Her soft voice held a touch of Irish lilt as she pondered the women in daunting circumstances whom she had met since 2006.
Shortly after Alice Harris started volunteering at a crisis pregnancy center, she quickly realized the challenges that begin for women “once they step out the door if someone’s not there to walk with them.”
And walk with them she has.
A parishioner at St. John the Evangelist in Severna Park, Md., Harris has accompanied a mind-boggling 110 women in her volunteer work with Gabriel Network of Maryland and Washington, D.C. The network is one of many Gabriel ministries throughout the country that provide material, spiritual and emotional support to pregnant mothers.
But Harris, a retired nurse and midwife, takes no credit for herself. “The most important thing is that you’ve done God’s will,” she told Our Sunday Visitor. “I never look at the number.”
Harris was born and raised in Ireland. Her simple and no-frills upbringing prepared her well for the ministry she would find herself called to years later.
She said she sees the women she helps as children of God — not as clients but as women whom she loves and meets where they are, with gentleness and caring. “Of course, she’s not going to tell you all the first [time] you meet her,” Harris said. “You’re forming this friendship, and I think it’s very therapeutic, because over time they start to tell you their story.”
And that’s when each story really starts to make sense. “You really get to the bottom of it,” she said. “Where does this brokenness start? Where does the healing need to start?”
Through her work as an “Angel Friend,” Harris assists the women anyway she can — providing transportation to doctors’ appointments and social services; helping with Women, Infants and Children (WIC) paperwork; finding clothes and food; and ensuring the family is receiving all the social service benefits for which they are entitled. She also just calls and chats with the women.
“They taught me everything I know,” Harris said. “It’s out of their need that I found out where to find something. God propels you to step out of yourself to find the person who can help them in this area or that.”
It’s important, she cautioned, to respect the woman’s space and privacy. And it’s important to remember their suffering.
“A lot of the times what you find is they’ve been let down so many times,” Harris said. “People have promised them so much. One thing that moves them the most is the sincerity.”
This pro-life ministry got its official start in the early 1990s when a Catholic church in Corpus Christi, Texas, put up a homemade sign advertising that pregnant women who needed help should contact the parish.
After being besieged by phone calls, the parish reached out to surrounding churches for help. Thus, Gabriel Project was born.
Gabriel Project follows a simple structure and differs from state to state. Though no national center exists, that hasn’t stopped the ministry from spreading from coast to coast. A network of volunteers on the ground in churches (predominantly, but not limited to, Catholic) help women — often in financial straits — who find themselves in crisis with little-to-no support from their families or significant others.
For groups who wish to start a Gabriel ministry, diocesan offices — where they can obtain approval to start a ministry from the local bishop and priests in their dioceses — are a good place to start. Once approved, the group must set up an office with a central phone line and post signs with a hotline number and a message to women in a crisis pregnancy on church properties.
Melissa Juarez is the director of the Gabriel Project at the Hope House in Corpus Christi, the birth-city of the Gabriel Project. Along with providing the women who come to them with shelter, diapers and car seats, they also “just talk to them, see how things are going for them,” Juarez told OSV. “We kind of just be a listening ear for them ... and if we don’t have something [they need], we refer them to someone who can help.”
The Hope House also offers life skills classes, which the women are encouraged to attend. The classes are free and show them how to “be better moms, learn how to discipline kids without spanking, how to build self-esteem for them and their kids, and how to budget,” said Juarez. “I’m glad that we’re there for these people. We’re offering hope. We’re offering support.”
She added that in addition to donations received yearlong, many volunteers assist with the program around the holidays, often via an angel tree tagged with items the family needs.
Almost at the same time Gabriel Project got its start in Texas, the grassroots group Prolife Maryland had formed in the Mid-Atlantic state. Prolife Maryland wasn’t focused on ministry or reaching out to women, but rather in trying to influence legislation before the Maryland General Assembly.
But when several volunteers from Prolife Maryland heard about the effort to help pregnant women in need in Corpus Christi, they traveled to Texas to talk to the leaders behind Gabriel Project.
The group came back to Maryland burning with the new ideas. Thus, the nonprofit Prolife Maryland Education Foundation was created. It then evolved into the Gabriel Network and staked its first Gabriel sign into the ground in 1995.
