BY ELIZABETH WONG BARNSTEAD, THE WESTERN KENTUCKY CATHOLIC
Megan was “at first super excited” when she learned about the concept of a Rachel’s Vineyard retreat, “but as the date got closer I got nervous.”
Rachel’s Vineyard is an international program which, since its first retreat in 1995, has spread around the world with its weekend retreats that offer healing for women and men who are suffering from the effects of abortion.
Megan, who asked that her last name not be used, said she almost turned around on her way to the retreat.
But she decided to continue, and discovered that by the end of the retreat, “it was such a positive experience for me – it helped me deal with repressed emotions,” said Megan, explaining that her experience with abortion was 30 years prior.
“Coming through the retreat, I found that God forgives,” she said.
Today, Megan is part of the team with Rachel’s Vineyard of Kentucky and encourages others to consider Rachel’s Vineyard.
“I’ve always wanted to help people who were in my situation, but I didn’t know how,” said Megan, who described herself as “usually a very outgoing person.”
She said she realized “I could do this; I could make a difference in other peoples’ lives.”
Fr. Ben Cameron, CPM, a priest of the Fathers of Mercy religious community based in Auburn, Ky., helped start Rachel’s Vineyard of Kentucky and is the site leader of the Western Kentucky team.
Fr. Cameron said Rachel’s Vineyard team leaders are usually lay women, but he has remained in this role since the team’s beginning in 2005. However, he knows a number of fellow priests who also serve in Rachel’s Vineyard’s healing ministry.
He explained that everyone on a Rachel’s Vineyard team must go through the multi-sensory retreat experience, even if they are not post-abortive, so that they know what it will be like for participants.
Fr. Cameron said the retreat design can help people process other types of grief, such as miscarriages or even knowing someone else who experienced an abortion.
Everyone on the team “has had the experience of bringing grief to Christ within the context of the retreat,” he said.
Ultimately, the purpose of the retreat is “helping men and women open their hearts to Jesus Christ as the healer,” he said. “It is not just emotional, but a spiritual journey of the heart.”
“I’ve seen people come in very hardened, perhaps hateful of men, and walk out completely different,” he said.
Fr. Cameron said a typical retreat has a team of six or seven people, including a facilitator, a priest, a professional therapist, a person who does the audio/visual, and one or two people who lead the readings, meditations and prayers.
A big aspect of the retreat is the “living scriptures” part, where different scriptures are read so that they can “come alive” for participants in individual ways.
He said the woman who founded Rachel’s Vineyard, Dr. Theresa Karminski Burke, is Catholic, but the program actually offers two versions: a Catholic version and an interdenominational version.
In the local area, Catholic versions are offered in western Kentucky, the Lexington area, and northern Alabama/east-central Mississippi. An interdenominational version is offered in the Louisville area.
Fr. Cameron said that generally, more women come than men, but it is always open to both.
“For women, the pain, the trauma, happened in their own bodies,” he said. “For men, the fact that it happened outside their own body has them come less often…” but they have men and women make the retreat together.
“Hearing the men express their grief, their sorrow, helps the women,” said Fr. Cameron.
They accept any retreatant 18 and older – but “there are very few on the younger end,” he said. “The pain and trauma of abortion is so painful and traumatic that they bury it as part of that protection. Some women don’t even remember how many abortions they had or who the father was.”
Yet, “it’s there and it’s causing problems,” which draws people to Rachel’s Vineyard, said Fr. Cameron. “You’re never too old to make the retreat.”
He said that if someone has a person in their life with an abortion experience, “that person may be hurting deeply. They don’t feel they have permission to grieve.”
“Offering to go and make the retreat with them may open the door for someone – saying ‘I would love to walk this with you,’” he said.
In fact, http://hopeafterabortionky.com, the website for Rachel’s Vineyard of Kentucky, encourages people to consider inviting their spouse or support person to accompany them on the retreat.
Fr. Cameron said Rachel’s Vineyard has found that many people who had abortions had also been sexually abused. Due to this high coincidence, Dr. Burke developed a sister retreat in 2005 called Grief to Grace, for individuals to find healing who have endured physical, emotional, sexual and/or spiritual abuse.
Sometimes people bring their stories of abuse to Rachel’s Vineyard and it can help them heal, “but for some, the trauma is so deep that they need something more,” said Fr. Cameron.
Overall, ministering with Rachel’s Vineyard has shown Fr. Cameron “some of the most powerful experiences of being a spiritual father and shepherd. It’s made me so much more cognizant of the pain and trauma that people experience.”
“But King Jesus can put anybody back together,” he said.
Megan encouraged anyone who might need to attend a Rachel’s Vineyard retreat to consider signing up.
“Don’t be afraid,” she said. “Because God is forgiving and he will accept you in his open arms. You are worth it. You don’t need to carry around this burden anymore.”
This story originally appeared in the January 2022 issue of The Western Kentucky Catholic. It has been reprinted here with permission.