From the Sidewalk to the Stove
A leader in pro-life activism for many years, Joan Andrews Bell is now involved full time in another line of work. It's no less demanding. And no less about defending life.
It's just different from what she was used to.
Where once she blocked entrances to abortion clinics, counseled abortion clients from sidewalks and got herself arrested (more than 200 times) for her part in Operation Rescue's nonviolent protests, Bell now spends her days cooking, cleaning, doing laundry and otherwise caring for her seven children in Pompton Plains, N.J.
Six of the children are adopted, five of them physically disabled. Four are from orphanages in Russia, one is from Mexico and another was adopted from a Jamaican woman who was headed for an abortion clinic.
The desire to care for needy and abandoned children that led her into pro-life activism still motivates Bell today. She calls family life with her husband, Chris, “a vocation and a blessing” and “a dream come true.” It was a dream she thought would never be fulfilled when she celebrated her 40th birthday in a Florida jail in 1988.
After she was released, she met Chris, executive director of Good Counsel Inc., who runs five pro-life homes for pregnant women and their babies in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut.
“Marriage and a family was what I wanted long before the whole attack on life began in this country with the legalization of abortion,” Joan says. “All I wanted to be was a wife and a mother.”
Chris and Joan were joined in a pro-life marriage made in heaven in 1991. The next year Mary Louise was born. The couple then adopted Emiliano, who has multiple birth defects, from a Mexican orphanage. He is now 14.
After Joan's sister helped a woman turn around from an abortion clinic in Tennessee, the Bells began making arrangements to adopt the child, Philomena, now 5. They then went to an orphanage in Russia to adopt a brother and a sister, Andrei, 8, and Irina, 6. Recently, they returned to Russia for two more children who had touched their hearts on the first visit. Valareia is 5 and Theresa, who is missing her right leg, is 4.
Chris Bell says he has trouble remembering that five of their children have disabilities. “They're as loving, troublesome and fun as any other children their age,” he says. “They want to do everything the other children do, and they don't want any help doing it. ‘I want to do it myself’ is heard often in our home.”
For example, Mary Louise has taught Theresa to hop around on one foot. “One good thing about having seven children is that they learn to take care of one another,” Chris says. “I never hear any of them say, ‘I'm bored.’”
“I know it may sound politically correct, but I do favor using the term ‘special-needs child,’ rather than handicapped,” he adds. “All of us are handicapped in one way or another, either physically, mentally, emotionally or spiritually. Each one of our children is an individual, and each has wonderful gifts and God-given talents that the word handicap just doesn't capture.”
The Bells have been touched professionally and personally by the recent injuries to Father Benedict Groeschel, the popular preacher and author of the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal. Father Groeschel, who has been hospitalized since being hit by a car in January, is chairman of the board and co-founder of Good Counsel Homes. He raises money for Good Counsel and is a source of encouragement and guidance for Chris Bell.
“Thank God it looks like Father Benedict is going to pull through, but the road to recovery will be long and hard,” Chris says. “We pray for him every day, but we can't expect him to be back on his feet for a while. From a practical point of view, we need to make up for the donations that he usually would bring us through his speaking engagements and letter writing.”
Not that Father Groeschel's touch is totally missing. In a statement on the Good Counsel Homes website, goodcounselhomes.org, the influential Franciscan writes: “How many times as a priest I have spoken to a brokenhearted woman who has been hurt, who has been abused by this hideous thing called abortion and how she wonders where her baby is. And I tell her: ‘Look, the Holy Father tells us don't give up hope, someplace in eternity is that little soul. And you pray to that little soul that he will pray for you. Someday you will meet him.’”
Although her days are filled with the concerns of her family, Joan Bell has not forgotten pro-life activism. She brings her children regularly to pray outside a hospital that performs abortions, and the family does a holy hour for life before the Blessed Sacrament each week.
“I don't think you can settle back and say, ‘I have a family so I can't be active,’” she explains. “Justice demands that we do something. God's judgment is upon us and our nation for the horrendous holocaust of abortion. I think everyone has an obligation to go out and pray at the mills, where specific, individual children are being put to death right then and there each day.”
Operation Rescue has been essentially shut down by draconian federal and state laws, yet Joan Bell says the movement should be revived.
“We need to do more, we need to be willing to die to save the babies. That is the spirit of true Christian charity,” she says. “We should start by becoming, as a movement, as a Church, more loving and sacrificial. God is not into numbers, and we shouldn't wait for someone else to get involved before we do. We need to pray more, to fast more, to perform sacrifices, to do a holy hour every week and to get out on the streets in front of the abortion mills. God will do the rest.”
“I put myself first,” she adds, “among those who need to do more.”
Stephen Vincent is based in Wallingford, Connecticut.