Youth participation nearly doubles at annual life march

COLUMBIA — Several hundred people from the Diocese of Charleston traveled to Washington, D.C., for the 35th annual March for Life on Jan. 22. The southern contingent joined thousands from around the nation who marched, listened to speakers, and prayed together to show their support for life and opposition to abortion.  

The annual event commemorates the date the Supreme Court issued the Roe vs. Wade amendment on Jan. 22, 1973, making abortion legal throughout the United States.

Each year, protesters gather for a rally on the national mall and then march together to the Supreme Court.  

This year, 298 youths, adults and clergy from South Carolina made the trip, according to Kathy Schmugge, family life coordinator for the Diocese of Charleston.

She said this year’s turnout was notable because the number of youths who participated nearly doubled. The majority of the state’s turnout included young people from parishes in North Augusta, Charleston, Aiken, Columbia, Greenville and Rock Hill, Schmugge said.  

Organizer Nellie Gray estimated attendance at the march at 100,000, according to Catholic News Service.  

Attendees from the Midlands deanery continued what has become a tradition by traveling round trip without spending the night.  

Marchers from parishes in Columbia, Lexington, North Augusta, Aiken and other areas met at Our Lady of the Hills in Columbia for Mass at 7 p.m. Jan. 21 and then boarded two buses to drive through the night, said John Waters, youth minister at St. Joseph Church in Columbia. They arrived in Washington early on Jan. 22, attended the day’s events, and then immediately headed back to South Carolina.  

“We do this annual trip of going straight up and back because that way it really seems like a pilgrimage,” Waters said. “There’s a sense of sacrifice in not getting a lot of sleep, being on the move constantly, being a little uncomfortable. The people who do this are trying in a small way to unite our sufferings in a prayerful way with those of women and families who have suffered because of abortion.”

Waters said one of the most memorable parts of this year’s march was the annual youth rally and Mass held at the Verizon Center early on the morning of Jan. 22.  

“That center was completely full, and it holds more than 20,000 people,” he said. “We were told they were turning people away.”

The papal nuncio read a special letter from Pope Benedict XVI addressed to the young people attending the rally and march.  

“It was very moving to hear his acknowledgement of the fact that the pro-life movement really is becoming a youth-led movement,” Waters said.  

Joan LaBone, youth director at St. Mary Help of Christians in Aiken, made the trip with 50 young people from her parish.

“There were so many moments that were so extraordinary,” she said. “It was really something to see how all the different stages of the march affected the young people. Several of the girls who went with us came to me while we were walking and asked ‘How can anybody do this? How can people have an abortion?’ Some of the kids stood in awe when we were at the Supreme Court when they realized that was where Roe vs. Wade happened.”  

LaBone said one of the highlights of the march was the chance to walk part of the way with Bishop Robert J. Baker, the former bishop of Charleston who now serves the Diocese of Birmingham, Ala.   

“Bishop Baker was one of about 20 bishops from around the country who attended the march, and it meant a lot to the kids to be able to see him,” LaBone said. “One student said it was very special to him to be able to walk in the life march with the man who confirmed him.”

Brian Murdaugh, youth minister at Corpus Christi Church in Lexington, said this was his second trip to the Washington march.  

“The most important thing about the whole experience was the sense of real prayer and awareness,” he said. “The youth Mass and the march really highlighted the spiritual side of things.

“In order to continue to spread the culture of life, we need to get  people to include prayers for it in their daily prayer lives. Hearts have to change in order for the culture to change. If we plant one seed of life in a young person, and they plant the seeds among the people they know and encounter every day, then they have a chance of bearing great fruit in the future.”