Marie Barzen holds a new baby whose mother was considering abortion before the 40 Days for Life campaign helped. (Courtesy Marie Barzen)
Marie Barzen holds a new baby whose mother was considering abortion before the 40 Days for Life campaign helped. (Courtesy Marie Barzen)

Those active in Portland’s pro-life community likely know Marie Barzen and Therese Ruesink. The women have been involved with pro-life advocacy for nearly 15 years and now head up the local 40 Days for Life campaigns.

Barzen and Ruesink are reverts to varying degrees.

“I was very much a woman of the world and believed those lies,” recalls Barzen, who attends St. Cecilia Parish in Beaverton and St. Stephen Parish in Southeast Portland. But through praying the Divine Mercy Chaplet and reading St. Pope John Paul II’s theology of the body, she found her way to a pro-life perspective. With the strong intellectual and spiritual foundations the church provides, Barzen says she feels fortunate to be Catholic.

Ruesink, meanwhile, was away from the church for some time. It was through Mater Dei Radio and praying the rosary that she found her way back.

“I felt a pull to do something,” said Ruesink, who attends Mass at St. Rose of Lima and Holy Rosary parishes in Northeast Portland. After returning to church, Ruesink thought she’d be involved with ministires to the poor and hungry, but it didn’t work out that way. She had known someone who had an abortion and she began reading books on the topic — “Hands of God,” by Bernard Nathanson, who founded NARAL and eventually converted to Catholicism before his death; and “Forbidden Grief,” by Theresa Burke, on the unspoken pain of abortion. Reading about abortion and women unable to heal from the surgeries afterward lit a spark in Ruesink. She saw a notice in her parish bulletin about a talk being held to discuss the new Planned Parenthood abortion facility that was going up on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard in Portland. So she went.

Soon after, Ruesink started the 40 Days for Life campaigns at Portland’s Planned Parenthood at 50th and Franklin in Southeast Portland. The vigils have been ongoing ever since. The twice-yearly campaigns, 27 total, have been held at the Southeast Portland Planned Parenthood, Beaverton Planned Parenthood, the Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard Planned Parenthood as well as Portland’s Lovejoy Surgicenter and now the Lilith Clinic. Since the campaigns began, six abortion facilities in the state have closed.

Barzen says she was called to help women considering abortion because she had the birth control mindset, which, she added, leads into the abortion mindset. She could counsel them, provide resources to them and be like a mother to them.

Ruesink and Barzen’s work involves finding volunteers, speaking at churches and sending out emails. But when the campaign comes around, they’re out there often in front of the clinics.

“People are so afraid to come to abortion facilities and pray. You have to be brave,” said Ruesink. “We want to overcome our fear. If we’re receiving the sacraments, we’re protected.”

Quoting abortion-clinic-worker-turned-pro-life-advocate Abby Johnson, Ruesink said that there are up to 75% no-show rates at abortion clinics on days when people are praying outside.

“Sometimes we don’t even say anything to somebody but just being out there,” said Ruesink. “We just have to be a witness to passersby.”

It’s not always easy to pray in front of abortion clinics, however.

“You have to learn to turn the other cheek,” said Barzen. She recalled a time early on in her advocacy when she was standing outside the Lovejoy Surgicenter and one of the clinic’s “pro-choice escorts” started yelling at her.

“I yelled back at him. It wasn’t pretty.”

But Barzen has come to realize that the people yelling are usually wounded somehow and acting out of woundedness.

Then there are the times when those in the 40 Days for Life campaign have spoken with a woman at the clinic and offered support, only to find out the woman went ahead with the abortion anyway.

“Those are heartbreakers,” said Ruesink.

The work can be difficult and painful, but also beautiful.

Barzen said she didn’t have her first “saves” until the last few years. One she particularly remembers was a couple who were married with children. But they had no support, no car and were just overwhelmed. They were going to be seen at the Lovejoy clinic, but Barzen and the team fundraised for them and got them a car. The couple had a change of heart.

“In holding that new little baby, God is good,” said Barzen. “It’s joyful.” The team still stays in touch with the family.

Ruesink continues to see families she helped years ago. The folks in the 40 Days for Life campaign assist families with money for rent and utilities. One woman Ruesink met at a 40 Days for Life closing ceremony many years ago. The team got the woman food, took her to the Mother and Child Education Center and then took her grocery shopping. The next week, they went to see her again. Ruesink went on to become the baby’s godmother.

“I still know that family,” she said, adding that the woman and her husband went on to have another child. “They’re just so beautiful.”

“Marie and Therese know that these pregnant mothers are having great difficulties,” said Bill Diss, a friend to both women and a fellow local pro-life advocate. “These mothers and unfortunately most of the world thinks that terminating the lives of preborn children is going to solve financial, immigration and family difficulties.

“Marie and Therese are not financial advisors nor are they immigration attorneys. They are, however, the ‘saints’ of Portland and have allowed many mothers to hold their babies in their arms and to see their ‘precious faces,’” added Diss.

The struggles the women have are problems that we all have, said Ruesink. And so the work of praying in front of Oregon’s abortion clinics is important.

“There are so many people who tell women this is OK,” said Barzen. “We need a Christian face out there saying this is not OK.”

“Every human being is so unique and created in the image and likeness of God,” added Ruesink. “They deserve to be protected by society.”