WASHINGTON – When 40 Days for Life launched a nationwide campaign in 2007, no plan existed for a follow-up. That fall effort was both the first and only, as far as its leaders knew.
“We had no intention of doing a second campaign,” said Shawn Carney, 40 Days for Life’s campaign director. “I think the summer of ’07, if you could sum it up for me, we had absolutely no idea what we were getting into.”
Now, more than five years later, the organization’s twice-yearly events have become a vital, inspirational component of the pro-life movement. When volunteers gathered Feb. 13 at 261 locations for the first day of the latest campaign, they did so with a significant record of participation and results. Since 2007, reports by 40 Days for Life regarding its campaigns show:
More than 6,700 unborn children have been spared from abortion.
28 abortion facilities have closed, and 76 clinic workers have left their jobs.
More than 550,000 people representing more than 15,500 churches have participated.
In addition, thousands of women and men have avoided the consequences of choosing abortion, many post-abortive women have received help and untold numbers have become active in the pro-life movement.
What has happened since that first campaign has confirmed the accuracy of a sense the leaders of 40 Days held regarding pro-lifers and abortion.
“[I]n all of our prayer, we were thinking and hoping that there was a burning fire at the local level for people to do more for the abortions that were happening in their own town,” Carney told Baptist Press (BP).
“[D]eep down, we really, truly believed that, because we had done that in the community where we lived through the pro-life organization that we worked for,” he said. “And so, that has now been shown … that people do want to do something to help end abortion at a local level. They don’t want to depend on Washington, D.C., to fix a moral crisis that’s going on in their neighborhoods. And that has summed up the rapid growth of 40 Days for Life.”
When people gathered Feb. 13 for a 40 Days campaign that will extend to March 24, they did so in 44 states and the District of Columbia. Pro-lifers in Australia, Canada, England, Poland and Spain again are holding 40 Days outreaches. For the first time, there are 40 Days events in Moscow, Russia, and Cape Town, South Africa, as well as Nigeria and Wales.
Around-the-clock prayer vigils outside abortion clinics are the focus, but 40 Days efforts also consist of community outreach and prayer and fasting to end abortion.
A 2004 prayer meeting gave birth to that approach, as well as the idea of 40 Days for Life. The staff of a small pro-life organization in College Station, Texas, gathered around an old wooden table in the office to express their frustrations about the lack of results they were seeing as the number of abortions increased at the local Planned Parenthood.
“We said, ‘We need to pray,’“ recalled David Bereit, now national director of 40 Days. “And for one hour around that old table, we just sat and we prayed fervently and just asked God, ‘Show us what to do, and we’ll try to do it.’ … [D]uring that hour was when He first convicted my heart and us as a group about the 40-day time frame and, of course, the biblical significance of all the times that God has brought about transformation in the life of His people or in the nation or in the world through 40-day time frames, a time of testing but also a time of transformation.”
Carney and his wife, Marilisa, joined Bereit, then executive director of the Coalition for Life, and another staff member around that table. They quickly launched 40 Days locally. At the end of that successful effort, however, “[I]t was really kind of a closed chapter in the back of our minds,” Carney said.
Yet, pro-lifers in such cities as Green Bay, Wis., and Charlotte, N.C., found out about the 40 Days effort in College Station and followed Coalition for Life’s online manual. Finally, Bereit and Carney decided God was doing something they needed to pay attention to.
“[W]e had all these groups and all these results,” Bereit told BP, “and we were like, ‘That was the Holy Spirit. We had nothing to do with it.’ And that is when we said, ‘God has bigger plans probably than what we would have ever imagined.’”
In the fall of 2007, the first nationwide 40 Days campaign involved 89 cities in 33 states. The effort grew from there. Bereit – who was working for another national, pro-life organization – went full-time with 40 Days, and Carney joined him later. They now lead the effort from the Washington, D.C., area.
The national/international campaigns have produced an influx of new participants in the pro-life movement during the last five years. For more than 34 percent of 40 Days volunteers, it is their first pro-life activity ever.
Participants in 40 Days campaigns represent a cross-section of ages, ethnic groups and religious affiliations. From his observation of hundreds of events, Bereit estimated about 70 percent of volunteers are Roman Catholics. Baptists easily constitute the second largest religious affiliation, he said.
Bereit, 44, and Carney, 30, shared about 40 Days with Baptist Press. Here are additional excerpts from that interview:
BP: Describe what a typical prayer vigil is like? Somebody wants to take part in one – what’s it like?
CARNEY: The first thing they will experience is probably a little fear and hesitation and nervousness. David’s had that. I’ve had that the first time I went out. And that’s healthy. That’s a good thing. There should be a discomfort and awkwardness almost the first time you go out, not just because it’s new but because you are confronting abortion on its home turf – where it’s legal, promoted, sold, where it takes place – for the first time. And it’s not uncomfortable or awkward because you’re there. It’s uncomfortable or awkward because they’re there. … [W]hen you go out there and you take Christ with you, when you get out of His way and you allow Him to work miracles, there’s great peace. You’re bringing peace, like a missionary does, to a place that has no peace. You’re a witness to the gospel to people that many times have either given up on their own faith or think there is no hope. … And you bring hope when you participate. And I think that’s how the fear is overcome.
