‘World’s largest’ student pro-life conference equips, energizes young pro-life vanguard
BETHESDA, Maryland, January 24, 2011 (LifeSiteNews.com) - Before hitting the streets for the national March for Life in Washington, D.C., hundreds of youths had an opportunity to meet and learn from some of the biggest names in the pro-life movement at what organizers have said was the largest pro-life youth conference in the world.
On the eve of the march, over 1,800 teens and young adults poured into the Bethesda North Marriott Conference center for the Students for Life of America’s (SFLA) National Conference 2011. Many came in buses that had ferried them from across the country, including some who drove 24 hours straight to reach their destination.
In between the general and breakout sessions, every corner of the facility was packed with young people, who checked out the pro-life displays, or rested on stairways as they chatted with friends or updated Facebook on their cell phones. Young women, forming an army clad in Ugg boots and pro-life T-shirts, made up a majority of the crowd.
Far from mere spectators, many in the crowd were pro-life leaders themselves: the heads and members of campus pro-life groups from dozens of U.S. universities came to learn new techniques from the pros for spreading the message on their home turf.
SFLA’s Kortney Blythe, Kelsey Hazzard of Secular Pro-life, and Bryan Kemper of Stand True Ministries hosted a panel offering tips for creative approaches to protect the unborn and raise awareness.
“For me, it was about being creative. Be creative,” said Kemper, the founder of the popular Rock for Life concerts. “We have to stay in touch with this culture, stay in touch with this generation.
“This is not your grandma’s pro-life movement. This is our pro-life movement. After all, this is your generation that’s dying. ... It’s up to you guys to reach out to your generation and do it in a relevant, exciting way.”
Kemper, looking younger than his 43 years, also encouraged the crowd to maturity, asking them to be patient in their endeavors: “If you want to see the results, you’re in the wrong business.” But despite the hurdles, said Kemper, “You guys probably have some of the best ideas still inside of you.”
“We’re just scratching the surface,” he said.
The conference gave older leaders present a refreshing look at the upbeat pulse sustaining the new generation of pro-lifers. At the morning general session, Alliance Defense Fund Attorney David French said, “I look out into this crowd and I see the energy and the commitment that is going to transform the future. And I don’t see that everywhere I go, but I see it here.”
During breakout sessions, those familiar with the nuances of the pro-life battle shared their expertise with a younger set of warriors.
Dr. Alveda King, niece of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and Ryan Bomberger of the Radiance Foundation, discussed the disproportionate number of abortions among black Americans - who abort three times as frequently as whites - in the context of Planned Parenthood’s racist-eugenicist background. In another session, a showing of the Population Research Institute’s “Overpopulation is a Myth” video series drew laughs and loud applause from the young audience.
U.S. Rep. Dan Lipinski, one of only a handful of Congressmen to switch their vote on the national health care reform law from a “yes” to “no” based on the law’s threat to the unborn, said that he never “sought” to become a pro-life leader in Congress, but, “you never know what is going to come your way.” “I’m very happy that God has put me in this place,” he said.
“[The March for Life] really means something to legislators. It makes a difference,” said the congressman. “And especially having so many young people out there makes a difference - to know that this, the pro-life movement, is not going away, it’s only growing stronger.”
Other leaders present included David Bereit of 40 Days for Life; “Bella” producer Jason Jones; Daniel McConchie of Americans United for Life; Angela Lanfranchi of the Breast Cancer Prevention Institute; Bobby Schindler, the brother of Terri Schindler Schiavo and head of the Terri Schiavo Life & Hope Network; and Marie Smith, wife of U.S. Rep. Chris Smith (R-NJ) and head of the Parliamentary Network for Critical Issues.
SLFA ended the evening with an award ceremony that honored the top pro-life campus groups and young leaders in the nation. The top national prize winner, however, was not even American: the highest honors went to Ruth Lobo, the leader of the Carleton University pro-life club who was arrested with four other students in October for displaying graphic abortion images on campus. A Youtube video capturing the arrest has accumulated nearly 40,000 views.
After receiving the 2011 Defender of Life Award, former Planned Parenthood director Abby Johnson exhorted the young crowd to keep up the on-the-ground work in front of abortion clinics that helped lead to her own conversion through the 40 Days for Life campaign.
“It’s not easy to get flipped off fifty times a day when you’re standing out there,” said Johnson. “It’s not easy to do what’s right - but you guys do it. That’s what makes you a hero every day.”
In a VIP reception before receiving the award, Johnson said, “I believe wholeheartedly that abortion will end because of the young people in this country.” Praising the conference, she added: “It’s easier when you know you have a group of people behind you supporting you.”
After the marathon of sessions were over, the young people crowded back onto buses to prepare to join hundreds of thousands marching up Capitol Hill on Monday. The next day, the youths carried the same exuberant spirit amid the bitter-cold winds at the March for Life as they did at the previous day’s conference.
“It was amazing to be able to reach out to over 6,800 young people to educate and inspire them to continue to make a difference for Life on their campuses and in their communities,” said SFLA president Kristan Hawkins after the conference and youth rally that drew thousands more the next day following the march. “These young people are the ones who will end abortion in our lifetime.”
Elizabeth Horne, a student at the College of William and Mary, said she appreciated how the conference gave more details about modern threats to human life. “There’s always surprises, things you didn’t think about before,” said Horne. “When you come here, you realize how much more we have to do.”