A Northern California county known for its towering redwoods and marijuana farms is drawing attention this month as a handful of clergy teamed with a Planned Parenthood affiliate to offer 40 days of prayer for abortion rights.
But some local churches and pro-life activists in Humboldt County see the controversial prayer initiative as an opportunity to increase their support for the area's only pregnancy center that encourages women to keep their unborn babies.
The Humboldt County Clergy for Choice partnered with Six Rivers Planned Parenthood in Eureka for "40 Days of Prayer: Supporting Women Everywhere," which includes several local gatherings "in celebration of women and reproductive rights" running through April 27. Written by Faith Aloud, a St. Louis-based pro-abortion advocacy group, the daily prayers cover those involved in all aspects of abortion services, including abortionists, counselors, staff, mothers, and escorts. The prayers do not mention unborn children.
A brochure published on Six Rivers Planned Parenthood's website lists prayers include one on Day 5 for "medical students who want to include abortion care in their practice," and Day 28 for "women who travel hundreds of miles to get an abortion."
Less than a mile from Planned Parenthood is the county's pro-life alternative, Pregnancy Care Center of the North Coast. The abortion vigil came as a surprise to the center's Executive Director Cindy Broese Van Groenou.
"Some of the prayers they pray are so blatantly anti-God. It shocked me that they would be able to say they are praying for that," Groenou said.
The prayer brochure has been distributed and posted at abortion centers nationwide for the past few years, according to Faith Aloud's Executive Director Rev. Rebecca Turner. The organization, described on its website as a "religious and ethical voice for reproductive justice," recently tweeted one prayer a day on the 40 days leading to Easter. But Turner said she is not aware of any other county that has specifically set aside 40 days of prayer in conjunction with a Planned Parenthood affiliate.
Pro-life advocates condemned what they call a "counter-campaign" to the national "40 Days for Life," a biannual prayer initiative that just finished on April 1. Organizers say the concerted prayer has saved over 800 children from abortions this year and nearly 6,000 since its inception in 2007.
David Bereit, the national director of 40 Days for Life, said Humboldt's pro-abortion vigil comes at the expense of unborn children. In a press release Tuesday, legal group Liberty Counsel blasted Planned Parenthood for developing "a 'spiritual' aspect to the pro-abortion argument" comparable to religious leaders in Germany who supported Adolf Hitler.
But in Eureka, local church leaders said that while the controversial prayer initiative is saddening, it's typical in the liberal-leaning town.
"The culture here is really different - we're known as the nation's marijuana capital - so this kind of thing is unsurprising," said Gary Loop, associate pastor at the 950-member Faith Center Church. "This is our mission field."
The county's Clergy for Choice, a group of eight members described as "religious leaders who value all human life," leads the prayer initiative. They represent a Jewish temple and denominations like Unitarian Universalist, Episcopal, and United Methodist.
But Loop said Clergy for Choice represents a small minority of the area's religious community.
"This is more about getting attention. The majority of church attenders in our area do not support this and are quite shocked," he said.
Faith Center Church is one of 20 local congregations that financially supports Groenou's pregnancy center, founded in 1994. Last fall the pregnancy center opened its first medical clinic and now offers ultrasounds, pregnancy tests, and post-abortion counseling.
Groenou says since Planned Parenthood's vigil started, she's received numerous calls of support from local pastors and pro-life groups nationwide. One woman called her Wednesday saying 60 people in North Carolina are praying for them, she said.
And now, Pregnancy Care Center may start their own prayer initiative: "We haven't participated in the '40 Days for Life' prayer movement in the past, but I wouldn't be surprised if because of this, we have one going by this time next year."