Most of what I have learned about the Lord’s mercy, I learned on Highland Avenue in Pittsburgh.
My younger sister and I were talking the other day about college. We agreed that perhaps even more impactful than the beautiful truths we learned in the classroom were the heart-wrenching experiences we had in ministry. Those were the moments that changed our hearts. Those were the moments when the truths of Christianity became living, breathing testimonies.
The first place I truly experienced a situation where I could love those who persecuted me was on Highland Avenue. Yet it was also the place where God reminded me that He never abandons anybody. There my heart was broken and there my heart was healed.
One Saturday morning, outside an abortion clinic in Pittsburgh, I experienced the unshakable reality that God is always faithful and His love is ever-enduring. Prior to that morning, I would have said that was true. After that morning, I knew it to be truth.
On a cool fall morning, I saw a young woman walking with her parents to the abortion clinic. It was my first time shadowing a sidewalk counselor as I prepared to begin this new ministry. Her head was down, watching the street as they followed the crosswalk. For a brief second, she brushed her hand against her eyes. She is crying, I realized. Within a couple seconds, she was around the corner and ushered into the clinic. A sinking feeling told me that she didn’t want this abortion, but rather felt pressured. While I knew she didn’t want it, I knew she was going to do it. My heart ached for her.
The sidewalk counselor I was shadowing returned and we started praying for the young woman. And then I started to sob. Deep, gut-wrenching sobs that felt great grief and sorrow. The ache in my heart, I thought, must have dimly reflected the ache in the woman’s heart or in God’s own heart. I was praying to God, knowing there was nothing I could do to fix this situation.
In the midst of my prayers and tears, a sudden calm came over me and the Lord spoke to me in one of the clearest ways He ever has.
“I am with her,” the Lord whispered to me.
For some reason, I had imagined that once she passed through that clinic door, she would continue on alone. But the Lord is not shut out by doors or hardened hearts or running in the opposite direction. The whole scene was now changed: I pictured her going into the clinic, waiting for her name to be called, sitting on the operating table, and having the abortion, but with Jesus present through it all. The laws and doors kept us out on the street, but God did not stop there. He never abandoned her.
On a street corner in Pittsburgh, the Lord reminded me that He never turns His face from us, even as we turn our face from Him. Msgr. Reilly, a living pro-life saint in Brooklyn, reminded us at a retreat that all of us have at one time or another aborted God’s will in our lives. The Lord does not abandon us in the midst of sin and then return to us when we are striving to be holy. Instead, He remains with us at all times. As we sin and as we run from Him, He remains steadfast, offering love and mercy where we need it most. He peers into the depths of our hearts and pours His grace into our deepest wounds.
In the face of tragedy and violence, we are prone to ask, “Where is God?” We seem to believe He is absent if we face difficulty at the hands of nature or mankind. The answer is that He is never far from us. As we experience death, suffering, and violence, He is there, holding our hand and offering strength. As we fall into sin and seek to avoid His will or law, He is there, reminding us that we are more than what we have let ourselves become. At every time and in every place, the Lord is near to us. Not in a wishy-washy good vibes or positive feelings way, but in a concrete, authentic, nailed to the cross and rose from the dead kind of way.
I pray for the end of abortion and I pray for the wounded families, doctors, and all involved with this heartache. Yet we as Christians believe that God permits only the evil from which He can draw a greater good. I do not know all of the greater good that has come from the thousands of abortions in our nation and world. But I can speak to one good that has come from this holocaust: a transformation of my heart. I do not claim that it makes up for all of the deaths, but I believe it is worth something and that it is a change willed by God.
On that street corner, I encountered the mercy of God and the reality of His enduring faithfulness. In those hours spent in the face of death and destruction, the Lord gave me a greater patience, gentleness, and sensitivity to the ache within others. Msgr. Reilly once said at a retreat that God was using abortion to raise up saints. I find there to be great truth in that statement. Only in Heaven will we see the ways God used our errors to bring about sanctity in others. Perhaps, from God’s perspective, Highland Avenue is a place where heartache occurs, but primarily a place where sacrifice and mercy reign.