MARCEL - Can you tell us how 40 Days for Life got started and what role St. Mary’s played in it?
SHAWN - 40 Days for Life began with one hour of prayer around an old wooden table at the old location of the Coalition for Life in Bryan. Around that table was David Bereit, the director of the Coalition for Life at the time, myself, my wife Marilisa, and Emily Smith. It was right after my junior year at A&M during the summer of 2004 and we began to see local abortion numbers increasing and so we spent one hour in prayer and 40 days is what came from that hour of prayer. It seemed obvious that if God uses that time frame throughout scripture to form, chastise, and strengthen his people then we should hand our efforts over to a 40 day time period.
We decided to do 40 days of prayer fasting with the intention to end abortion, 40 days of community outreach, and 40 days of a nonstop, peaceful 24-hour vigil outside the local Planned Parenthood on East 29th street in Bryan. That local campaign resulted in a 28% drop in abortions but we never expected 40 Days for Life to go beyond Bryan/College Station. However word began to spread and suddenly there were other cities calling us asking for guidance on how to do the campaign in their community.
In 2007 David and I decided to launch 40 Days for Life as a nationally coordinated effort. We expected 20 cities the first national campaign and were amazed when 89 cities in 33 states signed up to participate. Today there are two annual campaigns -- fall and spring -- and the 40 Days for Life campaign has been done 1,894 times in 440 cities in 14 countries since that first campaign in Bryan/College Station. Simply the work of the Holy Spirit.
St. Mary’s had a huge role in that first campaign and still does today as so many of our local 40 Days for Life leaders moved away from Aggieland and brought 40 Days for Life to places as close as San Antonio and as far away as Seattle, Washington. I even met a St. Mary’s Aggie who participated in 40 Days for Life in Calgary. The legacy to me that comes from St. Mary’s is the role and leadership that the Knights of Columbus made. I actually became a Knight during that first campaign in 2004 because of their example. They took the night shift from 11pm-7am. They of course renamed it the “Knight” shift and that has become a model for Knights of Columbus councils across the country and all of them recognize that came from St. Mary’s in College Station. Their dedication, prayer, and sacrifice started at the top with the Grand Knight, David Arabie all the way to freshman who had just joined the Knights.
The culture at St. Mary’s has such an impact on the world and 40 Days for Life is a great example of that. Encouraging and challenging young people to take their faith into our culture and live Christ as an invitation to those who do not know Him or His Church is transforming. This is so successful at St. Mary’s because of the deep involvement the students have in the sacramental life of the Church which gives us the strength to live our faith when it is both popular and unpopular.
MARCEL - How has your Catholic faith played a part in working in the pro-life field?
SHAWN - It has been and continues to be everything. My Catholic faith led me to this work. I wanted to be a priest all through high school, my spiritual directors told me to go to college for a year since I had never really considered marriage. Once in college one of my best friends set me up with his sister and we have now have been married for 8 years and have 4 children -- so much for plans. I was on my way to law school when David Bereit hired me at the Coalition for Life just “part-time” originally. None of my plans worked out. Without the Church I would have become frustrated but instead it was an amazing and roller coaster discernment process. Discerning your vocation and role in life is easy to do as a Catholic at St. Mary’s. It’s not easy to know where you will end up but the process is easy because of the healthy Catholic environment that exists as St. Mary's to serve Christ and His Church no matter what career path you're on.
Pro-life work is very rewarding and also difficult at times. There are victories and defeats, many Easter Sundays and many Good Fridays. The Church is the stabilizer. It was here long before our culture and will be here long after our culture. The Church is only thing you can trust in a very confused and hardened world. I’ve always felt that our generation has very little excuses for complaining about the culture because we have seen, literally through media, saints live in our times and impact millions of souls. Between John Paul II and Mother Teresa we know that living our Catholic faith bears much fruit in a world that often claims it wants nothing to do with religion.
There is not a stronger voice for God or truth right now in our world than Pope Benedict and we must humbly and courageously live our faith as he does.
MARCEL - What do you want others to know about the tactics of the abortion industry in opposing 40 Days for Life?
SHAWN - Really just two things – persecution or bewilderment. The abortion industry typically either just get mad -- like a knee jerk reaction or they don’t know what to do with 40 Days for Life it because it’s peaceful and prayerful. However both of these reactions create great opportunities for conversion. An angry clinic worker is at least passionate and they usually see power in the prayer and that fuels their frustration. We can do very little with the cold and lukewarm but passion can lead to conversion. In California Planned Parenthood did a mock 40 Days for Life campaign by holding “40 Days of Prayer” where they prayed for abortion rights and even had daily “devotionals like we have during 40 Days for Life. Their devotionals were disturbing to say the least but it did get national media attention and introduced 40 Days of Life to a lot of new people.
