Women describe the healing that comes from Rachel’s Vineyard retreat weekends
The following story appeared in the August 13 Idaho Catholic Register.
by Emily Woodham
For Teresa Miller, getting out of the car and walking up to the door of a Rachel’s Vineyard retreat was one of the greatest hurdles to attending the weekend gathering of those seeking healing from the effects of abortion “I sat in my car and thought, ‘I can just drive away and nobody would know.’ And then volunteers came out to greet me,” said Miller, who went to a retreat in 2008, 10 years after her abortion.
Rachel’s Vineyard is a ministry of Priests for Life and was started as a retreat weekend experience almost 25 years ago. The retreats are open to women who have had abortions as well as anyone else who suffers from the effects of abortion, including fathers, grandparents, and siblings of aborted children.
Many of the women interviewed for this story and sharing experiences online (the women we interviewed all agreed to use their names) feel a renewed anxiety about confronting their past choices as they contemplate attending the weekend retreats. After years – sometimes decades – of repressing grief, struggling with self-hatred or battling fears of God’s rejection, women who have had abortions say they face an overwhelming flood of emotions. In response to that anxiety, organizers of Rachel’s Vineyard retreats say they refuse to leave anyone helpless in the face of inner battles.
Women who have attended the retreats say volunteers are sensitive to the traumatic scars abortion leaves behind, not just in the body, but also on the mind and heart. Many volunteers are past retreatants themselves, who can empathize with the anxiety of those attending the weekend.
Teresa Miller became a volunteer after attending her retreat. Although she was raised a Catholic and believed abortion was wrong, her husband coerced her into an abortion. Both of them were caught up in addictions when she became pregnant with their third child. As soon as she told him they were having another baby, he Teresa Miller told her to “get rid of it.”
Miller tried to leave the abortion clinic twice, and each time she was pressured into going back. “The abortion devastated me,” she said. “I didn’t make decisions anymore because I made such a horrible one. I felt I couldn’t be trusted,” she said.
She stayed in bed for days until one of her young sons told her he needed her. “I had to live, but I was just going through the motions, doing it for my kids. The shame and the guilt were horrible. I had gotten so good at pushing it down that I had convinced myself that I was OK,” she said.
Then one day, a reliquary containing a fragment of the coffin and body of St. Thérèse of Lisieux was brought to a parish in the Oregon community where she lived. As she touched the reliquary and prayed, she knew she needed to come home to the Catholic Church. She had heard that women could be excommunicated for abortion, and she feared that she couldn’t go back. But after talking to a priest, she began her journey of healing.
She and her husband separated. They both became clean and sober, worked hard to heal their relationship and eventually reconciled.
When her family moved to Idaho, Miller helped with the Respect Life group at Holy Apostles Catholic Church in Meridian. At one of the group’s meetings she met April Agenbroad, director of Rachel’s Vineyard in Boise. At first, Miller wanted to volunteer for Rachel’s Vineyard without attending a retreat, thinking she was done with healing from her past wounds. But after hearing the story of one of those who attended the retreat, she realized there was still a need for healing.
“The whole atmosphere at the retreat was loving and caring,” Miller said. Although difficult at times, the experience of healing was worth it. She was so uplifted from the retreat that friends noticed how she couldn’t stop smiling for months.
“It’s important for retreatants to remember that we’re all in the same boat. No one is going to judge you,” she said.
Wendy Muir was in an abusive relationship when she had her abortion. Already a mother of a 5-month-old son and no hope of escaping her partner, she felt helpless to keep her baby.
“I pushed the abortion to the back of my mind, and I just justified it. Then it hit me: I killed a child, my child! I never wanted any other children because of what I had done,” she said.
Two years after her abortion, she left her partner.
Without faith to help her find her way, she continued to do her best to raise her son. She married in 1997, but soon found herself in another difficult relationship.
Noticing that a Catholic neighbor had so much peace, while her life was not peaceful, she enrolled in the RCIA program at Corpus Christi Parish in Fruitland, and was baptized in 2006. “When I went through the RCIA process, it gave me a moral compass. When that moral compass settled in, that’s when it hit me what I had done,” she said, referring to her abortion years earlier.
She read about Rachel’s Vineyard in parish bulletins, but it wasn’t until 2013, after her divorce, that she decided to attend a retreat.
“That ministry is amazing! They bring you in and take care of you. They nurture you and give you space to bring up all that pain,” she said.
The retreat team includes a professional counselor, a priest, and other volunteers to help facilitate different aspects of the healing process. Discovering the effects of abortion – mentally, emotionally, and spiritually – helped Muir to identify harmful thought patterns and choices that stemmed from her abortion.
For some, having a priest at the retreat can be difficult at first because many of the retreatants fear being judged for their abortion. But, in Muir’s case, as the priest shared God’s love and hope, the fear dissipated.
Muir loved the retreat so much that she decided to become a volunteer for Rachel’s Vineyard. After a few years with kitchen duties, she slowly took on more responsibilities. This year she is a host. “I’m just kind of in the back, making sure everything’s working right for hospitality,” she said.
“My message to everyone is to let God’s light shine in that dark part of your life. Let Him come in and shine!” she said.
Ginny Ganguet tried counseling for her growing sense of depression. Her therapist couldn’t figure out why she was struggling so much, and her doctor said the only other option was to use antidepressants. Before trying medication, however, she decided
to visit Father Justin Brady, who was then pastor of her parish, Immaculate Conception in Fairfield.
She had not been to confession since she joined the Church six years previous to her visit with Father Brady. “I was not forthcoming about my abortion, but Father did an amazing spiritual exercise with me. And the Holy Spirit did the rest,” she said.
Father Brady suggested she go to the Rachel’s Vineyard retreat, although it was only two weeks away. Because the retreat was full, she was put on a waiting list. A few days later, she was told a spot had opened up.
“I was nervous, but I trusted Father Justin’s advice and that the retreat would help. At that point I was willing to try anything,” she said.
Ganguet had an abortion in her early 20s. “I blocked a lot of the procedure out, but I remember the physical pain and feeling so empty and deeply sad afterwards. The emotional pain from it didn’t go away, and I struggled with it for years.” Even though she had since been baptized, married in the Church and had two children, the pain from the abortion only grew worse. “It was a struggle to get through the day,” she said.
She describes the Rachel’s Vineyard weekend as an experience of feeling “wrapped in prayer and love.”
“Very rarely have I ever felt so much love in one room,” Ganguet said.
“They cater to your every need and know when people need a break. There is a lot of grief and pain that comes to the surface during the retreat, but the whole time I was there I felt safe. The rest of the retreatants support each other so much, and we all formed a special bond that I still hold so very dear to my heart.”
The weekends are not just for women. In fact, Ganguet’s husband attended with her.
“I feel like it strengthened our marriage immensely,” she said. “I was surrounded by support and understanding. I was able to heal so many wounds that weekend, and I’m so grateful the Holy Spirit led me to such an amazing experience. He knew just what I needed,” she said.
The next Rachel’s Vineyard retreat is in Meridian on Friday, Nov. 5 to Sunday, Nov. 7. For registration information, contact Mary McCool at 208-484-6113 or email@example.com. For more information about Rachel’s Vineyard, go to rachelsvineyard.org.
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