Things begin catastrophically. At least, almost.
Because of the volume of interest in the March for Life this year, we've planned to take two vans to D.C. But a driver has fallen ill. We have to turn two students away—the last two to sign up for the trip—in the parking lot. Though their bags are already packed, their faces flush with excitement about the trip to come, we don't have enough seats.
As we wait, saying unexpected and tearful goodbyes to the ones we have to leave behind, the wind blusters. Thick, heavy flakes of snow pelt our faces. A storm is brewing, and with two of the past three trips canceled due to the weather, we want nothing more than to get moving.
We pile in. There are sleeping bags, seven of them, rolled up tightly and falling over the back seat because the trunk is already filled to the brim with our belongings. I sit in the back with two others, and with our bags on our laps and the bulky sleeping bags between us, there’s barely room to breathe.
I worry. I worry as I sit smooshed between two boys I’ve rarely spoken to. I worry as the heat of their bodies and the air forced from the heating unit radiate so fiercely that I begin to sweat. I worry about the classes I’ll miss, about the homework I’ll need to make up. Is this really worth it?
I have a six-hour ride to mull this over.
I find my answer the next day, around noon.
I cannot contain my shouts. I’m spinning in circles, jubilant, and I have to run to catch up with the others—all ten of them. We are easily identifiable, sporting tan jackets that bear a Pope Francis quote on the backs:
“Even the weakest and most vulnerable, the sick, the old, the unborn and the poor are masterpieces of God’s creation…And deserving of the utmost reverence and respect.”
The March for Life website promised muddy grass on the mall, recommending all protesters wear warm, waterproof boots, but the weather is cold enough that the ground is frozen. I will not have to worry about wet sneakers or muck gushing between my toes with each step. Things are looking up.
As we walk to the Washington Monument, where we will wait for the march to begin and try, in vain, to hear the speakers above the chatter and shouts of the crowd, we take in all that is around us.
There is a man with several signs painted black and bearing verses from the Bible. The signs are situated on a pole taller than he, who is about 6-foot tall and shouting into a microphone.
“Catholics be damned,” he says. “They cannot be led down the path to righteousness.”
A middle-aged man near us in the crowd pipes up.
“I already told you, man,” he says. “This is a march for life. We’ve got Baptists; we’ve got Methodists.”
”We’ve got Catholics,” Denis Riordan, a junior history major and member of SBU for Life yells, before we are swept away with the crowd.
Behind us, we hear the same man echo Riordan's sentiment. We laugh.
With the Washington Monument as our backdrop, American flags billowing in the strong winds, we stand and look out at the crowd. There are signs, so many signs, jutting above the diverse mass of people.
One woman looks disheveled and holds a homemade sign that says, “Stop micro-chip implantation.” She is here for a purpose, but one we do not quite understand.
The others—thousands of them—have an aim closer to our own. Signs of baby seals drawn to hold signs that say “Save the baby humans” are grasped tightly in the gloved hands of protesters young and old. There are Yoda signs, Horton Hears a Who signs and signs young girls made themselves with markers, computer paper and glitter. Many are religious in nature. Many are not. They all bear the same overarching message: Choose life.
“Three, two, one,” a speaker cries from so far away that we cannot see or identify them. All at once, we begin our descent to Constitution Avenue.
I squeal. There are so many people swarming that I have a legitimate fear of becoming lost. As we march the lyrics to Ben E. King’s “Stand by Me” -- “Darlin’, darlin’, stand …” -- ride a bass wave through the air. And the melody to that song thumps so loudly that we can feel it beneath our feet. I smile so widely that my cheeks hurt. Beneath me lies the yellow median separating the left side of this normally treacherous street from the right. This is what we came for.
We do not notice the chilly weather, though it is 42 degrees with a wind chill that makes it feel 21. We are too busy walking among the masses of people clad in knit hats and woolen mittens, looking from left to right and back again, snapping photos or waving excitedly at the helicopters hovering above. How often is it that we get to be part of something so massive and moving?
Further along, we see orange warning signs rising high above the crowd. Someone has set up speakers that push out a recording of the piercing wails of babies. There are gruesome videos playing on large screens — videos of soft, tiny limbs being torn from bodies and of tiny pink hands and feet in pools of blood on surgical trays.
“They’re preaching to the choir,” Riordan says, shaking his head.
I am queasy.
We talk to each other to distract ourselves, laughing and singing along to the chants that rise above those heartbreaking cries.
A group clad in blue-and-white striped hats jumps up and down, shouting, “Oh lay, oh lay oh lay oh lay oh lay. Roe v. Wade, go away.”
We push onward.
“I don’t know what I’ve been told,” shouts a young man wearing a purple knit cap.
“I don’t know what I’ve been told,” the crowd echoes in a thunder.
“Roe v. Wade is getting old,” he shouts.
“Roe v. Wade is getting old,” we shout back, smilingly.
Outside the United States Supreme Court building, a police line separates protesters, both anti-abortion and pro-abortion rights, from the crowd of marchers. The protesters stand side by side, holding signs bearing contradicting messages. They engage in a civil dialogue, chant versus chant and message versus message.
We smile as we read their signs and gaze up at the glory of the building where such important decisions are made. We laugh as our chants rise above those of the counter-protesters. Tears fall on both sides. Even divided, we are one.
Standing in awe, breathing in all the sights and sounds that make America the land of the free, I am proud. Proud to be a Bonnie. Proud to be an American. Proud, quite simply, to be.
Voices marching to be heard, communities rallying together in spite of their differences, even college students cramming into vans with peers they hardly know—these are ways in which we promote change.
And though you may worry—about homework, or discomfort, or risks far greater—if you feel it’s worth fighting for, it is.