The bewildered reaction allows them to re-think what they are doing and this is a more common reaction. I’ve been to over 300 of the 40 Days for Life locations over the past 5 years and when I speak at a vigil the abortion advocates are usually expecting the vigil to be crazy zealots who are judging women and it’s just the opposite. The vigils consists of faithful Christians, moms praying rosaries, Knights of Columbus, nuns, priests – hardly the mob they were expecting. This takes them off guard and also turns the focus on the nature of their work. It’s is one of the reasons why we’ve had 69 abortion facility workers have conversions and leave their jobs during a 40 Days for Life campaign, including of course Abby Johnson who was the director of Planned Parenthood in Bryan/College Station. Her book Unplanned is a must read for every Aggie Catholic. I met Abby my freshman year through the fence at Planned Parenthood and had no idea what was ahead. As of this past Easter Abby herself is now an Aggie Catholic.
Persecution is not suggested by our Lord it is promised and while most of the vigils are very uneventful we do get out fair share of persecution. We’ve had nuns heckled and threatened in the South Bronx, I’ve had counter protesters including a group of anarchists in Napa, California. People drive by showing us 1 finger (so we know we are number 1) and have had volunteers berated by abortion doctors as they leave the facility. At the end of the day all of the comments or persecution I see is not because of our position on abortion but because of our faith in God.
Never before have we wanted Christianity so private as to make it insignificant than today in our culture. When you do something for your faith some will be upset. As the saying goes splinters fall from the Cross if you don’t have any then you’re not close to it. It doesn’t mean we declare ourselves martyrs or whine about it, we just have to expect it and embrace it like Christ did. The saints endured it and as a result were the happiest people to ever walk the earth.
MARCEL - What are the trends that are pushing the pro-life movement forward currently?
SHAWN - Victories at the local level and these make the abortion industry very nervous. The abortion lobby has a lot of power in Washington but the rapid spread of 40 Days for Life is merely a reflection of what is going on in local communities. After our faith in God, the pro-life movement has two big things going for it – youth and technology. Young people who are pro-life get involved but young people who are pro-choice are sitting on the sidelines because they’re uncomfortable with abortion as an issue even though they think it should be legal. This has resulted in pregnancy centers that can offer free alternatives to women now outnumbering abortion providers 3 to 1 in America.
A recent Gallup Poll show a record low for people who call themselves pro-choice at 41%. We’ve also seen Planned Parenthood defunded on the state level in many states. These are all trends that we can control at the local level and not wait for Washington to correct a moral crisis that happens in our backyard.
MARCEL - Can you tell us about your experience as a student at St. Mary’s?
SHAWN - I loved it and so did my wife. We were involved in everything and both served on Awakening Leadership. I was 4th day host and had fun, probably too much fun with it. Back then we had a budget for 4th Day I asked for and for some reason, it was granted permission to blow all of our budget on one great 4th Day meeting and skimp by for all the other meetings. At the first meeting I asked the attendees to vote and they went for it. The result was a long semester of 4th Days with Raman noodle soup followed by a fajita feast 4th Day at the end of the semester. In the end it was worth it but there are few thing nastier than seeing the St. Mary’s kitchen covered in pots cooking Ramen Noodle soup for 150 people. Again it was still worth it, the fajitas were awesome and you only live once.
My experience was great and all started and ended with great priests. I was blessed to have wonderful priests in my home diocese of Tyler and that continued with Fr. Mike Sis and Fr. David Konderla during my time at St. Mary’s. Looking back it was access to the sacraments that the priests made to the thousands of students as being the biggest blessing. Of course Aggie Awakening and all of the great catechesis available are wonderful and rare at most places where you can go to college, but above all is it was the emphasis on attending daily Mass, going to Adoration, going to Confession and it was all because of the dedication of the priests there. I’m convinced that Fr. Mike or Fr. David never slept and yet neither of them have aged – they’ve look the same for the past 15 years so there must be something special about St. Mary’s. Both were gifted preachers and even better confessors and that has made a lasting impact on many souls and continues to bear fruit.
MARCEL - What is your favorite Aggie tradition?
SHAWN - Muster as the official tradition, Freebird’s monster with BBQ sauce as the unofficial tradition.