There’s something so beautiful and life-giving about a simple smile. And in these times of COIVD-19 and masks, this strikes me in a particular way. The smile on a human face is a true gift from God, revealing and expressing delight of the soul.
In our advocacy and prayer ministry at our state’s only abortion facility, smiles can take on a variety of meanings. Sometimes we see people walking past the escorts, smiling in a manner that seems almost theatrical, going out of their way to tell the workers how “very much we appreciate your awesome work!”
But we’re not fooled. We know that this kind of smile, in this context, in this manner, exposes a deception deep in the soul. Only in that way is it a truth.
Other times, the darkness of this corner in our city can only be overcome by a lightness of heart. Though our work is somber, we must, at times, smile at one another and even laugh together. The need to bring, in moments at least, levity to offset our close proximity to evil cannot be underestimated.
In all of the smiles I’ve encountered on the sidewalk, however, none can top the one I encountered this Ash Wednesday. This day on the sidewalk tends to be especially heartbreaking. As Catholics, we’re already facing the heaviness of Lent when we approach the sidewalk of the abortion facility. We’ve just been reminded that we are dust, and of the gravity of our actions. The ashen cross comes with us and seems to burrow into our skin.
But this year, something beautiful happened this day. I had tried talking with a mom on her way in, and when she went inside anyway, I attempted to converse with the two friends who’d accompanied her, a male and female. The female friend shook her head, said something in broken English I couldn’t quite make out, and ran across the street to her car. But not before hearing our assurance that we could help her friend; that it wasn’t too late for her to come back out.
“You don’t have to go in. You can come back out. We’re here for you.” These were the words, we later learned, that had stayed with the mom; words that—as she raised a pen once inside the facility to sign away her rights to her baby, giving an abortionist permission to take her child from her womb and still its beating heart—made her freeze.
As she’d later share, our words echoing in her head—that simple invitation to come back out—had prompted her to pick up her cell phone and dial her male friend. “I’m supposed to sign these papers, and I don’t know what to do,” she’d said. “Don’t do it. Come out,” he’d responded. “We’ll help you.”
I was praying the Rosary with a small group when I saw, off to the side, the mom emerging from the building, and one of our newer advocates approaching her. They stood in the parking lot nearby, and I soon noticed that rather than rushing away from the advocate, the mom had stopped. They were talking, and—wait, what was I seeing? Smiles! Beautiful, bright smiles. A tap. A hug. Clearly, this was no ordinary exit. Those smiles gave away that this could well be a save.
A few more advocates joined them, and soon, I, too, was walking over to the little circle that had formed, just feet from the facility, to confirm, congratulate, and hug. It wasn’t an illusion. This mama had chosen life for her child, and she was so happy. We were elated with her.
The advocate who first responded led the mom and her friends to Women’s Care Center to continue her journey of “yes.” All because she’d heard our words—words that often seem futile: “You can come out…”
By the time this reaches you, our Lent 2021 will be complete, and the effects of Easter morning will be upon us. But I marvel in reflecting on this Ash Wednesday miracle; to recall how, even as our 40 days in the desert were beginning, God was reaching out to remind us that while our journey would be hard at times, the Resurrection would be coming. Indeed, we had just glimpsed it.
[Note: I write about my experiences on the sidewalk Downtown Fargo on Wednesday, the day abortions happen at our state’s only abortion facility, for New Earth magazine — the official news publication of the Fargo Diocese. I hope you find “Sidewalk Stories” helpful in understanding the truth about abortion and how it plays out tragically each week here in Fargo, N.D. The preceding ran in New Earth’s April 2021 issue.]