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Rev. Patrick Mahoney's human rights activism ranges from helping refugees from Cambodia and Vietnam in the 1980s to fighting forced abortion to bringing prayer to war-torn Iraq.Claire Chretien / LifeSiteNews

July 12, 2017 (LifeSiteNews) – I first officially met Rev. Patrick Mahoney protesting outside the Irish embassy in Washington, D.C., during that country's summer 2013 abortion debate.

Since then I've worked with him on a handful of pro-life projects, from fighting university censorship to campaigning against the construction of a Planned Parenthood. 

It's fitting that we met as Rev. Mahoney passionately knelt in the rain protesting at the Irish embassy, given all the protests I've seen him put on since then. He's widely regarded as the best event emcee. The crazier the protest, the better he is at leading it.  

Rev. Mahoney is vivacious, loud, and goofy. He tells a lot of self-depricating jokes. But underneath his contagious sense of humor and scattered-seeming brain are the gentle soul of a pastor and a very serious heart for justice and defending the vulnerable. 

He has the exuberance of an 18-year-old on a sugar high even though he's a grandpa in his 60s. He posts on Facebook multiple times a day – about everything from the power of the Holy Spirit to his medical procedures to finding parking spaces on Capitol Hill. He's something of a legend in the pro-life movement. But what many don't know is Rev. Mahoney, who identifies as a pro-life Democrat, is a pastor who engages in activism across right-left lines and works to build bridges in unlikely places.

“He is always where the battle is, speaking the word of God's truth and human rights,” Father Frank Pavone, National Director of Priests for Life, told LifeSiteNews.

Rev. Mahoney has been in the news a lot lately because of the work he's doing to help baby Charlie Gard in England. Charlie's parents, Chris Gard and Connie Yates, invited him to come assist them as they fight to transfer their 11-month-old to another hospital rather than have his life support stopped against their wishes. 

Rev. Mahoney is a Presbyterian minister and the pastor of Church on the Hill DC, just steps from the U.S. Supreme Court. He is an international social, political, and human rights activist. 

Originally from New Jersey (or “Jersey Shore, baby!” as he often says), Rev. Mahoney lives in Fredericksburg, Virginia, about an hour away from Washington, D.C. He and his wife have three grown daughters and a growing number of grandchildren.

I was reporting on a protest against assisted suicide before a D.C. city council meeting when a police officer came up to Rev. Mahoney and asked to take a photo with him. He was excited to finally meet someone who he laughed the D.C. police had been chasing around for 20 years.

'Faith relationship with Christ' motivates dumpster sleeping, camels outside the Supreme Court, Irish peace walk

“What motivates me to publicly engage is my faith relationship with Christ which calls us to love our neighbors as ourselves,” Rev. Mahoney told me for this story. To him, this means people who are “marginalized and disenfranchised who are struggling in the shadows,” like the “hungry and homeless” or people whose lives are threatened. 

Rev. Mahoney's family was very involved with the Civil Rights Movement. His father used to drive him through areas where there were civil rights protests. 

This “always reinforced to Pat and his family how important it was to stand for justice,” his wife, Katie, said.

His past activism has included sleeping in dumpsters in New England to draw attention to the plight of the homeless, establishing and operating soup kitchens, food pantries, and emergency shelters for the needy across America, and assisting in the development of a program to ship medical supplies to war-torn Central America.

Rev. Mahoney at the historic screening of the pro-life film "Voiceless" outside the U.S. Supreme Court.

He has also helped establish safe homes and shelters for women dealing with domestic violence. Rev. Mahoney was the first American to walk the Dublin to Belfast road for peace in Ireland. He helped rebuild border roads with Northern Irish farmers and has worked extensively on racial reconciliation issues and Christian-Muslim dialogue throughout America. 

Every winter, he brings a live nativity set outside the Supreme Court to celebrate religious freedom and the role of faith in the public square.

