Marjorie Long, the site leader of Rachel’s Vineyard for the Diocese of Lake Charles, Louisiana, is not one to back down from a challenge. In 2010, while attending a national conference in Malvern, Penn., she heard Rachel’s Vineyard founder Theresa Burke urge site leaders to go out and find post-abortive women who either did not know about Rachel’s Vineyard, or had no way to attend its retreats. Long didn’t know what Burke meant, but she was determined to find out. Rachel’s Vineyard is the country’s largest post-abortion healing program, and Long and her team would take the local version of the program where it had never been before.
Barbara Rozas, a Rachel’s Vineyard team member who Long refers to as her “assistant, a workhorse, and the mother of the group,” was also at the conference but had gone to another workshop. Later that day, when Long told her about Burke’s directive, Rozas was nonplussed. “I was thinking, ‘Do we have to go to Mexico?’ We were already getting retreatants from Texas, Mississippi, and New Orleans. There were no restrictions on who could come.”
Over the following months, Long began to get a definite idea of where she and Rozas could find women who needed post-abortion healing, those “unreachables” Burke had referred to. “What began to be placed on my heart was the prison,” she said. “That’s who can’t reach us, that’s who is vulnerable.” According to Long, statistics show that 80 percent of women in prison have had at least one abortion. Everyone who works with prisoners deals with drug addiction, alcoholism, and sex abuse, but most people don’t see the connection between abortion and these other issues.
According to Kevin Burke, husband of Theresa Burke and co-founder of Rachel’s Vineyard’s national organization, a significant part of the prison population mirrors an especially vulnerable demographic. “The poor pay the highest price for our nation’s legalization of abortion,” Burke says. “The pro-abortion revolutionaries thought they were bringing relief to families facing the pressure of unplanned pregnancy and economic hardship. But my experience over the years has been that these are the men and women, because of the prevalence of abuse and family disintegration in these poor communities, most vulnerable to trauma after abortion.”
Long and Rozas had to jump through many hoops to make the prison program a reality. “I asked people about it and got negative feedback,” recounts Long, “many told me I would never get in.” But she didn’t let the “Noes” discourage her. During that time, Long’s team attended a training workshop in the Dallas area. As she shopped the tables of free booklets, she spotted The Word Among Us (TWAU), a Catholic devotional magazine that had a photograph of Mother Teresa on the cover and a booklet geared toward post-abortion prison ministry attached to it. Long, who draws constant inspiration from the life of Mother Teresa, took this as another sign that the Diocese of Lake Charles’ Rachel’s Vineyard should start a post-abortion program for women prisoners.
The booklet, titled After Abortion, “was the best I had ever read,” says Long. “It’s short, compassionate, and would be the best, I thought, to bring into the prison.” She called TWAU and was connected to the author, Angela M. Burrin. They had a “fruitful conversation,” and Burrin offered to ship Long both the monthly magazine and the booklet. “After her generosity in shipping booklets,” says Long, “I had to try harder.”
Long’s persistence paid off. After multiple phone calls to the Calcasieu Sheriff’s Prison in Lake Charles, she finally got through to the chaplain. When Long and Rozas subsequently met with him face to face, he asked, “Where have you been for the last two years? Women have been sharing their grief, and there are no programs to help them.” He immediately gave them permission to start the program. The necessary background checks were completed on the two women and pictures were taken for their badges that very same day. The chaplain also referred Long and Rozas to Open Door, an ecumenical ministry that prepares prisoners for life on the outside. Representatives from Open Door would put them in touch with women prisoners who had had abortions. The plan was to offer the retreat twice a year, around Easter and before Christmas.
Much work, however, had to be done to re-work the Rachel’s Vineyard weekend retreat program so that it could meet the prison’s rules and regulations, and still be effective. Long and Rozas had to re-design the schedule, edit the script to make it shorter, and use different props that were deemed safe for prisoners. Nothing could be brought in that prisoners could use to harm themselves or others. Instead of the bereavement dolls typically used in Rachel’s Vineyard retreats, Long and Rozas would have to use paper dolls with the prisoners. Instead of a lit candle to represent each baby aborted, they would offer retreatants plastic, battery-operated candles. Since they could not bring a glass water font into the prison, they opted to use a blue blanket, layered on a plastic plate, to represent the water for “floating” candles. Instead of real flowers, the women decided on crocheted flowers sprayed with Febreze. “But,” adds Rozas, “Marjorie promises the ladies that if they make contact with her after they get out, she will give them a rose, the crocheted flower, and a prayer shawl.”
