Originally published in Good News Magazine
Robert Colquhoun, who is in his late 20s, shares about his faith journey and the power of prayer in the 40 DAYS OF LIFE campaign to end abortion.
I became a Roman Catholic when I was studying history at Kings College, London. I had strong intellectual reasons for converting as I was interested in Church history and I was inspired by Pope John Paul II’s encyclical on Faith and Reason and seeing that it was intellectually credible to be a Christian. Since then it has been a journey from the head to the heart. When I was at university I went to talk by the peer Lord Alton. Before that my views were broadly pro-life but it was in the abstract and I didn’t see it as the most important social justice issue. His talk, however, changed things for me and I realized how foundational the right to life was.
After university I went to seminary and studied at Allen Hall for three years, but I eventually realized this was not my vocation and left in 2008. Shortly afterwards I was persuaded by a friend to go and join NET (National Evangelization Teams) in Canada. This is a charismatic youth missionary organization. I had had a bit of experience of prayer groups before that but this was my first real ongoing exposure to charismatic spirituality and lifestyle and as a team we did a lot of youth retreats round the country. I was the team leader of ten young people. It was an amazing experience to see the way God provided for us and the generosity of people who put us up in their homes. You were given 100 dollars at the beginning of the month yet by the end you often still had 70 dollars and had travelled coast to coast. I saw the power of the gospel through being a missionary. It showed me that you don’t need a huge amount of money and resources, just committed people with passion. All this helped my faith in God to grow enormously and gave me the confidence later to step out and risk for God.
I couldn’t say “no”
During that year I came across the 40 Days for Life movement in Ottowa, where a group of about 15 people were praying close to the Canadian Parliament. I had never seen anything like that before, but didn’t think too much about it. It was only six months after I returned to the UK when I was listening to a talk by David Bereit, one of the founders of the 40 Days for Life Movement, on You Tube, that I felt God was calling me to start a 40 Days for Life campaign here in England. I just knew that I had to do this and I couldn’t say “no”.
I realized if it was to work I would have to move to London. In faith, I took a risk and committed myself to the campaign, trusting that I would be able to get a job and somewhere to live in London. Amazingly the very first day I got to London I found a job temping.
We advertised our first 40 Days for Life during the papal visit in September 2010 and we handed out 10,000 leaflets during the papal events. Three days later our first prayer campaign started. Although 40 Days for Life obviously has political dimension it not primarily a political movement but a prayer movement. Its main aim is to encourage Christians to pray and fast for an end to abortion. It also involves peaceful prayer vigils outside abortion facilities and taking the pro-life message to all parts of the community through the media or door to door and generally engaging with churches and schools to inform people the facts about the pro-life issue.
The first campaign we had was outside the Marie Stopes centre in Whitfield Street, in London. I thought this would be a complete failure, as we had to get a rota of volunteers to be praying outside the centre for 500 hours (12 hours a day) over the 40 days. But
I called on my Catholic friends in London and we got together a great core team of people and we managed to do it. We were really encouraged also that on the 2nd day someone who was going for an abortion changed their mind and didn’t go ahead with it. We reckon over those six weeks. Six women changed their minds and we were able to put lots of people in touch with Good Counsel, which helps support pregnant women.
We are not just protesting, we are there praying
Through this first campaign we got a lot of people involved in pro-life for the first time. We also got quite a lot of media attention. Most journalists don’t understand the prayer element of what we do because we are not just protesting, we are there praying, knowing and believing that with God all things are possible. This spiritual dimension lies at the core of what we are doing and we see ourselves as engaged in a spiritual battle between good and evil.
40 Days for Life began in the USA and is now an international movement. Since the campaign began 5000 women round the world have changed their minds and not had an abortion, including around 800 women in over 250 cities from the 2012 Lent campaign. Not only that seventy abortion workers have left their jobs and 22 abortion clinics have close down in places which have had 40 Days of Life campaigns near them. We believe this has been achieved through the power of prayer.*
We have had water and eggs thrown at us
We have had four campaigns now in total in the UK since September 2010, not just in London but in other cities as well including Cheltenham, Birmingham, Manchester and Brighton. Lots of young people have been involved and quite a number of elderly people too, as well as young mothers with children from across the social cultural divide. Those involved in pro-life charities like Good Counsel, God’s Precious Infants and SPUC also have been a great support to us. Although we have had a few evangelicals join us, most of those who taken part so far have been Catholics. I think this kind of prayer does attract the more extravert kind of person, too, as people have to have to courage to pray outside an abortion clinic, pray in public and to face ridicule, aggression and mocking. We sometimes, for example, have had water thrown at us and eggs. We have a statement of peace that people taking part, have to sign, whereby they promise that they will only engage in peaceful prayer and that they won’t cause harassment, distress or alarm to anyone they engage with but that they will reflect the love of Christ to all abortion workers, employees and passers by.
Many have discomfort about expressing pro-life views in England because it is so counter culture
Even so there is a certain discomfort about expressing pro-life views in England because it is so counter cultural. We have a strong individualistic mentality in the UK and a fear of offending people. I think this is why the Church in general hasn’t taken a very strong position on abortion in this country. People don’t want to touch the issue and be made to feel uncomfortable. I believe that the 40 Days for Life, however, can be a vehicle for God to bring the pro-life issue from the wilderness to a more mainstream position.
Bishop Alan Hopes, an auxiliary Bishop of the Diocese of Westminster, agreed to come and stand with us outside the abortion centre in Bedford Square one day in Lent 2012. This caused a counter protest from the Pro-abortion lobby and an outcry from the liberal press. We wondered if he would come or not as it takes a lot of courage to speak out and to be insulted and vilified. But he did come, which was a great encouragement for us. About 300 people came to support us that day, as we faced an even larger crowd of Pro-abortion people screaming and chanting and blowing whistles. I know the Bishop of Brentwood, Bishop Thomas, too has taken part in prayer vigils in front of abortion facilities. I believe it is important for us as Christians, and for our Episcopal leaders, to stand up for our Christian principles and not compromise.
At times there has been almost a hysterical reaction to our presence outside the Bedford Square facility, which was totally out of proportion to what we were doing. Most of the time, there was only a couple of people praying there, yet the pro abortion advocates were so angry that they started a 40 Days for Choice campaign to counter ours, and organized a media campaign in support of this as well as a fund raising campaign for the British Pregnancy Advisory Service.
Negative coverage didn’t matter as it got attention for the issue
There is a comparatively small group of us involved but it was amazing the amount of media coverage we received. We were on BBC national radio three times putting our views and there were seven articles in the national press. A lot of these articles were really biased and inaccurate to the point of libel. We tend to get portrayed as crazy fundamentalists, which initially was upsetting. In the end, however, I realized negative coverage didn’t matter as it all got attention for the issue.
We have had the help of amazing volunteers who have been very generous with their time and support as we have no full time or paid people. Almost everyone says they have experienced spiritual growth by taking part. I would say it has helped me to be more assertive about what I believe. Praying for long periods of time as you need to over the 40 days, has also helped my faith grow stronger. Others say the same. Facing ridicule and harassment is also character building and makes you stronger emotionally and spiritually.
(*Editor’s note Interestingly during the 40 Days for Life Lent 2012 campaign in the UK it came to light, following a sudden government inspection, that 50 out of 300 abortion facilities visited, were actually breaking the law by not having two doctors examine patients to authorize abortions, but using pre-signed forms so only one signature was needed. At the same time it also emerged that in some places abortions were being performed because of the gender of the child. All this helped bring the abortion issue to the attention of the media and into public consciousness again.)