A series of large steel doors shut ominously behind me on the morning of Jan. 8, 2014, as I entered the Martin Correctional Institution (MCI) located in Indiantown, Fla. Many of the inmates here will spend a good portion of their lives behind the barbed wire walls of this maximum security prison. All have been involved in serious criminal activity; drugs, robbery, prostitution, car-jacking, violence and murder.
However a majority of these men all share something else in common…a secret shared with no one else. They are fathers of aborted children.
Is there any connection between an inmate’s involvement in abortion and a descent into criminal activity and violence?
Responding to God’s Call
Thomas Lawlor is the director of Prison Ministry for Catholic Charities, Diocese of Palm Beach Florida. In November 2010, Donna Gardner, director of the Rachel’s Vineyard abortion healing retreats in the diocese, was approached by Tom and together they discerned a calling to begin a post abortion outreach for men in prison. Excited about the idea, they shared their thoughts with Deacon Don Battiston who served as a volunteer Catholic Chaplain at MCI.
Deacon Don is a grizzled veteran of prison ministry He responded with a puzzled look to their request. He never thought about how abortion might impact the men given all the other serious issues they negotiated in their troubled lives. He was skeptical…but open.
To put his skepticism to rest, Deacon Don did an informal poll with about 100 men in two prisons where he ministers. At his weekly services he asked the men to share anonymously if they were ever involved in an abortion(s), and if the abortion had any effect on their lives.
He was shocked to discover that almost 90% of the men had been part of an abortion decision and that it had indeed impacted the men.
Deacon Don became a believer and lent his assistance in getting the program approved by the Department of Corrections…no small task.
Donna developed a 10 week version of the Rachel’s Vineyard program specifically designed for use in prison with take home assignments from Healing a Father’s Heart, a post abortion bible study. More than 60 inmates have been through the program, and the results have been nothing short of miraculous.
Father Wounds and Military Madness
As we entered the MCI compound that January morning we made our way to a room in the prison chapel. Donna and Tom introduced me to inmates John, Ed, Harry and David (two Caucasian, two African American men.) These four men are alumni of the Rachel’s Vineyard program, and identified by Donna and Tom as team members for this growing ministry. The men freely volunteered to share their stories with me, and how they have come to see the role of abortion in their overall life journey.
John, Harry and Ed were in various ways estranged from their fathers. Harry lived in a chaotic dysfunctional family environment with a stepfather who physically and sexually abused him. He acted out to receive the beatings because it was the only sense of connection he had to his parents…feeling ignored felt worse. But the violence hardened his heart, filling him with hatred and resentment toward others.
John acted out throughout his childhood trying to get the attention of his parents who were consumed with their restaurant business and rarely home…a self described wild child and out of control. He remembers only the occasional beating from his father. Ed’s estrangement from his father was not one that featured abuse, but a painful emotional distance. This unspoken pain and grief began a process of personality division and emotional disconnection to protect himself from the emotional pain and grief. This disconnection would prove over time to be deadly.
Deepening the Disconnect – A Toxic Synergy
Synergy: The interaction or cooperation of two or more organizations, substances, or other agents to produce a combined effect greater than the sum of their separate effects.
From their teenage years through young adulthood, the men participated in at least one abortion decision. They all shared with conviction and grief that although they did not understand it at the time, their abortion decision attacked them on a deeply personal level as men.
The abortions deepened a distorted false sense of male identity rooted in exploitation, manipulation and narcissism as a shield from the pain of childhood neglect/abuse and the shame and grief of abortion loss. The sparks were present. The abortion, followed by an immersion in the violence of war and criminal activity, set them ablaze like gasoline poured on a smoldering fire.
David, Ed and Harry tried to rebuild their fractured manhood after the abortion and found a renewed sense of purpose and direction by enlisting in the military. However, this proved to be a toxic decision for these men. The military provided an outlet for their growing rage, pain and unresolved grief. They hungered for opportunities to express this rage in the socially sanctioned context of war (Vietnam, Middle East) and criminal activity.