Although Long and Rozas were initially disappointed that they had to limit the retreat time and use different props, they said the important thing was that the program—adapted from the weekend model to one 2-hour session on three consecutive days—worked. “We were doubtful that the pared-down retreat could have a real impact on the women,” says Rozas, but it did.
The Rachel’s Vineyard prison retreat is carefully scripted, including spiritual exercises and Biblical readings. Each core team member plays a certain part. After a chosen section of scripture is read aloud, Long asks the prisoners to close their eyes and put themselves in that scene. “Afterward, we ask them to share how [it] made them feel to be the adulteress about to be stoned, or the woman at the well, or Lazarus.”
“What you realize is that with scripture and meditation and God, it doesn’t matter what kind of props you have there,” says Long. “The Holy Spirit is in control; we are only his instruments.” They have found that participants really lose themselves in the prison retreats. Twice, a woman thought one of the battery-operated candles was setting fire to Long’s jacket, and swatted at the hem, she was so into the meditation. Another mom put paper dolls in her pocket as keepsakes.
Faith is integral to the Rachel’s Vineyard program. And while it is a Catholic retreat, women from all denominations are welcome. “But if you are Catholic, that is where you can bring that out,” says Long. During and after the retreat, her team is able to connect Catholic prisoners with a priest, so the women can receive the sacraments.
Although there are many women prisoners across the country who would benefit from this type of retreat, the Rachel’s Vineyard prison ministry in the Diocese of Lake Charles is the first of its kind, says Kevin Burke. “I know a number of Rachel’s Vineyard locations are exploring this possibility. But it takes time and patience to negotiate the system and develop the right team for this type of ministry.”
Good Girl, Interrupted
Long and her team have run the Lake Charles program since 2010. Vinet Keno is one of the women who definitely found healing by completing the Rachel’s Vineyard prison retreat, but initially it didn’t seem as if it would be that way.
Keno, like many prisoners, took academic and personal growth classes while incarcerated because the justice system looks favorably upon it. She was attending a drug-addiction recovery class when Long walked in to announce an upcoming Rachel’s Vineyard retreat. Not paying close attention, and thinking it was just a religious retreat, Keno signed up. Days later, once the retreat started and Keno realized it involved abortion, she became very defensive, sitting at an angle so she didn’t have to look at Rozas and Long.
Keno was angry with herself, as well as with Rozas and Long, for getting involved with the retreat. “What in the world was I thinking when I signed up for this crap here?” she says, reflecting on her feelings that day. “I felt like I had been bamboozled for real.”
Keno says her background isn’t typical of most prisoners: The oldest of five children from an intact family, she’s a baptized Catholic and had a Catholic education through elementary school; she never used a drug stronger than Tylenol.
The good life Keno experienced as a child continued into adulthood. She had a successful military career, during which she met and married her first husband. Although things appeared idyllic, their marriage eventually crumbled, and this set her on a disastrous path. “I gave the man two children,” she recalls, “and I thought we were very happy, and it turns out he didn’t want me at all.”
Despite the fact that he wanted out of the marriage, Keno desperately wanted to work on it. “I literally begged this man more than once, ‘please let’s get back together.’ He said, ‘I just don’t want you anymore.’” That was the last time she saw him. After he left, she tried to overdose on Tylenol. She recovered from the suicide attempt but not from the broken marriage.
Instead she began on a path of self-destruction. After the divorce, she partied a lot and had promiscuous sex, followed by two abortions. The first was in 1994, not long after her father passed away in his sleep. She believes the baby might have been a boy, and had she made a different decision, she would have named him after her father. Her father’s death, combined with the abortion, led to further depression and destructive behavior.
The second abortion was easier to rationalize. She had gotten a really good civil service job at Ft. Benjamin Harrison in Indianapolis. Reflecting on her mindset at that time, having an abortion seemed to be “really, really necessary.”
Perhaps in an attempt to deal with some underlying guilt, Keno began attending a Pentecostal church. But after experiencing the feeling of being forgiven, she slipped back into her old behaviors. “Once you feel clean, you don’t need God anymore,” she says. “I started going back to clubs again, made a new circle of friends, and this circle of friends [were] druggies. They introduced me to the new drug sweeping the nation, crack cocaine.”
