For 20 years in the Archdiocese of Portland, a quiet but diligent ministry has been healing shame and broken hearts. Project Rachel offers retreats for women who have had abortions, plus anyone else suffering from abortion-related trauma.
Researchers say emotional strain emerges after abortion because humans naturally abhor the idea of killing their own offspring. “The thing that was supposed to free us enslaved us,” says Lori Eckstine, who is stepping down as director of Project Rachel after 11 years.
Project Rachel is an official outreach of the Catholic Church and the American Catholic Bishops. The local program began in 1994 at the request of then-Archbishop William Levada. The name of the ministry comes from Matthew 2:17, which cites a passage from Jeremiah about a mother weeping for her children who have been slaughtered.
In addition to retreats, Project Rachel includes a toll-free phone number and e-mail access to people who listen, understand and talk through questions. The leanly-run project also gives information regarding the physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual impacts of abortion.
Eckstine calls the ministry “a compassionate response to what we knew intuitively would happen with abortion.”
Patricia Hutchinson, the new director, says abortion can spark many problems, including drug abuse and promiscuity. The symptoms are consistent with post-traumatic stress.
“Once you get in and heal that root cause, you heal a lot of other things, too,” says Hutchinson, a member of St. Andrew Parish in Portland. She calls Rachel’s Vineyard retreats a time to “meet the mercy of Jesus.”
Women who are healing from abortions — like Eckstine and Hutchinson — have become the teachers in the movement.
“It’s an amazing turning point in people’s lives,” says Eckstine, a member of St. Mary Parish in Eugene. “It’s a ministry of hope.”
There are four retreats per year in Oregon, two in Portland, one in Medford and one in Bend. About 50 people affected by abortion attend annually. Professional counselors, priests and other volunteers join in. The retreats are confidential.
About nine in 10 retreatants are Catholic. When Project Rachel began, the women who came had had abortions decades prior. Now, many women come just a few years or even months after the experience. Retreats, which include lodging and food, cost $200, but financial aid is available.
Project Rachel is among the smallest ministries at Catholic Charities but among the most influential and “precious,” says Alice Lundell, Catholic Charities spokeswoman. “We would be a poorer organization without it,” Lundell says.
No public grants support Project Rachel, only private money. The Knights of Columbus are regular donors.
Priests play a key role in the retreats. Women not only heal from their abortions, but usually need help closing a self-imposed break from the church and even from God. Clergy can be a powerful source of reconciliation.
“I am very concerned about life issues and life at all its stages. We as a church are very clear about that,” says Father John Kerns, pastor of Our Lady of the Lake Parish in Lake Oswego who frequents Rachel’s Vineyard retreats.
“I am also grateful we have a response for people who choose abortion so we can heal the wounds in their hearts and spirits. That is the comprehensive response from our church that I so cherish. People discover how God loves them and never stopped loving them.”
At the last priests’ convocation, Father Kerns urged clergy to consider the powerful ministry. Meanwhile, Mount Angel Seminary teaches students about Project Rachel.