By SUZANNE KOZIATEK
The southern Illinois students and chaperones who make the yearly trek to the March for Life in Washington, D.C. are a hardy bunch. A day and a night spent on a bus from Belleville, marching for hours in all kinds of weather and the same long journey home can take a lot out of you, even when you’re young and full of energy.
But those who have made the trip year after year say it’s worth every mile walked, every sleepless night.
“It’s hard to explain what an amazing experience it is,” says Taylor Goring of Highland, a junior at Mater Dei Catholic High School who walked in her third March for Life on Jan. 18. “You’re surrounded by people who share the same beliefs you do. It’s just a really rewarding experience.”
Pro-life supporters from across the country converged on the nation’s capital for the 46th annual March for Life, commemorating the anniversary of the 1973 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Roe v. Wade, which held that the Constitution protected a woman’s right to an abortion prior to the viability of the fetus.
Among the thousands of marchers were about 20 participants from area Catholic high schools, along with their adult chaperones.
Doug Lugge of Belleville has been accompanying local teens to the march for 15 years, ever since his oldest child was a student at Cathedral Grade School. “The next year, I was asked to lead the bus, and so for 14 years I’ve been a bus captain.”
He says teens find the trip educational and energizing. “You really don’t get that kind of perspective back home.”
Some years, the group setting out from Belleville has numbered as many as 50. Attendance can be weather-dependent, especially after a memorable 2016 trip when the group’s return was stalled by a massive snowstorm.
“This year, some people dropped out late because they heard about a pending snowstorm that was coming through,” Lugge says. As it was, organizers plotted a more southerly route to D.C. this year than they usually take, and ended up driving through rain instead of snow.
They left the morning of Jan. 17 from the National Shrine of Our Lady of the Snows, after a brief prayer service and some words of encouragement from Bishop Edward K. Braxton.
“He talked to us about why he’s pro-life and thanked us for going on the trip,” says Katherine Wieseman, a junior at Mater Dei.
The trip takes all day and overnight. Wieseman and Goring say they fill some of the time with prayer and pro-life movies. There are a few creature comforts to help the time pass: “My friends and I played on our (Nintendo) DSes for a while,” Wieseman says.
The group makes stops for food along the way, then takes a longer break at a truck stop at 2 or 3 a.m. to change clothes and freshen up for the final push into the capital, Lugge says. “Once we land in Washington, there will probably be no access to anything we’re not carrying with us.”
The bus takes them directly to the Capital One Arena for a youth rally and Mass for Life. Lugge says the 20,000-seat venue is usually filled to capacity.
“It’s really nice to see the unity – people of all races coming together,” Wieseman says. “When we celebrate Mass, the petitions are in all different languages.”
The group moves directly from the arena to the National Mall for a larger rally whose speakers this year included Vice President Mike Pence.
Wieseman was particularly impressed by the speakers who focused on the science of the pro-life message.
“They made such great points. I was really glad to hear the pro-science and pro-women talk this year,” Wieseman says, noting that she’s done a lot of research in the past year and feels that she better understands the abortion debate, and her own beliefs about it.
After the rally comes the march itself. The route is not long, only a few miles from near the Washington Monument to the steps of the Supreme Court. “But it lasts several hours,” Goring says. “It takes forever to get there, just because of all the people.”
She says the mood is positive: “You have people walking silently in prayer. You have college groups doing some great chants. It’s a good environment.” This year, she and her friends walked with her older sister, who came to the march with a group from Benedictine University.
“It’s so joyful,” Wieseman says. “There are people everywhere around you praying. It makes me feel calm.”
Lugge says marchers walk in small groups, and every participant under 18 must stay with a chaperone.
After completing the march route, many in the Belleville group visited the Senate office buildings to leave messages for Illinois Senators Tammy Duckworth and Dick Durbin.
“This is a civics lesson for them as well,” Lugge says. “They let their senators know that some of their constituents care about this issue.”
Afterward, the group meets up at Union Station to board the bus for home.
While kids have a hard time sleeping on the way to Washington, the trip back is quite different, Lugge says. “It’s a lot easier for kids to sleep, they’re pretty whipped.”
This year’s march was marred by a controversy involving another group of Catholic high school students. Video went viral of a confrontation between young men from Covington Catholic High School in Kentucky and an American Indian activist from the nearby Indigenous Peoples’ March, with many accusing the students of harassing the older man.
Other, longer videos later showed that the situation was more complex, and included a third party, an extremist group that had targeted the students with verbal abuse.
Goring and Wieseman both say they have never encountered overt aggression and hostility in their years on the march.
“There’s always a couple of interesting characters at the march who will yell at you, but you just smile and walk past them,” Goring says.
Lugge says he will absolutely take lessons from the incident when he prepares future groups of students for the march.
“Certainly, we’ll talk to the kids about it next year,” Lugge says. “We’ll tell them, ‘You’re targets. Be careful. Know that everybody has a phone.’”
He notes that the boys were apparently targeted because they were wearing hats with President Donald Trump’s signature phrase: “Make America Great Again.”
“What drew the attention? It was the MAGA hats,” Lugge says. “We all have shirts when we go, but they have pro-life messages on them. I’d tell kids there’s no reason to draw attention to yourself for any other reason than why you’re there.”
But he says reaction to the incident was unfair to the students.
“The Covington kids were standing there waiting for a bus,” he says. “These are kids, they were 16. People were putting pressure on them as though they’re adults.”
The incident hasn’t dampened Goring or Wieseman’s enthusiasm for the march. Both say they plan to attend again next year.
“Just knowing our fight isn’t over makes me want to go again,” Wieseman says. “Every person matters.”