Building the Pro-Grace Movement
by Kristyn Komarnicki
Today in Chicago, every five minutes a woman will discover that she's pregnant and didn't plan to be. Everything she thought she knew about her future—her dreams, even her identity—will be shaken. She will need understanding and support, but what she will often find is shame, judgment, and abandonment, which may lead her to believe that her only choice is between abortion and overwhelming struggle as a mom. But what if, instead of despair, she found hope; instead of isolation, community; instead of judgment, support; instead of shame, grace—the same grace that we all so desperately need? God is building a movement of churches and individuals who respect God's design for pregnancy and reflect God's heart for both the woman and the child.
That is the narrative that Caris, a faith-based nonprofit pregnancy counseling agency, uses to invite Christians to a new conversation about unplanned pregnancies, one that transcends the typical gut-tightening mutual vilification that so often defines the pro-life/pro-choice contest.
At three sites around Chicago, Caris provides pregnancy testing, professional counseling, small group support, and access to community resources—all free of charge. They also offer generous doses of grace, a grace fueled by wisdom born of hard work, fervent prayer, and serious research. Over the last five years, Caris' leadership has been digging deep beneath the surface of the abortion debate to get at the very real—and often overlooked—needs of both women and children. Their research led them to a "pro-grace" position that appeals to—and feels like safe ground to—both camps in the debate and all people who have become dissatisfied with the limitations of debate. They now offer training to congregations that want to learn how to follow the same path.
We sat down with Caris President Angie Weszely to find out more about the Pro-Grace™ Movement they've just launched, what inspired this journey, and where she sees it leading from here.
What prompted you to look for a different approach to the women you were seeing?
Angie Weszely: In 2008, we hired a research firm called Brandtrust, which uses the social sciences to understand how people really feel, think, and behave. We wanted to better understand the felt needs, hopes, and fears of the women facing unplanned pregnancy. Based on what we found out, we changed what we were doing with women. We started focusing on emotional support and professional counseling. One of our passions at that time was to see women connected with a church, because that's really where transformation's going to happen. The church people wanted to reach out and help the women, but church was one of the last places these young women wanted to go! So we were praying what to do about that.
During that time, one of our clients was from Willow Creek Community Church in the northwest suburbs. We run groups for women until their baby is 6 months old. When she was done with her group here she went back to Willow but found there was nothing for her there. "Can I start a group like this at Willow?" she asked us. Well, we came alongside her to start a group there, and it grew really quickly and looked like God's hand was in it.
At the same time, a church in Uganda contacted us about running the same kind of program. We sent them the draft of what we were using at Willow. Currently there are a thousand women dealing with unplanned pregnancies at this church in Uganda who are being transformed in amazing ways. So we knew God was in the church reaching out to women. In trying to start groups at other churches, we experienced some roadblocks. So we thought, maybe before Christians start doing outreach, we need to do some in-reach, do some transformational work ourselves, because there's a reason these women aren't coming to us, right? How can we make churches a safe place for women?
We ourselves were transformed through the journey of the research, of talking to pro-choice activists, talking to pro-life activists, talking to women. In the process we developed a new way of thinking about this issue. We wrote down our whole experience and piloted our two-hour workshops with church groups. Moody and Willow Creek were among the first. And we found great resonance from Christians who said, "I want another way to think about this. I want another way to talk about it that is biblically sound but different from what I've seen happen in the typical pro-life or pro-choice side of things."
Finding the right language for this conversation is so hard. I would say one thing, and people would get triggered. I'd see their eyes glaze over. I'd see them thinking, "Oh, she's pro-choice" or "Oh, she's pro-life." They wanted to put me in one of those categories.
Being forced to articulate our new thinking for the workshop helped us come up with ways of framing the issue that would navigate the theological and political landmines sanely.
Now we have a really concise way of saying who and what we are: We say that we are pro-grace and we can help other Christians understand what it means to be pro-grace. Finally what is in our hearts, what has been bubbling up for four years, is getting out. That feels good.
So what's the elevator speech? How do you articulate why it's so important for the church to have a pro-grace response?
Weszely: We start with two theological pillars. First, God could have created life any way he wanted, but he chose pregnancy. He decided to have a child grow inside a woman for nine months in such a way that they are intertwined for that time. You can't try to help one while bypassing the other. God has made that impossible.
So we are always going to work for the dignity and welfare of both the woman and the child because that reflects God's design of pregnancy. Now, we'd talked about helping both the woman and the child for six years, but it wasn't until we started using this design-of-pregnancy theology that Christians started having the "ah ha!" moment. It suddenly allowed them to say, "Of course. We want to help both the mother and the child."
Second, when a single woman is faced with an unplanned pregnancy she experiences intense feelings of panic, isolation, and shame. It's crippling. This is what causes her to think that she either needs to have an abortion to get her identity back or has to resign herself to struggle as a mom. Because so much of this is driven by isolation and shame, we are calling people to respond as Jesus would, with grace.
We use John 8, the story of the woman caught in adultery. Look how Jesus interacted with her—he protected her from the public shaming, he extended no condemnation, and then he could offer her help for a transformed life. We have so often gone in with "Let me tell you what you did wrong! You shouldn't have slept with your boyfriend" that we miss his order. Christ's order is grace first and then transformation. That underlies everything we do.
