, and reproductive justice both within faith communities and beyond them. With a network of more than 8,500 people, they equip religious leaders and people of faith to bring their prophetic voice to the public square on issues concerning gender, sexuality, and our reproductive lives.
Abortion + Faith
In partnership with the Texas Freedom Network, Just Texas, and the Afiya Center, the Religious Institute has convened a series of trainings for clergy and lay leaders in Texas called Abortion + Faith. The training develops participants’ theological, pastoral, and congregational competency in the areas of reproductive access, reproductive justice, and abortion. Guided by theological reflection, informal presentations, and hands-on activities, the Abortion + Faith curriculum aids faith communities as they discern their call to advocate for reproductive justice in a hostile political and religious environment.
Webinars to Engage, Equip, and Inspire
Last summer the Religious Institute presented a webinar series entitled “Religious Resistance and Reproductive Justice” that focused on four thematic areas: Pastoral Care, Liturgy, Religious Education, and Preparation for Preaching. In partnership with subject matter experts, these webinars helped maintain faith leader advocacy engagement after what had been an exhausting six months of attacks on reproductive health, rights, and justice at the federal level. Recently the Institute presented a webinar entitled “When Seminaries Aren’t Safe: Sexual Assault and Harassment in Graduate Theological Education” that was facilitated by Rev. TiShaunda McPherson, a civil rights attorney, seminary graduate, and elder in the African Methodist Episcopal Church. You can view the webinars on the Religious Institute Youtube page.
To learn more about the Religious Institute’s work and to stay up to date about their latest campaigns, visit religiousinstitute.org.
Founded in Memphis in 20011, SisterReach was the first Reproductive Justice organization established in the state of Tennessee. Through advocacy and education, SisterReach strives to support the reproductive health and rights of all women and young people through community conversations and engagement with faith communities.
Faith & Advocacy Toolkit
As part of their interfaith advocacy work, SisterReach has developed free resources for faith leaders and their communities to engage them in the movement for reproductive justice. The EDUCATE! Toolkit is designed with seminarians, clergy, and other people of faith in mind while the ADVOCATE! Toolkit is for community partners that might be interested in partnering with religious organizations and their leadership. You can download these free toolkits by signing up on their resources page.
To learn more about SisterReach’s mission in Tennessee and beyond, visit sisterreach.org.
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As we kick off this new year at Faith in Women, we first want to take this opportunity to celebrate the amazing contributions of our supporters in 2017. In December we asked you to participate in a year-end engagement survey to let us know about the work you have done in your communities to advance and advocate for reproductive health and rights in Mississippi–and we were blown away by what we learned from the responses!
Over the past year, our supporters have engaged in all kinds of activities, including:
We are amazed at the breadth and depth of the work you all do on a daily basis to make Mississippi a more just, compassionate place for women and girls.
At Faith in Women we know that working across justice movements is critical for long-term, sustainable social change, so were pleased to learn from all of you about how you support many other like-minded organizations through financial giving and volunteering, including:
Our survey was helpful in learning more about the individuals who participate in our programs. Here are a few key pieces of data that we thought were most important to share:
Why is this important? Because it reinforces what we know to be true–that people of faith, even in Mississippi, want to see a more just world for women and girls. And while the majority of our members identify as people of faith or faith leaders (we are called Faith in Women, after all), we also have some members who do not personally belong to a faith tradition but still support the work we do to create spaces that allow for nuanced conversations and advocacy regarding faith and reproductive health, rights, and justice.
One thing we heard loud and clear–you all want more! More opportunities to connect with each other locally, more in-person events to learn about issues, and more web-based activities to join. We’ll do our best to make this happen!
As we finish our planning for 2018, we will be prioritizing the program and education areas that our members most requested of us in the coming year:
Thanks to all of our members for a justice-focused year. We can’t wait to see what we accomplish together in 2018!
Later this month Faith in Women will host Christian reproductive justice advocate Dr. Willie Parker for an evening conversation entitled “Called to Courage: Because of My Faith, Not in Spite of It” in Jackson, Mississippi.
Dr. Parker, an obstetrician/gynecologist who provides abortion care in some of the most underserved areas in the South including Mississippi, published his first book Life’s Work: A Moral Argument for Choice, part-autobiographical and part-theological, in which he carefully and thoughtfully weaves together his moral grounding as a medical provider and a Christian helping women in need of his care during their reproductive journeys. You can read an excerpt of his book here.
Our time with Dr. Parker will build on conversations that Faith in Women hosted over the summer during our first ever virtual book club in which faith leaders and people of faith across the state of Mississippi read Life’s Work together and explored their own moral questions related to reproductive justice in community with one another. One of the book club participants commented:
“It was really helpful to hear other people’s perspectives, especially since I am very new to learning about Christian perspectives in favor of reproductive health and abortion care. It’s such a controversial topic that I don’t always feel comfortable bringing it up with other Christians but knowing that this group consisted of people who opted in to reading and discussing the topic made it a safe place to voice questions.”