The decision to use crack would be the first of several decisions that would eventually lead Keno to prison. The first time she tried crack, she says, she didn’t know she was high. “You just feel a rush, and so you keep trying it, because you know what to look for.” During that time, Keno started dating a man with whom she became pregnant with her daughter. Despite her addiction, she managed to stay off drugs during the pregnancy.
By now Keno had three children, but the weight of that responsibility was not enough to keep her from returning to drugs when she encountered periods of emotional pain. When this boyfriend went to jail, she was left lonely and depressed, and turned to drugs again. “I was on welfare and food stamps, and the logical thing when you have no money and three kids, is to spend all the money you do have on drugs,” she quips.
Something maternal in her kicked in, however, and she made the decision to send her two sons to live with their grandmother in Marksville, Louisiana; eventually Keno and her daughter moved in with them. “Mom knew what was going on, and I was old enough not to be chastised. I know she knew.”
Keno says she “went from sun up to sundown doing drugs, from Monday to Sunday doing drugs.” Although she didn’t want to live with her mother, she didn’t really have another option. The one bright spot in her life, the job she held at a casino in Marksville, would not last for long. She had always been a good employee, but her drug abuse finally caught up with her; she could not perform her work adequately, and was let go.
Keno still had a knack for finding new employment, and was hired as a receptionist at a car dealership. One of her responsibilities was to collect checks and money orders from customers who came in to make payments on their vehicles. One day, a customer gave her a blank money order. Instead of making the car payment for the customer, she used the blank money order to buy drugs. She was arrested and received a two-year suspended sentence, and was required to pay restitution.
The suspended sentence didn’t encourage Keno to amend her life. Instead she spent all the money she earned from a new job on drugs, stopped reporting to her probation officer, left Marksville, and moved in with another convicted felon, which is a parole violation. As a result, her probation was revoked, and she was sent to Cottonport Women’s prison. After nearly a year, she was let out on a work release program, with a job as a waitress at Pitt Grill, a Lake Charles restaurant chain. Within two weeks, she had a house, furniture, and a car. And she got her daughter back from her mother. (By now her former husband had custody of the boys.)
Keno began putting down roots in Lake Charles. She started a successful home-cleaning business, became active in a local church, and remarried. It looked as if she finally had her life together. Her husband, however, was abusive and eventually abandoned her. At 5:30 one evening she learned he was gone; by 6:30 she was trolling the streets looking for drugs. Realizing she knew nothing about where they were sold in Lake Charles, she decided to fight the urge to do drugs again. She picked up her daughter and went to the movies instead.
The second night, she again felt the urge to do drugs, and again took her daughter out to a movie. The next evening, however, her daughter wasn’t home, and Keno was left alone with her pain and her temptations. She stole one of her home-cleaning client’s rings, and took it to a pawn shop where she got $200 for it. Her client quickly reported the theft. Arrested on a Friday, Keno spent Mother’s Day in jail, and her arrest was listed for all her clients and fellow churchgoers to see in The American Press, the Lake Charles area newspaper. “My clients loved me to death,” says Keno. If she had asked them for money, they would have readily given it to her. But as a result of her arrest, she lost her home-cleaning business, was released from her leadership positions at church, and sentenced to two years in prison, and two years’ probation.
Facing the Pain and Finding Healing
When the Rachel’s Vineyard retreat began, Keno was in an intense state of denial about her abortions, thinking, “This problem has already been fixed. There is nothing wrong with me, there was just never anything wrong with me.”
But it was clear to Long and Rozas that she had not dealt with her abortions. “Marjorie saw the look on my face, that I was not interested,” says Keno. “During the break, Marjorie said to me, ‘You don’t seem to be pleased or interested in this. Tell you what, stay until this evening, and if you are still not happy, I will release you.’ Then, when the session ended, I went to her, and said I’m going back for the next session.”
Through the course of the retreat, Keno gradually began to face the truth, and find healing. Long says she remembers vividly the exercise that really helped Keno confront the reality of her abortions. During the retreat, after Long read the story of Lazarus from the Gospels, the women were given the opportunity to ask the team to wrap any part of their body that had been affected by their abortions. For example, if a woman felt powerless to stop an abortion, she could ask the team to wrap her hands and/or her feet. If she felt her heart had been numbed by abortion, she could have gauze wrapped around her chest, and so on. “Vinet [Keno] asked to have so much of her body wrapped up, we were concerned we would run out of gauze,” says Long. “Then she just broke down, and you probably could have heard it all down the hall.”
