‘Our message is love’:
Bishop Knestout leads rosary outside Bristol abortion clinic

Bishop Barry C. Knestout (left) stands with Father Chris Hess, pastor of St. Anne, Bristol, to lead a gathering of about 50 people in praying the rosary on Saturday, March 4, near the abortion clinic around the corner. (Photo/Karen Adams)

On the sidewalk bordering noisy Gate City Highway in Bristol, a group of about 50 people, made up of mostly Catholics, gathered on Saturday, March 4, as Bishop Barry C. Knestout led them in praying the rosary near the abortion clinic around the corner.

“We pray for women in crisis, that they will see that the love for that child is greater than any anxieties, worries, and fears they have,” said Bishop Knestout in his opening prayer. “We pray for all of us that we might be generous in heart but also persistent in our prayer and in our advocacy for life.” He invoked the grace of the Holy Spirit during the 40 days of Lent – and for 40 Days for Life, which organized the peaceful prayer gathering.

The spring campaign of 40 Days for Life runs from Ash Wednesday through Palm Sunday.

Bristol has found itself in the news since Bristol Women’s Health opened last summer after the June overturning of Roe v. Wade. To the dismay of many residents, the facility moved just across  the Virginia-Tennessee state line – from Bristol, Tennessee – as abortion is illegal in Tennessee but remains legal in Virginia.

Prompted by concerns that Bristol, Virginia, is becoming known for abortion availability, an ordinance was proposed in October that would limit the clinic from expanding or relocating within the city limits and would prevent new clinics from opening there.

A decision in Bristol is still pending. Similar ordinances in Washington and Russell Counties, which ban abortion clinics from opening in either county, have passed.

Many in the Bristol community are responding with activism, fasting, outreach and fervent prayer.

‘A loving presence’

Most of those gathered on Saturday were parishioners from St. Anne, along with their pastor, Father Chris Hess, as well as Catholics from other area parishes. “The fact that Bishop Knestout is willing to do this shows that he recognizes how important this is, what’s going on in Bristol, and how it affects all of us,” Father Hess said.

He added that his parishioners who gather to pray always distance themselves from those who may be aggressive and loud, even if they share the same view.

“We are different; we are a loving presence,” the priest said. “There is nothing malicious in anything we do; we don’t even like being called ‘protesters’ because we are simply praying.”

At the frequent gatherings, it’s not unusual for Protestants to stand on the sidewalk beside Catholics, and sometimes to pray the rosary with them.

Dr. Jacquelyn Early, co-leader of the Respect Life ministry at St. Anne Parish, handed out rosaries, along with brochures on how to pray the rosary. She commented on the ecumenical aspect of this ministry.

“This is one of the good things about this movement: it unites all the Christian churches,” she noted afterward.

Angie Bush, leader of 40 Days for Life in Bristol and co-leader of the Respect Life ministry at St. Anne, noted that although the regular prayer vigils near the clinic are smaller than the one gathered with the bishop, they often include Catholics from Christ the King, Abingdon, and also from Kingsport, Johnson City, and Mountain City, Tennessee. Sometimes Pastor Paul Becker from Concordia Lutheran Church in Kingsport, Tennessee, joins them, as well as other area Protestants.

“What is encouraging now is the unity we’re seeing, with St. Anne’s parishioners and others,” Bush said. “It’s our common call to be the Body of Christ.”

Bush invited Bishop Knestout when she learned he would be at St. Anne for the confirmation Mass that morning.

“I think having the bishop here will give courage to some of our parishioners,” she said. “He is our shepherd.”

Bush made sure participants stayed on the public sidewalk and did not step onto the blacktop edge of the parking area of a neighboring business. It’s important to be careful and respectful, she noted, while offering heartfelt and passionate prayer.

The group prays for the women who are in crisis pregnancies, for the people waiting for them in the clinic parking lot, for conversion of the hearts of those who work at the clinic, for women who have had abortions, and for the men in their lives, she explained.

“We carry all those prayers and place them at the foot of the cross,” Bush said.

The ministry in Bristol continues to draw supporters and gain momentum. Bush noted that Father Hess’ compassionate leadership has helped others find their voices on the subject of abortion.

“His courage has sustained and strengthened this movement,” she said.

No matter who they are praying for, on either side of the issue, Father Hess said, “Our message is love.”

‘Everyone does need compassion’

Bishop Knestout led the group in praying the Sorrowful Mysteries of the rosary. Afterward, he walked with about half of the group around the corner to pray the Divine Mercy Chaplet on the public sidewalk directly across the street from the clinic.

“We are always peaceful,” said St. Anne parishioner Kelly Frisbee, who also facilitates the interdenominational Sidewalk Advocates for Life program. The group had moved closer that day partly “to be there as a witness for anyone who might even be thinking of an abortion,” she said, explaining that sometimes people simply drive by to find a facility in case they may seek their services.

Several clinic staff members stood in the parking lot, upset at those praying, and told them to leave. One woman called out that the clinic offered condoms, pregnancy tests and feminine supplies.

“We are not intimidating during our prayer vigils,” said Frisbee. “When the Catholic groups are out there, we don’t yell, scream, or harass any of the people who are coming or going. We do not believe in that; it doesn’t help anyone.”

They do offer literature to direct people to Pathways Pregnancy Resource Center if they’re interested.

Located nearby in Bristol, Tennessee, Pathways helps women with unplanned pregnancies, offer- ing free services including counseling, pregnancy testing, ultrasounds, and maternity and baby goods. It refers pregnant women who are in need of other help, such as medical care, safe housing, or financial assistance, to other support programs. It also offers post-abortion counseling.

The year-round sidewalk ministry differs from the vigils in that members are less prayer-focused, taking a “woman-centered approach” and offering to talk with anyone who is thinking about abortion.

“We act like the friend next door, to be a loving presence, share literature, and offer support in a Christ-centered way,” she said.

After praying the Sorrowful Mysteries, some members of the group walked to the abortion clinic and said the Divine Mercy Chaplet. (Photo/Karen Adams)

Prayer is offered only if the woman wants it, Frisbee said.

“Some people are uncomfortable with prayer. Not everyone is Christian, and they may have no beliefs. But everyone does have a soul. Everyone does need compassion,” she said, adding, “And even if they do have an abortion, perhaps they’ll look at our information and reach out down the road if they need healing.”

A former NICU nurse, Frisbee has seen babies at 22 weeks old who survive, thrive and eventually go home, she said.

“I also have seen babies whose mothers began the abortion process and they delivered big, healthy babies,” she recalled. “And when the mothers saw their babies, they usually changed their minds about keeping them. They think, ‘This is my child and I want it.’”

Learning more about what drives women to seek abortions has touched her heart, deepened her faith, and given her a better understanding of people, Frisbee explained.

“When you think about some of the hard situations that the moms are in, it helps you to see the humanity of people and realize that deep down everyone’s the same,” she said.

Editor’s note: This story was updated March 16, 2023.

Also, read Karen Adams’ story in the Jan. 9, 2023 issue of The Catholic Virginian about the proposed abortion limits in Bristol.

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