Violence and high risk behavior became an adrenalin saturated drug of choice for John, Ed and Harry in military and civilian life. This corrupted wounded manhood nurtured a complete lack of respect for life, and an equally callous disregard for their personal safety and futures.
Vulnerable to Violence
Violence was less of a driving force in David’s life after abortion, but he learned in the military how to abuse alcohol, which he found to be a common activity among the enlisted men and later would be a significant factor in his incarceration.
David’s story is unique and revealing among this group of inmates. He had a solid upbringing without any previous violence, family abuse or criminal activity prior to his abortion. He was not estranged from his well-respected and high achieving African American family. He was a successful high school athlete with legitimate aspirations to attend college. When he learned at age 17 that his girlfriend was pregnant, he was relieved when she decided to abort their child. However, deep down he knew it was wrong, and he abandoned his child to death. David shared that his tragic mistake was a failure to trust his father and mother enough to share about the pregnancy and receive their guidance and support to do the right thing.
After the abortion, David experienced depression and lost a sense of direction for his future. He enlisted in the military to find a focus and purpose for his life. After his military service, David married and began to raise his two children. But his unresolved abortion loss and abuse of alcohol left him vulnerable to the culture of violence and racism that many African American men face in their communities. David went out drinking with a friend carrying a concealed firearm. As they entered a restaurant drunk, a patron uttered a racial slur at the two men. A fight ensued and David found a gun in his hand, firing and killing a man. He will spend much of his life now at MCI, separated from his family.
Sharing the Light of Christ: A Brotherhood of Fatherhood
Donna and Tom have accompanied these men as they revisited the devastation of their lives. As the Rachel’s Vineyard healing process unfolded, these inmates discovered that while they may have wounds with their earthly fathers and have seriously sinned against God and their fellow man, they have a Father in Heaven who still loves them unconditionally and passionately as his sons. This was a life changing moment of grace and essential as they continued with the work of the Rachel’s Vineyard program.
Through the healing of their abortion loss, these men have truly been transformed in Christ, and are now serving as Rachel’s Vineyard team members under Donna and Tom’s guidance. These hardened criminals who have hurt themselves and others so deeply, have been freed by their heavenly father of rage and violence. Harry expressed how God reached into his chest, took hold of all the toxic pain of his life and gave him a new heart…a heart that can feel deeply, grieve, rejoice and love.
Donna and Tom’s Special Gift
As I met with the men in the prison ministry building I was struck by the joy, the friendship and comfort they shared with one another and the love and respect they have for Donna and Tom. They have in many ways incarnated both the love of God and also the love of an earthly parent to these inmates. It is very challenging to gain the trust of such wounded men. Donna and Tom have a special gift to nurture this trust and engage the men on the Rachel’s Vineyard healing journey.
Donna also has a very important gift of discernment evident in her ongoing leadership in the abortion healing ministry of the diocese. She has the perfect combination of deep faith, professional expertise and intuition when assigning leadership to her teams. Donna has developed a dynamic group of English, Spanish and now Prison ministry Rachel’s Vineyard teams for the Diocese of Palm Beach.
Setting the Captives Free
From fraud and violence he shall redeem them,
and precious shall their blood be in his sight.
May they be prayed for continually;
day by day shall they bless him. – Psalm 7:2
Deacon Don shared with us the change he is seeing in the men who go through Rachel’s Vineyard. He was clearly moved by the manifestation of God’s power in the lives of these wounded men. This transformation is also beginning to slowly transform the darkness of prison life as a growing number of men share a bond not formed by violence and intimidation; this communion is a shared fatherhood they reclaimed in their Rachel’s Vineyard healing journey. They are spreading this gospel message of hope with their fellow inmates, sharing the good news that has transformed their lives.
Donna and Tom are expanding the healing program to another prison in Okeechobee Florida. God willing, the good fruits of this healing ministry of Catholic Charities, Diocese of Palm Beach will expand to other prisons across the state and the nation.
Kevin Burke, LSW serves as a Pastoral Associate with the Silent No More Awareness Campaign and their men’s outreach www.fatherhoodforever.org. Rachel’s Vineyard and Silent No More are part of the Priests for Life/Gospel of Life Family of Ministries.