“He's truly a man of God,” Saba Ahmed, a Muslim activist, told LifeSiteNews. She has worked with Rev. Mahoney on ecumenical projects. “He reaches out to Muslims regularly and has helped tremendously with various charitable events. Rev. Mahoney continues to inspire us and has shattered all my personal stereotypical thoughts about Evangelical Christians.” 

“He talked me into going to Gainesville, Florida to talk a fellow pastor out of burning a pile of Qurans on the front lawn of his church,” Rev. Rob Schenck, who works closely with Rev. Mahoney, told LifeSiteNews. “That’s who I know Pat to be.”

Mahoney now has a giant stack of Qurans in his basement. (The pastor, Terry Jones, ended up burning one Quran the following year.)   

There's “no question about it” that this gesture opened a lot of doors for Rev. Mahoney when he helped advocate for the release of Pastor Saeed Abedini, an American imprisoned in Iran for four years, Rev. Schenck pointed out.

“He’s as loved by many people on the left as he is by people on the right,” said Rev. Schenck. 

Robin Marty, a writer who advocates for abortion but has grown relationships with a number of pro-life leaders over the years, says she views Rev. Mahoney as pro-life rather than just anti-abortion. 

“I've met with a number of abortion opponents over the years and of all of them Rev. Mahoney is one of the most consistent in his passion for justice and life,” Marty told LifeSiteNews.  

History of non-violent, peaceful protest

Rev. Mahoney praying outside the Washington, D.C. Planned Parenthood.

Rev. Mahoney's been arrested “probably like 70-something times,” according to Katie. Some of his most “notorious” arrests were during his involvement with the Operation Rescue movement in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

It was “the largest civil rights movement in American history that has been non-violent,” said Katie. “They’ve had over 70,000 arrests. No one was ever arrested for a violent act. It was a very peaceful movement.”

“Everybody would either kneel or sit quietly and pray. They were not allowed to, you know, yell out or say anything,” she explained. “It was super peaceful. And so the abortion movement … side saw that that was really destructive to the way it looked for them.”

So abortion activists “came in and tried to disrupt. They would put people in the middle of us that would be screaming and shouting and fighting and … pushing and shoving and trying to make it look like it was violent.” 

This led to many media misrepresentations. 

One time police “were twisting his arms” and “giving him a pain compliance hold,” Katie recalled. “He wasn’t doing anything. He was just standing there. They were really assaulting him.”

“Then after it was all over,” she said, “they charged Pat with assaulting a police officer. I was absolutely furious” because it's the opposite of what had happened. The pro-life side had a videotape of the encounter and so they gave it to the attornery general and others involved in the case.

“They didn’t even bother to look at it for about six months,” said Katie. “And finally they watched it after six months and immediately dropped the charges,” which had been entirely bogus.

Katie has been arrested alongside her husband around 25 times. 

“We live in such an amazing country [where] we are freely able to make a statement without really being in danger,” she said. “We can have political protest that is just civil disobedience.” 

Katie said she has never felt unsafe doing civil disobedience alongside her husband, but that sometimes he has ended up in more dangerous situations than she has.

In 1992, Rev. Mahoney and several other pro-life activists were arrested for kneeling and praying on a sidewalk across the street from a Planned Parenthood. A court had ordered a large “bubble” zone around the abortion center, including that area.

“They were arrested and given six months in jail,” Katie recalled. “And so he got thrown in this really serious prison” where his cellmate was accused of rape or something equally serious. “Pat decided to go on a fast and gave the guy all of his food and the guy then really loved him,” she said. Everyone in prison called him “The Rev.” and came to him for counseling.

“Somehow he was able to get to a phone. He always did that,” said Katie. “And called me. I don’t know how he did it.” 

Rev. Mahoney was only there for a month; the American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ) was helping him, Katie said, so the rest of the court proceedings were then able to take place with Rev. Mahoney out. 

Protesting in China, ministering in Iraq

But any danger in the U.S. that Rev. Mahoney has faced from his activism doesn't compare to risks he has taken abroad.

