Jennifer Fulwiler is a writer and speaker who converted to Catholicism after a life of atheism. She’s a contributor to the books The Church and New Media and Atheist to Catholic: 11 Stories of Conversion, and is writing a book based on her personal blog, ConversionDiary.com. She and her husband live in Austin, TX with their five young children, and were featured in the nationally televised reality show Minor Revisions. You can follow her on Twitter at @conversiondiary.
One of the most touching moments in Abby Johnson’s hit book, Unplanned, is when she recounts the morning a pro-life activist whom she’d come to know through the fence at the Planned Parenthood clinic brought her a special gift. Abby writes:
I pulled up to work one day and saw Elizabeth holding a bouquet of flowers. I was totally freaked out. I knew they were for me, but I could not bring myself to accept them over the fence….She called out. I heard her say that she had brought flowers for me. I just sprinted in the door and acted as if I didn’t hear her. I felt really bad…She looked so sad and disappointed. After about thirty minutes, she went to the center of the driveway and laid the flowers in the middle.
Abby felt guilty seeing the flowers sitting in the middle of the driveway, so she eventually went out to get them. She describes the beauty of the bouquet of lilies, then says:
Tucked inside was a handwritten card: The Lord has done great things for us, and we are filled with JOY. Psalm 126:3. I’m praying for you, Abby.
(To read about the huge role that card would eventually play in Abby’s conversion, read Unplanned!) In the book, Abby refers to this young woman only as “Elizabeth.” Inspired by her kindness and courage, I tracked her down to hear more about the story with the flowers and her work in the pro-life movement. My interview with Elizabeth McClung, the 24-year-old pro-life powerhouse and Executive Director of the Austin Coalition for Life, is below:
Q: That story of you buying flowers for Abby is amazing. What gave you that idea?
The Holy Spirit. At that time, during the Fall 2007 40 Days for Life, I was out in front of the clinic at 7:00 AM, so I was there when the workers arrived. I always tried to strike up conversations with them, and Abby responded and was friendly. We became friends through the fence.
One day I got the idea to buy her flowers (I like to buy girls flowers because I like it when people buy flowers for me!) I was at HEB [grocery store] at 6:15 in the morning and didn’t know what I was doing. I wrote the card there in the HEB, with a quote from a Psalm. When I got back to the abortion clinic, I felt like a moron standing there all by myself, holding flowers. Normally Abby parked by the fence and we chatted for a bit, but when she saw me with the flowers she parked way across the parking lot! I yelled, “Hey, Abby, I bought you some flowers!” Abby looked at me and ran inside. I felt ridiculous. I went to the edge of the Planned Parenthood property and laid them in the driveway.
Q: At the time, did you know that she eventually did take the flowers?
No. I spent the whole rest of the day calling volunteers, asking each of them, “Hey! Are the flowers still there?” Eventually the flowers disappeared, but nobody knew who took them.
Q: Two years elapsed between the day you left the flowers for Abby and the day she left Planned Parenthood. Were you tempted to give up on reaching out to her, or to feel discouraged about all the time you’d spent praying in front of the facility?
Of course. I’m human. Look at the road of Calvary: He fell. We fall. A lot. We get discouraged a lot—especially when you’re standing up against something as evil as abortion. With something like trying to reach out to a clinic worker in love and friendship and not seeing results—if you don’t have a strong prayer life, if you’re not constantly rooted in prayer when you’re on the sidewalks, it’s very easy to get discouraged.
Q: Do you have any regrets about your interactions with Abby (or other clinic workers) over the fence?
One day I felt inspired to say something to Abby. I couldn’t bring myself to do it when she first went into the clinic, but when she came back to get something out of her car, I got up the courage. I said, “Hey, can I talk to you? I know that you’re going to see a lot of women in there today. My prayer is that you can look at just one of them and really see Christ in her face.”
She wasn’t happy at all. It really lit a fire under her. She pointed to an anti-abortion extremist on the other side of the fence who was known for using harsh tactics [taking pictures of women going into the clinic, holding signs with offensive slogans, etc.] and replied, “It doesn’t matter what you say—people like that man down there weaken your witness.”
I said, “My witness is strengthened because of Christ.” That’s true, but I should have also agreed with her that that man’s approach was not loving or compassionate. Abby didn’t feel comfortable talking with me for a long time after that.
