WASHINGTON D.C., February 7, 2017 (LifeSiteNews) – Members of a Catholic youth group attacked during a trip to the March for Life have not let the awful experience shake their faith. Instead, they have responded by embracing the cross.
The group from Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton Catholic Church in Keller, Texas, was assaulted while walking from the Metro train station to the local parish where they were staying, sending its leader and another chaperone to George Washington Hospital with significant injuries.
But despite the attack’s brutality, the group remained under the protection of the Blessed Mother, its leader told LifeSiteNews. The incident provided a valuable lesson in faith, prayer, and the precious nature of life for everyone involved, they said.
The experience was a great chance to unite with Christ in His Passion and suffering, said Chris West, Saint Elizabeth director of high school evangelization and catechesis.
West told LifeSiteNews the experience demonstrated there are those who don’t respect other lives, and he was disheartened that individuals would be so broken as to want to attack the group. But he was grateful the worst of the assault happened to him and not the kids.
The young people in his group were at the March for Life to give a voice to the voiceless, he said, and the assault ultimately became an unanticipated way for them to witness to life. Through prayer, the young people have been able to work at forgiveness and authentic regard for the spiritual welfare of their attackers.
“It was definitely a cross,” West said. “But our good and gracious Father gave us grace to be able to carry it.”
The group of 24, consisting of six chaperones and 18 youth ages 15-18, had prayed the Rosary in front of Planned Parenthood of Metropolitan Washington on Wednesday evening, two days before the March, then attended Mass and had dinner.
The attack occurred about 8:30 p.m. as they headed back to their host parish, the Church of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary in southeast Washington, where the group has stayed for the March for Life the last few years.
While on the way there from the Metro stop, they were challenged for being in the neighborhood by about a half-dozen teens.
The situation escalated quickly, with at least one knife being drawn, more local teens jumping in — many wearing ski masks and hoods — demands for some members of the pro-life group to hand over their property, and numerous physical assaults.
West was assaulted after he tried to intervene in the initial assault of another chaperone, getting punched and kicked in the face several times. He and the other chaperone were taken by ambulance to the hospital overnight.
Among West’s injuries were a fractured orbital platform and a broken nose. The other chaperone was knocked unconscious and experienced continued memory loss from the incident. There were other, lesser miscellaneous assaults against members of the group as well.
One of the youth, John Roa, 18, was punched in the chest after handing over his backpack and phone. While the attack remained in progress, he ran for help to a nearby fire station, where the group stayed for several hours while police processed the incident.
How the youth responded
Roa told LifeSiteNews the youth were shaken up, most of them crying. But the young Catholics from various youth groups, many not knowing one another before the trip, immediately began to console one another. Someone suggested praying the Rosary.
Instead of dwelling on the attack, the group decided to focus on getting to know each other through conversation.
“The students were praying for forgiveness and mercy for those who attacked them,” West told LifeSiteNews. “The faith and the stories, and the mercy and the forgiveness that happened even right after the attack were tremendous.”
“No one was angry,” Roa said. “We were in a forgiving-type environment.”
He borrowed a phone to call his father back in Texas, who caught a flight to Washington as soon as he could, praying on the way.
Marlon Roa, whose daughters Angelina, 16, and Isabella, 15, were also on the trip, said the scene was ugly. But even so, the youth exemplified faith from the immediate aftermath at the fire station and forward.
“They (others at the fire station) couldn’t believe the witness to the faith despite their being assaulted and robbed,” he told LifeSiteNews.
West said this faithful reaction of the young people to the incident was testament to their parents.
“They were carrying this burden and facing it,” he said.
Assumption pastor Father Greg Shaffer recounted the incident in his homily the following Sunday, saying the attack “was surreal.”
“I thought, ‘Is this really happening?’” he said. “It’s ridiculous.”
Father Shaffer had arrived in the first half hour after the attack while the students were still very distressed.
“But the amazing thing, one of the amazing things, is they had already prayed a Rosary at the firehouse,” he told parishioners. “Now of course they were so disoriented and traumatized that they probably just wanted to have some kind of peace. But that really changed things for a lot of them.”
The group remained at the parish rectory on Thursday, performing outreach, attending Mass and adoration, while the two chaperones began to recuperate and Marlon Roa arrived to lend a hand.
What they came for
While the group altered their schedule somewhat, leaving Saturday instead of Sunday, they did stay and complete the March for Life on Friday.
“Our mission wasn’t to go sightseeing,” John Roa told LifeSiteNews. “It was to go on the March for Life, and we completed the mission.”
Don’t let fear win
Angelina Roa recalled that she was so scared in the immediate wake of the attack that she didn’t want to leave the firehouse for the parish, let alone think about going to the March.
While she was separated from John during the attack, she didn’t know whether her brother had been killed.
“I thought he was dead after seeing the knife,” she said.