So our official elevator speech is this: "The Pro-Grace™ Movement is a movement of Christian individuals and churches who extend the same grace we've received in order to create a positive future for both the woman and the child."
Why do you think this appeals equally to both sides?
Weszely: People are tired of the political arguments, because they don't get us anywhere and don't fully express God's heart. Pro-life and pro-choice are not resonating with people as much anymore because they're so alienating. When you say "pro-life" they think all you care about is the child, and when you say "pro-choice" they think all you care about is the woman. This is why the grace approach is so powerful. We're not identifying with either of those camps, because we believe that God cares equally about and values both the woman and the child. So let's throw those labels aside and see what Jesus is about with a pro-grace stance.
Another thing we see getting resonance is the idea that God is way bigger than a political platform, so we as God's people should have a response to any social issue that transcends politics. Everyone should vote how God is leading them, but there is so much beyond the political that we can do to help. What's going to bring his kingdom is following his heart. We are calling Christians to follow his heart.
It's hard for some people because "pro-life" or "pro-choice" defines their moral place, but we're trying to give them a new theological/moral stance so they can say, "I'm for both," and realize that there is so much more that has to be done on this than just "Here's how I vote." There's so much more we can do for the woman and the child if we come together and do that work.
What do you say when people ask what kind of policy you recommend?
Weszely: We refuse to go there, but in fact—it's interesting—we don't get asked about that very much. When we first started piloting our presentation, people would ask, "Are you pro-choice? Are you condoning sin?" Those were the two big questions we got from Christians. That's why we always lead with our theological pillars first. We believe God creates all life, and pregnancy is how he chose to create all life.
Nobody questions where we stand after they hear that. I think that's enough to let Christians and non-Christians know that we take a traditional theological view on this and they don't try to pin us down on our policy. Even those who consider themselves pro-choice, all they want to know is "Do you tell women what to do? Do you tell them not to have an abortion? Do you proselytize?" If we can answer all three of those questions with a "no," they don't seem to care where we stand politically.
How do women view the choices they have, which boil down to parenting the child, ending the pregnancy, or placing the child for adoption?
Weszely: Each woman is unique, but from our research* we've learned that the emotional upheaval women experience when facing an unplanned pregnancy is intense. When a woman under distress thinks about continuing her pregnancy, she often feels that her life is over, that she will no longer be herself if she chooses to parent. As a result, she may believe that her only options are to have an abortion as a way to survive or to resign herself to struggling as her "new self" as a parent. When it comes to adoption, many women perceive this as an even more difficult path because it results in grieving both the loss of their identity and the chance to raise their child.** Our professional counselors help women sort through these emotions in a safe environment while helping them identify their support system and access resources in order to give them hope for a positive future for themselves and their child.
How have you seen this new approach affect the women and your rapport with them?
Weszely: That's what's so stunning. The women who come into Caris and do the professional counseling in groups—God is definitely doing transformation in how they view Christians. And that is wonderful work. At the same time, that pales in comparison to what happens when the groups are held in the church. God is sending us the message that when you put these groups in the church the transformation is exponential.
The women at Willow will say things like, "I didn't come to Willow to go to church. I was just joining one of the pregnancy groups. But I kept walking past the worship service, and I wondered what that was all about. And the people from the church were so kind. They threw us a baby shower, and I thought, 'Well, maybe I'll check out the worship service,' and now my fiancé and I have accepted God, and we got baptized, and we go to church every week." I mean they are transformed. A lot of women in that group have become Christians and gotten baptized. They have known each other longer, and they are spurring each other on to deeper transformation.
The situation in Uganda is miraculous. I'm not sure what God is trying to show us there, but those 1,000 women? Suicides have been prevented, they're running a co-op business now. I mean, it's stunning.
The other thing about having it in a church is that the people in the church are transformed. At our Caris sites, we see transformation with women through the services we provide, and through our Pro-Grace™ training, we see transformation with people in churches. But we're starting to see that when Caris women and church folks are connected, the transformation is exponential. And it is two-fold—both in the lives of the women and the lives of the church folks.
So where do you go from here?
Weszely: Our goal is to have churches everywhere get training and start up a group for women with unplanned pregnancies. We have three stages of working with a church. First we go in with our workshop to present to their leadership what we're about and see if they want to come on board and become a pro-grace church. If they say yes, we go to phase two, where we work with the congregation, educating them, and they do a bit of volunteer service with Caris, meeting needs of pregnant women. Stage three is opening their doors and running a program themselves, with a team of trained volunteers.
In the fall we partnered with a church in a more high-risk neighborhood. We're going to work with them to find the pregnant women in their community, and they're going to get the invitation out. The women at Willow Creek, only half of them came from Caris, the other half heard about it via word of mouth, from their friends. Ultimately our desire is that the church will be known as the place to go with an unplanned pregnancy.
* Executive Summary: CARIS Women's Emotional Inquiry Project, October 21, 2011. Brandtrust, Inc. Sponsored by Caris.
** "Abortion: The Least of Three Evils," prepared for Vitae Society by Kenny & Associates, Inc. (Memphis, 1994).