Q: Have you and Abby kept in touch since she joined the pro-life movement?
I don’t think a single day goes by that I don’t talk to Abby. We’re very good friends.
Q: Around the same time as Abby’s conversion, you founded the Austin Coalition for Life, a pro-life organization in a city known for its support of abortion. How’s that going?
It’s going phenomenally. When I first moved to Austin, I knew there were four abortion clinics. Between all four, you can get an abortion any day of the week—including Sunday. Up until that point, there hadn’t been a continuous prayer presence in front of all of the clinics. Different groups might occasionally go out there, but there wasn’t a lot of communication between the various organizations. That’s a huge problem because, in order to fight this battle effectively, we have to be willing and able to stand arm-in-arm with one another.
We launched the Coalition in November 2009, and have seen a big spike in the number of sidewalk counselors, volunteers and women turning around at the clinics and choosing life for their children. For example, in 2009 our local 40 Days for Life campaign had 300 volunteers. Today we have almost 1,000. Also, we now have thirty different local church communities across many denominations united in prayer.
Q: Were you confident that the Austin Coalition for Life would succeed?
No. To be really honest, had no idea if this was something that was going to be successful. I have no experience in running non-profits and my educational background isn’t in this area. I mean, I know that God is powerful and works miracles, but I started coming up with all these doubts and reasons it wouldn’t work. I knew God was calling me to do this, but I was scared. Finally, I faced a “put up or shut up” moment. I just had to say to God, “Here are my doubts. I give them to you. I’m trusting you. I’ll do it.”
Q: Do you still personally go out in front of the clinics?
Yes—in fact, I was out at a clinic right before this interview, and sent a girl to a pro-life pregnancy center. During 40 Days for Life, I spend 10 - 20 hours per week in front of clinics.
Q: You are only 24 years old, and it seems like there are a lot of other young people actively involved in the pro-life movement. Have you noticed the pro-life cause gaining traction among young people?
Yes! The pro-life movement is taking on a very young face. I think there are two reasons for that. First, those of us who were born after 1972 had no legal guarantee to life. It’s personal for us. Second, young people are really looking for something to pour their hearts into—they want a mission, want a purpose. Being pro-life has become a core part of their identities.
Q: 40 Days for Life starts March 9. What can we expect from this season’s campaign?
It’s going to be huge. It’s the biggest 40 Days for Life ever, with 247 cities across the world participating. Chances are, you live within driving distance of a 40 Days for Life city, and you can drive out and actively participate in the pro-life movement. You can keep vigil in the places where life is being taken.
Q: The success of 40 Days for Life is staggering. In addition to the sheer power of prayer, what do you think is behind that?
What’s really exciting about 40 Days for Life is that it’s a very focused time period. Anybody can do anything for six weeks. We know that God uses this time period to bring about real transformation. This movement is giving people an entry into the pro-life movement. It’s empowering them to get on the ground and take real action for a fixed time period, to get involved and really make a difference in a life or death situation.
More and more people aren’t just saying they’re pro-life, but they’re walking the walk, putting those convictions into action. The success of 40 Days for Life is a real testament to that.
Q: In Unplanned, Abby largely credits her dramatic conversion to the unfailing prayers by you and everyone else who kept vigil in front of her Planned Parenthood clinic—yet it took eight years to see any results. Any words of encouragement for when others feel discouraged about the pro-life cause?
When we look at any kind of social movement, we see that change doesn’t happen overnight. Big societal changes are mostly brought about by our perseverance, and that perseverance is an expression of faith. In our instant gratification culture, we want to see results right now. I often see sidewalk counselors who are eager to run out and save a mom and baby today—I have to explain to them that it took me two years of being a sidewalk counselor before I saw my first save. Our culture tells us to want immediate results, but in matters of faith, we have to persevere. We’re running a marathon, not a sprint.
Also, social movements don’t succeed without going to the streets, which is exactly what we’re doing. With that and perseverance, we’re seeing more results than we ever have in terms of the number of women and children being saved from abortion.
A big thanks to Elizabeth for taking the time to chat with me. To find out more about Abby Johnson’s inspiring conversion and the role that pro-life prayer warriors like Elizabeth played in it, be sure to check out Unplanned!