BEREIT: It’s usually going to be very quiet. It’s going to be a time of prayer. It’s not social hour. It’s not yelling hour. They may or may not choose to hold a sign. … They’re not going to be expected to sidewalk counsel their first time out in any way, shape or fashion. And they may see no fruit ever throughout the 40 days directly. We use a Mother Teresa quote – “We’re not called to be successful; we’re called to be faithful” – as a way to just help people understand, “If God’s calling us to do that, we do it, whether we see the results or not.” … [T]he last thing that we’re very transparent about is you may experience out there occasional persecution. Usually it will be somebody driving by waving a hand gesture … or maybe shouting an obscenity or maybe a worker who gets angered or somebody who is going in and says, “Don’t judge me,” even though you’re not. And sometimes somebody will throw a coat hanger. Sometimes, you know, you’ll have somebody come up and yell in your face. And for me, that has been one of the greatest blessings, as strange as it sounds, because in my Christian walk I can honestly say I don’t remember ever being persecuted for the cause of Christ prior to getting involved in active pro-life efforts.
BP: Do you get many reports about people sharing the gospel and either young women or their partners in responding positively to the gospel or even abortion clinic workers?
BEREIT: We do hear anecdotal stories. We don’t want people to feel that they have to evangelize, but we also encourage them, “Don’t park your faith at home when you’re out there.” We were in La Puente, Calif. – this one comes right to my mind – and the abortion facility there closed after five 40 Days for Life campaigns. We get to meet a baby who was saved in their past campaign. It was a really neat event. And one of the guys was sharing a story about a young man that had been taking – I think it was – a girlfriend into the clinic, and he came out and started yelling at the volunteers. And he just kept coming back every few days, and he would yell at them and yell at them, but over the campaign he softened. And he started finally to say, “Okay now, why are you here?” And they just shared the love of Christ with him. They explained why they were there, and then this gentleman invited him to go with them to his church, and that guy went with him and ended up choosing Christ as his Savior and deciding to give his life to God. … I get emails all the time – since email is one of our primary forms of communication – from people saying, “I hadn’t gone to church in 20 years, and just by following 40 Days for Life it’s really deepened my faith, and I’ve started going back to church again.” So there’s a lot of opportunities to evangelize as we serve God in this cause of helping speak up for those who can’t speak for themselves.
BP: What do you think 40 Days has meant to the pro-life movement?
CARNEY: I guess being on the younger side of it, I think it’s been a massive and exciting shot in the arm. The pro-life movement is good, like coffee, but 40 Days for Life is like espresso. It came along and made something extremely good even better, and for so many people, like we talked about before, it gave them something tangible to do that had the right focus, that had the focus of the gospel and prayer and fasting. And that’s what people want, and that’s what’s so effective in local communities. I mean I’ve had people pull me aside … and just say 40 Days for Life has brought them a renewed sense of hope.
BEREIT: I’ll preface this by saying all this is due to the grace of God and fully believe that. … It’s not because of anything that we’ve done. I believe that in many communities and states and even somewhat on the national scene it has provided a bridge of unity for groups and people to work together that perhaps over the years have either not worked together or have even drifted apart over differences of approach. Who can’t agree with the importance of praying and fasting and peaceful response to the crisis of abortion? … And the other thing somewhat that I’ll mention is: I think through 40 Days for Life God has revealed Himself more readily as the solution, and I’ve had leaders of national, political or legislative groups say to me things like: “You know what, it’s really helped me to realize that while what we do is vital, we have to focus here. We have to be focused on God’s will first, because ultimately that’s what drives all of us.”
BP: What do you think 40 Days for Life has meant to the abortion industry or to abortion clinic workers specifically?
CARNEY: I think it has been disheartening, number one, because of the enthusiasm 40 Days for Life can bring to the pro-life local community, and that positive enthusiasm, at the same time, sheds an unwanted light on the local abortion industry. Planned Parenthood makes a living at nesting in a community, at trying to embed themselves in a community as a health-care provider. And a 40 Days for Life can really disrupt that through the peaceful vigil, through the community outreach. And so I think it’s brought light to the fact abortion is a local crisis. It’s not just something kept in Washington, D.C. And so it’s ignited a sort of grass-roots movement that the abortion industry does not have.
BEREIT: When I was mentioning earlier about the unexpected blessings, the worker conversions is by far the one that has pleasantly surprised us the most. And the fact that they are finding in the people outside a welcoming place to turn has demonstrated the true face and the heart of the pro-life movement.
Locations for this spring’s 40 Days campaign may be found online at www.40daysforlife.com. Bereit and Carney have written a new book, 40 Days for Life, that was released in January.
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Tom Strode is Washington bureau chief for Baptist Press.)