taking the words of Jesus seriously

The abortion debate is back in the news cycle and, once again, men are calling all the shots.

As the mainstream media covers the confirmation hearings of Neil Gorsuch — a Supreme Court nominee whom President Trump promised would overturn Roe vs. Wade — it is the most loud and strident voices among the pro-life and pro-choice movements that receive the most attention.

But what if there was another way to enter into this debate with a posture of compassion, humility, and deep listening?

What if men weren’t primarily in charge of making life-changing decisions about women’s bodies and health (as seen with the recent photo of GOP lawmakers debating maternity coverage and access to contraception)? And what if churches became safe places to have real conversations about life and death and the complexities of human experience?

This is why I launched a “pro-voice” sermon tour last summer in Protestant churches across the country telling my abortion story and inviting congregations to be places of acceptance, love, and forgiveness for all people. And the response from clergy and congregations has been better than I imagined. I have seen incredible healing through this process. But before I share these stories, allow me to share my journey with you.

I am a Baptist minister, a mother, and I had an abortion 13 years ago. It is my faith in God, the support of my close friends and family, and the pastors who prayed and cried with me before and after my procedure that got me through it.

I was raised in a predominantly white, progressive Christian community in the South where people lived out their Christian faith in bold and beautiful ways. It was a congregation that taught me to love all people, work for justice in the world, and to see myself in the stories of the Bible. At my very core, I knew that Jesus loved all people — the woman caught in adultery, the Prodigal Son, the Samaritan man beaten on the pathway to Jericho.

Yet, I heard stories of other Baptists who didn’t accept gay people into their congregations. And I heard countless stories of women who had been denied ordination or had to do theological contortions to be accepted into ministry. It seemed odd to me that a group of Jesus followers would have the audacity to deny the grace and love of God to anyone.

I never once doubted that God called me to ministry. But when I started my own ordination process, I began to see how challenging it was to remain true to my faith and to be accepted by my church. It was during this same time that I was pastoring a church and being grilled on the sanctity of virgin birth, my justification of acceptance of gay people into the church, and belief in Jesus Christ as the only way into heaven — that I discovered I was pregnant.

My son was almost two at the time. My husband and I knew we weren’t financially able to bring another child into our family, and I was concerned our marriage would not last. We made the difficult decision to terminate the pregnancy, and I felt angry and sad and embarrassed.

I knew I couldn’t tell my congregation. But there were God-people all along this journey. People like my mentoring pastor who I would call and cry and scream and pray with from the opposite coast. People like my spiritual director who reminded me to find God in the quiet spaces of my grief. People like my pastoral counselor who coached me on how to resign from the congregation and prayerfully supported me as I decided to leave my marriage.

I couldn’t tell this story for many years. And some, including several of my own family members, would prefer that I wasn’t doing it now. But when God gives me an opportunity, I very rarely turn it down.

When I was a seminarian in Berkeley, I wrote my thesis on ritual and pastoral care for women and their families who experience abortion. I found it astonishing that most religious traditions offered very little to women who had any reproductive loss, but most specifically abortion. I wanted this to be different for the next generation of girls growing up in the church. I wanted them to know that their bodies were loved and sacred. I wanted them to know that they could take good care of themselves. I wanted them to know the great joy of having a baby and the great pain of reproductive loss. And through it all, I wanted girls and young women to know that the church would be with them.

Though it has been a challenge to convince clergy to allow me into their pulpit knowing I will be sharing my abortion story, the response to my sermon has been overwhelmingly positive. And the greatest gift of it all has been the outpouring of stories that people want to share in return — stories of shame and pain, mistakes, and impossible decisions. These are holy moments — God moments — when we see the face of God in and through one another.

I recently traveled to the Pacific Northwest and the Midwest to continue the pro-voice tour and found these visits to congregations very different from the earlier ones in the tour. This was in part due to the format of these visits, where there was more opportunity for dialogue rather than me sharing my story and preaching in a worship service. I am not clear, however, if these visits were also different because I have grown more and more comfortable with sharing my abortion story and even saying the word “abortion” in church.

The last three visits showed me the beauty of what I experienced as a child in the church so intimately: the sacred power of faith communities to hold an intimate story in its embrace and allow it to open up opportunities for further sacred sharing. In Seattle, Olympia, and Minneapolis, people who had never disclosed their abortion stories, publicly shared them — and the range of feelings was vast.

People spoke of the complexity of reproductive choices and decisions. People identified themselves as “pro-life” and “pro-choice” and everywhere in between. People shared their experiences that led them to their beliefs about abortion, and there was no animosity between the opposites.

This is the side of the abortion debate that I wish we would hear more often in the airwaves or see in the headlines.

This is the beauty of being pro-voice, when people can find one another across difference and love and respect one another from their unique perspectives. And, as personal stories are shared across what has become such a great divide, we find connection in our spiritual humanity where life and death and decision and choice and sin and forgiveness meet.

About The Author

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Rev. Susan Chorley is an American Baptist minister and lives in Boston, MA. She is on the board of Exhale, a "pro-voice" organization that uses listening and storytelling to create a more respectful, supportive culture for people who have abortions.

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