Once the spiritual readings and meditations ended, the Catholic retreatants had the option of going to Confession with Fr. Nathan Long, a priest who happens to be Marjorie Long’s son. All of the women then had the opportunity to name the babies they had aborted, and a memorial service was held for them.
Keno says the retreat helped her connect her abortions to other self-destructive behaviors. “I never realized how much destruction, piling on excuses, procrastinating, covers up the biggest part of your problem,” she says. “Depression is a bad, bad thing, and depression has led to so much destruction in my life. I think that depression I had after losing my dad, and having the abortions led to so many other bad things.”
Kevin Burke believes abortion healing is necessary to get many women back on track. “Healing that abortion loss takes a woman to that very deep place in her heart and soul, and with God’s grace, allows those wounds to be cleansed, and light to shine in this place of darkness,” he says. “This helps strengthen a woman to make the changes in her life that will make her emotionally and spiritually stronger and able over time to move away from those self-destructive actions, and manage her emotions as she recovers and makes healthier choices.”
Keno says going through the retreat made a big difference in the way she treated other people, particularly other prisoners. She is now better able to accept people for who they are. Although she still struggles with having to have things her way, she catches herself better now. “I was a bear. No one could really have a conversation with me,” she says of her life prior to the retreat. “Now that bear is in hibernation most of the time. My temperament has so changed, very much for the better.” And she has no desire to do the kind of self-destructive things she did in the past.
Keno has been out of prison for two-and-a-half years, and is still trying to find work. She currently lives with roommates.* Long says she can tell Keno’s life is different now, because she has heard from her since she left prison. “She makes contact with me once or twice a year. She did call one time for help, and I was able to put her with Catholic Charities. When I told her how to get the help, she did it.”
Not only is the Rachel’s Vineyard prison ministry helping individual women, it’s had other effects as well. For instance, the intake sheet prisoners fill out upon incarceration now asks if the women have had any abortions. If the woman reports that she has, she is told about the retreats. In addition, prior to the Rachel’s Vineyard program, Catholic women at the prison didn’t have easy recourse to the sacraments.
And it’s not just women who’ve had abortions who are benefiting. Dionysha Fenner is a 27-year-old, never-married woman, who has had two stillborn babies due to drug use. She is incarcerated for armed robbery. Also the mother of an 8-year-old boy, who is being raised by a paternal grandmother, Fenner does not want her son to see her in prison or know she is serving time. Fenner’s mother died when she was young, and her father has been in prison more than he has been out of it. In addition, she is an only child.
“When I accepted Dionysha into the retreat, she kept saying thank you to everyone for accepting her even though she had not aborted. I knew it would start to awaken her to look at her own self-destruction,” says Long. Fenner, she goes on, eventually came to a place during the retreat where she realized she had taken her children’s lives, with the difference being she did not pay someone to do it.
“Dionysha is so compassionate to others, she is also so broken, and alone,” says Long. She prays that when Fenner is released, she seeks a re-entry program, rather than hit the streets running. “The day I went for the visit was a down day for her, she was very depressed and cried, [but] she also stated that although she did not look so, I had brought her peace and hope with the visit,” says Long. “That is why I do what I do!”
Long can see God working in the lives of the women she works with in ways large and small. On one Rachel’s Vineyard prison retreat, she and Rozas met a woman who had been involved in prostitution since she was 12. The woman thought she had had six abortions, but she could not really remember. One of the rules the team has to follow is that all items brought into the prison have to be counted and documented beforehand. Long remembers counting six candles before they went into the facility. Once they came to the part of the retreat that involved the candle lighting, Long realized she had one extra candle. Long says she then heard the woman begin to “weep and weep.” It happened that the woman had also had a stillborn, and was transferred to another prison immediately after the delivery and not allowed to go to the funeral. The seventh candle represented her stillborn child.
“I had miscounted,” says Long, “but God had not.”
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Leslie Fain lives in Louisiana, and is a wife and homeschooling mother of three sons. You can follow her on Twitter @LeslieFain1