In Marietta, Georgia, helping moms in need goes beyond diaper distribution or rental assistance. It’s rocking a baby in the middle of the night to help a tired mother sleep, a phone call to check in and listen, a warm relationship of support.
“It would be easy for these ministries to drop some diapers off, and not to say that’s not important,” said Keri Ninness, who leads the Walking with Moms in Need ministry at St. Joseph Parish in Marietta. “But when we’re talking about long-term impact – and we’re talking long term – being the hands and feet of Jesus, that means relationship.”
The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops launched Walking with Moms In Need, a parish-based ministry that networks resources and accompanies pregnant and parenting mothers, in March 2020. While initial efforts were stymied by the COVID-19 pandemic, many have recommitted to helping pregnant and parenting mothers, especially as abortion lawmaking returned to states last year following the U.S. Supreme Court decision overturning Roe v. Wade.
On Sept. 18, Bishop Michael F. Burbidge of Arlington, chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee on Pro-Life Activities, called Catholics to “radical solidarity” with vulnerable pregnant women in a letter titled “Living Radical Solidarity” issued ahead of the 50th anniversary of the inaugural Respect Life Month this October.
“While ending legalized abortion remains our preeminent priority, the most immediate way to save babies and mothers from abortion is to thoroughly surround mothers in need with life-giving support and personal accompaniment. This is radical solidarity,” Bishop Burbidge wrote.
The phrase, the letter notes, echoes St. John Paul II, who first defined “radical solidarity” as becoming “courageously ‘pro woman,’ promoting a choice that is truly in favor of women” by not leaving a woman in need alone. Drawing on Pope Francis, Bishop Burbidge said radical solidarity requires a “new mindset … moving beyond the status quo and out of our comfort zones.”
For Ninness, “Solidarity means to be one with each other. It means to be in communion with one another,” she said. She pointed to a quote in Bishop Burbidge’s letter from Pope Francis saying solidarity is not found in “a few sporadic acts of generosity.”
That’s why relationships and prayer are key to St. Joseph’s Walking with Moms in Need program, she said.
That approach is familiar to Father Peter Ascik, who coordinates the Walking with Moms in Need initiative for parishes in the Diocese of Charlotte, North Carolina, as the first director of its nearly two-year-old office of family life.
As a parochial vicar in 2020, he helped one of the diocese’s largest parishes, St. Matthew in Charlotte, start a Walking with Women in Need program. Along with another Walking with Moms program at St. Pius X in Greensboro, North Carolina, “the programs at both of those parishes have flourished and are bearing really good fruit,” he said.
While the state generally bans abortions after 12 weeks, it has become a destination for women seeking abortions from neighboring states, including Georgia, with more restrictive laws, said Father Ascik, who is also pastor of St. Mary, Help of Christians Church in Shelby, North Carolina.
He praises the program for building networks of social services and providers of material resources, and the parishes for noticing gaps and working to fill them. St. Matthew parishioners identified paperwork-related barriers for mothers to get free diapers, so it organized a day each month where mothers could pick up diapers and other baby supplies, no questions asked.
In another situation, a mother’s car broke down, and she started to receive Uber gift cards “out of nowhere.” The woman was surprised to realize the wide network of people who wanted to help her, he said, and because of Walking With Moms in Need, the communication for a call for help was in place.
Part of that network are three long-standing maternity homes, as well as transitional housing for women and children experiencing homelessness in the Diocese of Charlotte.
“Radical solidarity is going to mean radical availability,” Father Ascik said. “Radical availability is being willing to answer a text message, maybe at 9 p.m. at night or on a weekend, with a need that mom’s having right now.”
“That’s the culture that Walking with Moms helps us build,” he continued, “because, whereas, maybe before we would say, ‘Yeah, I want to help pregnant moms,’ … the next step is stepping up and saying, ‘I’m here. I’m the person that you can call on, the person that will go and talk to you, the person that will help you run down a place where you can get food on a weekend,’” when food banks are closed.
A holistic approach to supporting expecting and parenting mothers in difficult circumstances is the crux of the Women and Children First initiative at the de Nicola Center for Ethics and Culture at the University of Notre Dame in Notre Dame, Indiana.
In November 2021, just before oral arguments in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization were heard by the U.S. Supreme Court and real potential loomed for the overturn of Roe and Planned Parenthood v. Casey, the de Nicola Center launched an initiative to unite scholars on the interdisciplinary questions that surround building a culture of life.
“Let’s just try to think creatively and comprehensively about what people facing difficult pregnancies, difficult decisions, what they’re going to need to flourish, what’s going to be needed to protect those babies, those moms, and to create a world in which they can be cared for and loved and supported,” said O. Carter Snead, the center’s director and a professor of law and political science, of the initiative.
That meant focused academic programming and events, as well as engaging researchers interested in public policy, health care, race, addiction management, mental health care, employment law, housing and other facets that play into vulnerable parents’ circumstances and decisions, Snead said.
Among the de Nicola Center’s current partnerships is the university’s Wilson Sheehan Lab for Economic Opportunities and the National Maternity Housing Coalition, which are conducting an empirical study of maternity homes’ role in improving outcomes for mothers and babies.
Snead, a consultant to the USCCB’s Committee on Pro-Life Activities, said that kind of research refutes the popular “slander” that accuses pro-life advocates of caring only for unborn babies, not their mothers or children post-birth.
“It’s the case, and it’s always been the case, that pro-lifers have stepped up to try to care for moms and families in need,” he said. “This is … the radical solidarity, radical hospitality: caring for others in need by virtue and in proportion to their need, not because we have something to gain by it or some kind of pre-existing obligations do it, but … everybody has a claim on us, especially the weakest and most vulnerable.”
Washington State’s three dioceses have a decade of experience accompanying vulnerable moms and connecting them to needed resources. The Pregnancy and Parenting Support program, better known as PREPARES, was founded in 2014 by the state’s bishops and is connected to each diocese’s Catholic Charities office. Like Walking with Moms in Need, it is parish-based and dependent on a volunteer network, but it specifically focuses on pregnant women and families with children up to age 5.
“When we talk about radical solidarity, that means that we are … coming together under that umbrella of dignifying the life of the mother, the child, the father – who is such a critical piece – (and) that child having a healthy life,” said Lisa Green, PREPARES director for Catholic Charities Eastern Washington in Spokane.
“What we’ve seen as we’ve grown, is we continue to build that trust, the care, that experience, because once you have families that trust that parish, they will tell other parents, so their network of parents coming for support will grow as well,” she said.
According to the PREPARES website, the initiative grew from 1,435 to 12,231 families served annually in its first five years. In 2022, Washington parishes self-reported meeting basic needs for 9,133 families, with 165 families matched with a volunteer companion. Other families connected with the program through related events.
How Walking with Moms in Need will grow remains to be seen, but its leaders know the work is valuable. In the past year, St. Joseph in Marietta has helped about 18 women, Ninness said.
“These ministries have the opportunity to preach the Gospel in a way that does not even require quoting Scripture,” she said. “It’s ‘I’m going to allow myself to be the hands and feet of Jesus for you, so that you might not know who Jesus is, but you will see what he does, through what this ministry does.’”