Eighteen years later, the Gabriel Network volunteers represent 37 Christian churches in Maryland and Washington, D.C. Twenty-eight are known as “complete” Gabriel Network churches, meaning they have an organized volunteer group, said Jim Sharbaugh, the Gabriel Network’s executive director from 1995 to 2001. He now serves as its director of volunteer programs.
Of the 37 churches in the network, 28 are Catholic and nine are Protestant. More than 150 “Angel Friends” are assisted by 74 volunteers.
“The one thing that has always set us apart is that we’ve always been a joint Catholic-Protestant effort,” Sharbaugh told OSV.
Three years after the Gabriel Network was founded, it became clear to the volunteers that many of the expectant mothers who were contacting them for help needed housing.
As a result, “Shepherding Homes” was born, becoming another aspect of the ministry made up of private families of all faiths willing to take the women into their homes. Sharbaugh and his wife, Susan, led one of those homes.
“If we were going to ask other people to bring absolute strangers into their homes, we have to be willing to do it ourselves,” Sharbaugh said. “So we did.”
Througout the next two years, three women — and their children — lived with the Sharbaughs in their home.
Now, the Gabriel Network has three independent shelters that can provide for up to 12 women and their children. All the homes have a full-time live-in director. Two of those directors currently are past clients of the Gabriel Network.
While the physical support given to pregnant women in need by Angel Friends, also called Gabriel Angels by some Gabriel ministries, are essential, the volunteers also offer much-needed spiritual and emotional support.
|Participants race in the Gabriel Network’s annual 5K run/walk on Sept. 28. Photo courtesy of Gabriel Network
|Angel Friend volunteer Anne Anderson (left) and church coordinator Anne Marie Labin stand by a Gabriel Network sign at St. Joseph’s Catholic Church in Cockeysville, Md. Photo courtesy of Gabriel Network
Sharbaugh explained that feelings of loneliness, isolation or abandonment are common among women experiencing an unexpected pregnancy.
“Because they are alone, that generates even more fear,” he said. “We take care of that with Angel Friends who build relationships with the women so they no longer feel alone.”
Addressing that fear is vital, Sharbaugh added.
“It’s important to understand that the No. 1 thing that drives any woman to consider abortion is fear,” he said. “The fear takes many different forms. Fear can drive the best person to things they would never do. Gabriel ministry is all about taking fear out of the picture and putting faith in its place. Faith and fear are opposites.”
Developing a relationship based on trust is also key, Harris told OSV. “The trust part is so, so important. They won’t reveal themselves to you if they don’t trust you,” she said. “It’s a deep, deep suffering they go through.”
Prayer is an important part of the process for a Gabriel Angel, as keeping God at the center of the ministry is vital.
“You try to nurture this trust in God,” said Harris, who added that the women will need him after they’ve moved forward in their lives. “We have to have the heart of a servant. The more you’re a servant to them, [the more] that moves their hearts.”
For those nervous about the commitment it takes to become an Angel, Harris encouraged thought and prayer about how they can help do God’s will.
“I learned so much from those clients,” she said. “Each client that I take on, they help you to grow, mainly spiritually. Hopefully I could be a stabilizing witness for them.”
Mariann Hughes writes from Maryland.
Here are some helpful hints adapted from guidelines of the Diocese of Austin, Texas (www.austindiocese.org).
First steps to start a parish Gabriel Project
◗ Obtain permission from your pastor
◗ Host a Gabriel Project training at your parish or attend a local Gabriel Project training, if available at your diocese
◗ Designate a Gabriel Project coordinator, Gabriel Project Angels and Gabriel Project members
◗ Purchase a sign with Gabriel Project and a hotline number for moms in crisis
◗ Collect maternity and baby donations
Role of Gabriel Project coordinator
◗ Oversees the organization of the parish Gabriel Project under the direction of the pastor and diocesan groups
◗ Inspires, motivates and encourages Gabriel Angels; might become personally involved with some Gabriel moms
◗ Coordinates human and material resources as a compassionate leader
Role of Gabriel Angels/Angel Friends
◗ Mentors and gives the love of Christ to the pregnant mothers in need of spiritual, emotional and material support through regular face-to-face meetings
◗ Establishes initial contact with assigned Gabriel mom
◗ Prays for Gabriel mom and encourages her at every stage of her journey
◗ Keeps the parish coordinator informed about the well-being of mother and child
◗ Asks local and parish communities for specific items or services on behalf of the mother