This report is contributed by Kevin Burke, MSS
Donna Gardner is the coordinator of the Rachel’s Vineyard post-abortion healing retreats for Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Palm Beach, Florida. As the program began to serve women and men whose native tongue was Spanish, Donna quickly realized how important language is in helping people process and recover from deep emotional pain and trauma.
“The English team kept encountering Hispanic men and women hurt by abortion,” Donna shared. “As I was preparing them for retreat, most especially during their intake, they would start to tell their story in English. But as their anxiety and trauma remembrance heightened they started to speak in their native tongue. It didn’t take very long for us to realize we needed a Hispanic ministry here.”
Donna and a team prayed for the right person to begin a Hispanic outreach. Emily Babilonia was the answer to those patient and persistent prayers.
Emily was born in Chicago but raised in Puerto Rico. At the age of 7, Emily was in a serious car accident. The doctors didn’t think she would survive, and even if she did pull through, they would likely have to amputate her leg. The doctors were able to salvage her leg, but she was left with a permanent disability and limp.
Emily grew up in a strong Catholic home, always involved in church. She felt a strong desire to give back to the Lord for the gift of her recovery. She asked Jesus to use her talents and gifts to serve and glorify Him.
Emily came to serve in an Emmaus program that trains and empowers Hispanic laity for pastoral ministry in their parishes. For five years she coordinated program retreats as well as a team of volunteers. Emily also became active in the respect life activities of her parish and was introduced to Donna Gardner’s ministry.
Under Donna’s guidance and support, Emily built up a thriving Hispanic retreat outreach for those wounded by abortion. They now offer two retreats a year, along with clergy and counseling support. Emily and the talented team she assembled recently offered their 10th Rachel’s Vineyard Spanish language retreat serving more than 120 women and men.
I asked Emily to share some thoughts from her service in this ministry. Her response:
It is hard for these women and men to open up, to trust. They long for God’s forgiveness, but they struggle to forgive themselves. Many of the participants are from humble backgrounds. Sometimes they were ignorant of the full gravity of their actions at the time of the abortion. When they later learn from education or a deeper conversion to their faith what abortion really is about…they are truly shocked and in deep pain. But they are also desperate to reconcile with God and to find healing. This often happens early in the retreat activities, because their hearts are repentant and so open that they welcome this opportunity to embrace the Lord’s forgiveness… they fully enter the retreat process, and with the support of our amazing team members and priests, they do beautifully.
Emily also observed that Hispanic men “connect in an equally powerful way with the exercises and the various props used to help people move through their complicated emotions and open up to the mercy of God. When they reach out to touch the hem of Christ’s garment, or pick up their rock that symbolizes their anger or struggle to accept forgiveness, it doesn’t matter if they are a man or woman…we humble ourselves and open our heart and our pain to the Lord. Jesus moves so powerfully in their souls. The men who come are really touched by the women’s stories during that part of the retreat. I think they come to understand how much abortion impacts women’s lives so they can be accountable before the Lord, grieve, repent and humbly call upon Jesus to bind their wounds and heal their Father’s heart. If they had no say in the abortion and are filled with resentment and anger, this can help soften their heart and they even come to have compassion for the mother of the child. Sometimes married couples come on the retreat together and this has been a real blessing for their relationship and to the other participants.”
Missionaries to Latin America
You might think that Emily and her team could now enjoy the fruits of their labor and simply focus on their diocesan Hispanic outreach.
The Lord had other plans.
Emily’s experience in Emmaus helped her to develop a good relationship with priests from Central and South America. As she began to share about her experience in Rachel’s Vineyard, some of these pastors were moved to want to take part in a retreat. A common response of the priests who participate in the Rachel’s Vineyard weekend is that this was one of the most powerful pastoral experiences of their priesthood. Sometimes after a retreat, a priest would speak with his bishop and after receiving his support and approval, would invite Emily and her team to develop a Rachel’s Vineyard Ministry in his diocese.
Emily and her team would then raise their own funds for airfare and retreat materials, commit to running the first few retreats and help develop and mentor the local Rachel’s Vineyard team. It is truly a loving act of charity by Emily and her team.
Since the first retreat in 2010, retreats have taken place in the Dominican Republic, Panama and Honduras, and retreats are planned next year in Nicaragua and Colombia.
Donna, Emily and their wonderful team of volunteers and prayer partners generously bring the light of Christ to their Spanish-speaking brothers and sisters in North and Latin America who have intimately encountered the darkness of participating in the death of their unborn children. The fruits of Christ’s victory at Calvary over sin and death are powerfully manifest in the souls of those women and men set free from their anguish and reconciled to God and their unborn children.
And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” And he who was seated on the throne said, “Behold, I am making all things new.” – Revelation 21: 3-5
You can reach Donna Gardner, MS, at Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Palm Beach.