Interviewing Dr. Parker is Katey Zeh, a strategist, writer, and educator who works with nonprofits and faith communities on organizing for social change. She holds a Masters of Divinity from Yale University and is the author of the forthcoming book Women Rise Up, which will be published by the FAR Press in March of 2018.
Zeh and Parker are friends and colleagues in their work on the board of the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice. Expect their conversation to be rooted in faith, justice, and a shared understanding of the sacred worth of women.
This event will be by invitation-only. If you would like to request admission, please contact a member of our staff. Pre-registration is required for all attendees.
Our summer blog series features some of our partner organizations working in the reproductive health, rights, and justice movement. This month we highlight Moore Community House.
Moore Community House, a mission agency of United Methodist Women, served as the first organizational “home” for Faith in Women back in early 2015. Read on to learn more about how Moore Community House is transforming our state through building stronger communities for women and their families.
Moore Community House (MCH) strives for flourishing Mississippi communities through their work to create economic security for women by providing affordable child care and job training.
Since 1924 MCH has been working to better the lives of families living on Mississippi’s coast. Located in East Biloxi, the organization has its roots in serving the children who worked–or whose parents worked–in the seafood factories at a time when there were no labor laws to protect workers or to prevent child labor abuses.
Today MCH has two major programs:
Early Head Start allows low-income parents to return to work while their children receive high-quality early child education from infancy through preschool. Their program covers a wide-variety of services including nutrition, counseling, school readiness, and employment. Early Head Start also works with pregnant women to make sure they stay healthy throughout their pregnancy, birth, and delivery.
Women in Construction (WinC) provides career training for women in trade skills that will help them earn living wages. Since 2008 more than 400 women have completed the pre-apprenticeship program, and just recently MCH received a $3.5 million federal grant to expand this initiative significantly over the next four years!
Faith in Women owes its start to Carol Burnett, Director of Moore Community House. Seeing a need for progressive women-centered advocacy within the Mississippi faith community, Carol developed the idea to build a grassroots network of faith leaders and people of faith working in support of Mississippi women and their reproductive health. The idea quickly took root under the leadership of Ashley Peterson, becoming the Faith in Women network that we know today and operating under its own 501(c)3. Carol now serves as our Board President, guiding the vision of Faith in Women alongside WinC Program Director Julie Kuklinski and WinC Instructor Simone Agee.
There are a number of ways you can get involved with the work of the Moore Community House. Visit their website to make a donation, read up on recent news, or follow them on Facebook. To learn more about the Women in Construction program, you can follow their blog.
This summer we will be featuring a number of our partner organizations working in the reproductive health, rights, and justice movement. The first organization in our partnership series is the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice (RCRC).
RCRC has its roots in the Clergy Consultation Service, which was a network of mostly Protestant ministers and Jewish rabbis that helped connect women with affordable, compassionate abortion services in the years prior to the Supreme Court decision Roe v. Wade when the procedure was illegal. In 1973 members of these clergy networks formed a coalition, then called the Religious Coalition for Abortion Rights (RCAR), to ensure that access to abortion remained available to all women who needed it.
Today the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice (renamed in 1994) is “a broad-based, national, interfaith movement that brings the moral force of religion to protect and advance reproductive health, choice, rights and justice through education, prophetic witness, pastoral presence and advocacy.” RCRC’s programmatic work includes engaging scholars in creating new theological frameworks, organizing and mobilizing in southern states, and training faith leaders to provide pastoral care to those struggling with complex reproductive decisions.
In 2015, Faith in Women members participated in the RCRC’s Pastoral Care Training for Reproductive Decision-Making and Loss, a valuable opportunity for helping faith leaders and spiritual caregivers understand the complexities of reproduction and everything that encompasses. RCRC staff spent a full day with half a dozen Mississippi clergywomen and clergymen from small towns and larger cities across the state, on how to serve as a compassionate presence for the women and families in their communities as they discern their reproductive destinies and grieve reproductive losses of all kinds.
The experience was a rare safe space to explore difficult topics like infertility, stillbirth, unplanned or traumatic pregnancy, abortion, and adoption from a religious framework that offers compassion, love, and judgment-free support for women. By the end of the training, the pastors reported feeling stronger and more comfortable in their roles as caregivers for women making reproductive decisions. Faith in Women continues to be an ally of RCRC as we work together to increase the participation of people of faith in the movement for reproductive health, rights, and justice.
Next month RCRC will be launching a web-based series called “Sacred Crossroads” hosted by Rev. Dr. Cari Jackson and Rev. Aaron Payson. These 30-minute videos will feature thoughtful and accessible conversations with clergy, practitioners, and scholars on a range of reproductive health, rights, and justice issues. The series will kick off with discussions around grief and reproductive loss. To be notified when the series launches, please follow RCRC on Facebook and Twitter (@rcrchoice). You can also sign up for their newsletter at rcrc.org.