But Father Shaffer told her later she couldn’t recoil in fear and that she had come to march for life.
“I was like, ‘Yeah, we came here for the babies, and for the voiceless,’” Angelina Roa said.
“My first mission was the unborn and the other voiceless, like those attacked by euthanasia,” she told LifeSiteNews, having seen a parallel. “But what happened with us and the attack, we couldn’t speak either.”
After talking to Father Shaffer, her resolve was strengthened. She reasoned that they’d be showing both those who attacked them, and those who believe in the choice to abort, that they were not stopping in their mission to march for life.
“I told him I still loved the people that attacked us,” Angelina Roa said. “And that I forgive them.”
The experience has given her new appreciation of what she has, she said, and for what they as pro-lifers do to defend life.
The March for Life had already been memorable for Angelina Roa in the past.
“But this year I appreciate it even more,” she stated. “I was glad to be alive and march for these babies.”
West told LifeSiteNews there was “a flood of prayer” from both their home parish in Texas and Assumption parish, and “That grace and those prayers were definitely felt by all of us.”
The response from the Washington parish to what happened to the Texas youth group was also testament to faith and prayer.
A local Fox station reported on the incident, one of numerous violent attacks in the Washington area in recent weeks.
Right after the news segment aired, Father Shaffer started getting calls from parishioners. “So concerned, so heartbroken, so shocked, and felt so badly for these kids, these beautiful young people, and saying, “What can we do?”
Knowing the group was set to leave the following day, Assumption parishioners planned a last-minute, impromptu dinner Friday night, feeding the Catholic youth Chick-fil-A.
Those parishioners who couldn’t get to the dinner still spread the word and prayed for the young people, said Father Shaffer. While the outpouring was helpful and healing to the young people, it went both ways.
“That dinner Friday night — there was about 50 people total — was unbelievable,” Father Shaffer said the following Sunday at Mass. “For those of us who were there, it was so healing for us, much less the kids.”
Marlon Roa said the group was taken aback by the gesture at first, and it was something wonderful for them to come back to after the March.
“It surprised us,” John Roa said. “Everyone was really happy. We were all joyous.”
“Everyone had a great experience, parishioners talking to teens,” he continued. “That was probably the best moment of that trip.”
His sister, Angelina, concurred, saying, “They really touched my heart.”
Father Shaffer told his parishioners that the love and support from the parish, and its impact on the youth, was the real picture of the neighborhood and of Assumption Parish.
From anger to forgiveness
He told parishioners that if this had happened to him at 16 he’d be angry and thinking about revenge, not forgiveness. He lauded the young pro-lifers for not talking about anger and hatred.
“So one of these young men was very angry within the first hour of the attack, rightfully so, understandably so, totally natural,” the priest recalled. “But then they prayed the Rosary, where we ask God’s power, God’s mercy through Mary. And immediately his heart changed. And he’s been trying to forgive the attackers ever since.”
No one in the group asked “Why did this happen to us?” the priest continued.
“These kids, they took it humbly,” he stated. “It was unbelievable.”
The Catholic youth gave living example of the Beatitudes, he said.
“When Jesus said blessed are the merciful, it sounds so good, like all the Beatitudes,” Father Shaffer said. “But there’s nothing like seeing it in action.”
“They had the natural reaction of anger,” he said. “But then they prayed and God changed them.”
He pointed out that even though the youth didn’t have signs saying they were doing something for Jesus, that’s why they were in the nation’s capital and why they were persecuted. Marlon Roa agreed.
“There was so much anger and hatred both at the Planned Parenthood and during the attack,” he said. “I can’t help thinking it was a spiritual attack against the kids for doing the right thing.”
Roa’s son, John, told LifeSiteNews the group had received verbal taunts while praying outside Planned Parenthood, though the verbal attacks paled in comparison to the physical assault.
“If you challenge the enemy, he’s going to come after you,” Marlon Roa stated, emphasizing he came to Washington to help his kids complete the mission. “We cannot be intimidated by those that threaten Christianity. We have to go forward.”
“Kids are a special threat because they’re not afraid and they understand the power of Our Lady,” he continued. “She just has to look at the demons and they scatter.”
West noted that so much of the pro-life battle has become political that people often forget about the spiritual battle.
They’d do it again
The young Catholics and their families are still processing what happened, but they remain firm in the resolve to defend life.
Angelina Roa said she’d do it all over again. “Because those babies don’t have a voice. And those people threatened by euthanasia, nobody wants to listen to them either.”
“Even if I’m scared to walk those streets,” she said. “I will do it.”
“I would go back,” John Roa concurred. “Everything you do for God has to be a sacrifice. It’s not going to be easy.”
“It’s not going to be a small ride. It’s going to be a roller coaster,” he said. “We learned a good lesson — to be ready for anything.”