By Kevin Kelly
Catholic Key Associate Editor
LEE’S SUMMIT — All human life is made in God’s image.
Even the life of the unborn. Even the life of the poor. Even the life of a condemned prison inmate.
All life must be protected, speakers told Catholic middle school students from three schools Feb. 24 at the 15th annual Respect Life Day, sponsored by parents at Our Lady of the Presentation School.
“No one is too young to learn about the sanctity of life,” said Bill Francis, director of the diocesan Respect Life Office.
“It affects you,” he told the middle schoolers, “because there is a generation of children who are not here” because they were aborted in the womb.
“One in four children are aborted,” Francis said.
“We are made in God’s image,” he said. “The most important thing we have is our human dignity.”
Throughout the day, speakers led the students through a range of Catholic teaching on the sanctity of life. In addition, 18 agencies all working to defend life in a variety of ways set up information booths for the students inside the Presentation School gym.
Dr. Cathy Burnett, professor of criminal justice at the University of Missouri-Kansas City and a founder of Missourians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, told the students that the possibility of sentencing a person to death for a crime he or she didn’t commit is high.
In Missouri, she said, three death row inmates have later been exonerated of their crimes after spending years in prison, she said. Nationwide, 140 former death row inmates have later been found to be not guilty of the crimes that put them in prison.
“When you are dealing with life, is that good enough?” she said.
“And even if they have done the crime, do we have a right to take that person’s life?” Burnett said. “Do we believe these people are beyond redemption, that they cannot change?”
Echoing Pope John Paul II’s 1995 encyclical, Evangelium Vitae (The Gospel of Life), Burnett said that society can be protected from those guilty of horrible crimes by imprisoning them for life.
“Being locked up in prison for the rest of their lives is a punishment that keeps us all safe,” Burnett said.
“But the state is saying that life is not worth anything, and we’re going to take it,” she said. “All life is worth something. It is not our responsibility to take life.”
Burnett noted that some states, including New York, New Jersey and New Mexico, have abolished the death penalty.
“It will depend on you to help change the system so that Missouri does not take life, but supports life,” she said.
Alli Donohue, who prays for and counsels women seeking abortions at an Overland Park, Kan., Planned Parenthood clinic every Saturday morning, told the students that abortion providers try to convince women in crisis pregnancies that abortion is “quick, easy and safe.”
“But 31 percent of women who have abortions suffer from some sort of psychological distress” after the abortion, she said. “I have not met one woman who was glad she had an abortion. Not one.”
Donohue said that she and other counselors work through LifeFront, an organization dedicated to convincing women that they do have choices other than abortion. In addition to prayer and sidewalk counseling, they offer information about crisis pregnancy centers that will offer support, both material and spiritual, for women who might believe that abortion is the only way.
She showed a photo of a baby girl, born Oct. 1, 2009.
“This is one of about 50 babies we have saved since LifeFront started,” Donohue said. “If I stood out there for 100 years and only saved one baby, it would be worth it.”
Kathleen Kennedy, of the Bishop Sullivan Center, brought along Devora, a 54-year-old ex-prison inmate, who is trying to pull her life back together through the job placement services Kennedy directs.
Devora told the students that she was born poor and married right out of high school to an alcoholic, abusive man.
Years ago, she wrote a $250 check for groceries for her five children, thinking that her husband would deposit his paycheck in the bank the next day. When he didn’t, Devora was eventually convicted of a felony bad check charge and spent four years in prison.
“My faith in the Lord helped me every day,” Devora said.
“I’ve worked all my life, and I have a lot of working days left,” she said. “Every one at the Bishop Sullivan Center will help, but the most important thing is to have faith and believe in the Lord. We can’t do it ourselves. We need all the help we can get.”
Kennedy told the students that like Devora, many people living in poverty have been trapped by circumstances beyond their control. And that is especially true for children, she said.
“How many of you have missed three meals in a row? How many of you had to sleep in a car last night?” Kennedy asked and, of course, not a single hand was raised.
“In America today, one out of every 50 children is homeless,” she said. “They didn’t do anything wrong.”
Kennedy asked how many of the students had volunteered in a food pantry or in a community kitchen offering meals to the poor. When hands shot up all over the room, she encouraged the students to keep up the good work.
“Talk to the people. Walk in their shoes,” Kennedy said. “I love it when I see young people in our food pantries, and I love it when adults model that behavior for them.”
When people who are more privileged meet the poor, walls between them come tumbling down and myths are shattered, she said.
“One myth is that they are different from the rest of us,” she said. “They are not. Once you meet them, you get to see the levels of complicated situations in which they don’t feel they have any future, and they have to make hard choices.”
A little help from people who care can make a difference, Kennedy said.
“We work with people who are trying to get their lives back on track,” she said.
Francis called on the students to be “pro-life carpenters” like Jesus.
But like a good carpenter, pro-life carpenters need lots of tools besides a hammer to beat down opponents.
“Proving you are right and winning arguments is not the goal,” he said. “The goal is winning hearts.”
Francis told about standing at a subway station, wearing his pro-life hat, immediately after this year’s March for Life in Washington, D.C., when a woman came up to him and said she saw a group of girls that day on their knees praying in front of the Supreme Court building.
“I used to be pro-choice, but I’m pro-life now,” the woman said.
During the long bus ride back to Kansas City, Francis said he joined the bus filled with Kansas City area young people who attended the march on the diocesan trip.
A student from Archbishop O’Hara High School told Francis that she spent part of the day in prayer on the sidewalk in front of the Supreme Court building. Then another student from Bishop LeBlond High School said that she was also in the prayer group in front of the same building.
“I realized then that the woman at the train station saw them,” Francis said. “I know they changed somebody’s heart that day, and that is why prayer is the most important thing you can do.
“Pray every day for the sanctity of life,” Francis told the middle school students.