In 2008, Rev. Mahoney, Brandi Swindell of Stanton Healthcare, and another pro-life activist went to China to protest forced abortion and human rights violations. They knew the world was watching the 2008 Olympics and wanted to use it as an opportunity to stand in “solidarity” with women in China forced to undergo abortions and political prisoners.

They lay roses in front of Mao Zedong’s tomb as a public memorial for the victims of the Tiananmen Square massacre. Plainclothes police officers and Communist officials appeared and put them under house arrest.

The next day, they went back to Tiananmen Square and, to witness to the fundamental right to religious freedom, unfurled a banner that said “Jesus Christ is King” in Chinese and English. They were arrested, jailed, and eventually deported.

The state department communicated with her throughout that incident, Katie said. Her husband had called her to let her know what was happening, and then she called the state department. “They were tracking him and trying to figure out what it was. They finally said, 'you know, they’ve put three Americans on a plane to California. We think it’s him.'”

“That was unnerving,” said Katie. “Not as unnerving, though, as the time when he went to Iraq” to meet with the prime minister to express his prayers for peace. It was at the “height” of the Iraq war and the U.S. state department told Rev. Mahoney they couldn't guarantee his safety over there.

The Iraqi government, which at the time was nearly “decimated,” was responsible for him instead. When his plane landed, it went into a “death spiral” to avoid missiles from insurgents, Katie said. The car her husband was in had to drive in zigzags to avoid being an easy target.

'It's not a normal life'

“It seems that the call that God has put on Pat’s life is he’s always flying by the seat of his pants,” Katie said. “It’s not a normal life.” Because he's so focused on “intense issues … lots of times he comes across like the absent-minded professor.”

“He’s getting ripped in the press right now in England,” she said. “And they basically don’t like the issue and so they go after the messenger and try to do whatever they can to discredit him. But he doesn’t make a lot of money, he never has – it’s never been about the money for him, ever.”

“He should have been a comedian and he could have funded all of his pro-life work,” joked Rev. Schenck. 

“He doesn’t put his finger in the political or cultural winds before he makes a decision,” said Rev. Schenck. “He prays about it, he consults his conscience and his Christian convictions, and he acts courageously.”

Rev. Mahoney also worked tirelessly with the parents of Justina Pelletier, who was taken from her parents' custody after they disagreed with a doctor at Boston Children's Hospital about her diagnosis with a mitochondrial disease. This parental rights case, like baby Charlie's, garnered national attention.

Rev. Mahoney has remained in touch with the Pelletiers since Justina's release (she is still recovering from the trauma of being seized by government officials and locked in a psychiatric ward for almost 16 months).

One of Rev. Schenck's strongest memories of Rev. Mahoney “is when we laid flowers for Terri Schiavo on the front steps of the Supreme Court when the Court declined to hear the appeal of her case, which was essentially a death sentence for her.”

“I just remember how closely he identified with Terri and her family emotionally,” he said. Rev. Mahoney is “a very emotional guy – that’s what makes him so funny. He connects with people’s emotions. And that makes him very real and it makes the problems that he engages … so personal and so tangible.”

When the Supreme Court declined to hear Terri's case, “he felt it just as deeply” as if he were in Terri's hospital room, said Rev. Schenck. Similarly, Rev. Mahoney has been able to draw so much attention to baby Charlie's case, said Rev. Schenck, because of how deeply he feels. 

Rev. Mahoney “transmits” this to other people and inspires them to act.

“Most people would have given up on what were obviously some hopeless causes,” said Rev. Schenck. But Rev. Mahoney “loves too deeply to give up on them. He’s way too committed to ever back away, and he can tell a good joke about virtually anything, which keeps him alive. And it disarms his opponents, which is a fantastic skill.”

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As a journalist and editor for LifeSiteNews, Claire Chretien has written more than 1,500 articles about abortion, human dignity, bioethics, the Catholic Church, politics, and related topics. Claire holds a bachelor’s degree from The University of Alabama. It was there that she first became involved in pro-life activism.