LOS ANGELES — On a brisk day in January, beneath a clear-blue sky, hundreds of thousands of people crisscrossed the streets of Los Angeles, marching to the drum of various protests. But over at the city’s Exposition Park, just a stone’s throw from the L.A. Memorial Coliseum, close to 15,000 people had come together for OneLife LA, a celebration of human life and dignity that had its own vision for a revolution ushering in a new era of human solidarity.

And speaker after speaker took the stage Jan. 21 with their own powerful stories to tell attendees how to “Choose Love.”

“Choose Love” was the theme of the third annual OneLife LA event in Los Angeles that celebrates the sacred dignity of the human person from conception to natural death, in all walks and circumstances of life. The venue changed at the last minute, and the OneLife LA march was canceled in order to keep the celebration family-friendly and free from running into the protests, particularly the “Women’s March,” that were expected to grip the city.

But the theme of this ecumenical, family event, along with its compelling speakers and partners, underscored the internal logic of the Catholic Church’s social teaching and the pro-life movement: making sure the human person is loved and cared for at all times, no matter what happens.

“We are here in a new location, but we are here for the same great cause — this great celebration of human life and human dignity,” Los Angeles Archbishop José Gomez told the gathered crowds.

The sea of people that gathered at OneLife LA seemed to reflect every racial and ethnic background of the city: European-origin, African-American, Latino, Asian and Native American. So did the music. People danced to the salsa rhythms of the band Conjunto Nacional; clapped along to the joyful Gospel songs of the West Angeles Mass choir; and found themselves moved by the popular styles of Grammy-nominated artist Jamie Grace and fellow Christian artist Christopher Duffley, who is blind and has autism.

But the faces at OneLife LA showed a youthful movement, filled with young people and families drawn by the message that all life must be cherished and protected, whether it be the unborn child, the unauthorized immigrant, the imprisoned, the elderly, the poor or the homeless. People held aloft pro-life signs, in both Spanish and English, many of which were supplied by the Knights of Columbus.

But the event also had a strong ecumenical character, in no small part due to the collaboration between the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, led by Archbishop Gomez, and the West Angeles Church of God in Christ, a black evangelical church led by Bishop Charles Blake.

“In our commitment to life, we have come to celebrate life at every stage,” the evangelical bishop said, reminding people that “God himself declared the widow, the orphan and the stranger deserved his special love and protection.” He said the black Christian tradition felt this special commitment, because even after the abolition of slavery, black men and women experienced the message from society that their lives were “inherently inferior.”

He noted the catastrophic devastation of abortion on black communities and said that building a culture of life will require long-term and systemic help, including financial and practical support. Blake said the whole of Christendom must treat the mother in pregnancy “with the utmost compassion, so she might rise above her circumstances.” At the same time, he said, “It’s essential that fathers fulfill their responsibilities to the mothers of their children!” A roar of applause erupted from the crowd in agreement.

He asked them to trust the power of the Holy Spirit in their efforts to build a culture that has respect and reverence for life.

“Together, we can roll back the culture of death!” he said.

 

Actions of Love

Many of the speakers and performers at OneLife LA had their own stories that helped participants reflect on the Church’s teaching that all human life must be treated with respect and dignity.

Kirk Bloodsworth, the first man on death row in the U.S. to have been exonerated by DNA evidence, gave his testimony about the sufferings he endured in prison, as he was condemned to die, and how he found hope through discovering the Catholic faith.

Reality-television personality Rosie Rivera, shared in both English and Spanish her own story of being sexually abused as a child and how that put her on a path to have an abortion at 17, which further sent her life into a tailspin. She told people that she experienced God’s love, mercy and forgiveness at a point when all she wanted to do was die. She asked people at OneLife LA to be messengers of God’s love and mercy in the life of at least one woman who is wondering what to do with her pregnancy.

Rivera later told the Register that she values OneLife LA as an opportunity for her to open up to thousands about a past that she was ashamed of, so she can help “save other lives.”

“It’s so great that there are so many people here to save a life — that I’m not alone in speaking about ‘pro-life’ and saving a young girl or woman from having an abortion,” she said.

Another particularly powerful testimony came from Immaculée Ilibagiza, a Catholic survivor of the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, who asked people to embrace life as a gift, forgive others, let go of anger, and “choose love,” because she had seen up close what eventually happens to a society that suffers from a lack of love.

Ilibagiza told the Register that she wanted participants at OneLife LA to have the courage to become “apostles of life.”

“It’s not enough just to believe — I need to do actions of love,” she said.

 

Hearts Afire

Asking people to commit to the “actions of love” that Ilibagiza talked about is part of what OneLife LA is all about. All alongside the park area, various partners of the event had set up information booths from various organizations involved in such efforts as rescuing people from human trafficking, giving shelter to the homeless, ministering to prisoners, providing foster care, or helping pregnant women in need of assistance, to name a few. A number of Carmelite sisters in their traditional habits weaved their way through the crowds, passing out flyers inviting the recipients to help them provide elder care, while volunteers with the 40 Days for Life apostolate also passed out flyers.

Francisco Chavez, a volunteer helping to provide security at OneLife LA, told the Register that he decided to make an effort to join 40 Days for Life this year. He added that he was brought up Catholic, and his mother exposed him to the pro-life movement by taking him to prayerful demonstrations since he was 9 years old. But it was OneLife LA that helped show him all the various ministries open to him in the archdiocese.

The event also showed how much joy there was in this crowd of thousands celebrating the gift of life. Chavez said that they tried to make the Guinness Book of Records for the world’s largest human heart formation — “it didn’t go too well,” he laughed, recounting how the formation did not quite end up looking like a heart. But he noted how people looked: “Everyone had smiling faces.”

 

Requiem Mass for the Unborn

But the final impression of OneLife LA came at the requiem Mass for the unborn held at Our Lady of the Angels Cathedral. Chavez told the Register that there was a procession of candles, in single file, at the end of Mass, with 200 seconds of silence representing the number of lives lost to abortion in southern California alone that day.

“Just to see the amount of candles and how many abortions were performed … it was so powerful,” he said.

At that Mass, Archbishop Gomez reminded the congregation that America, “for a long time, has been a land overshadowed by death.” He pointed out that, in America, the unborn child “has no right to grow or to be born,” and the elderly, terminally ill and disabled are considered “waste” unworthy of medical care. But they have hope: “Where we have Jesus, the future is bright.”

He pointed out that the Church in Los Angeles — whether working through parishes with the “Whole Person Care” initiative to help the elderly and the dying live in dignity, or the ByYourSide LA program that provides “merciful companions” to support and heal women who have suffered an abortion — is building a culture of life. And OneLife LA is another sign of that pro-life culture.

“For me, OneLife is more than a day. It is a movement, a vision,” he said. “OneLife is a vision of a society of solidarity, love and service: a society where every life is welcomed and cared for — because every life is loved by God.”                           

             

  Peter Jesserer Smith is a Register staff writer.