Articles

Lives Unseen: A Call to Bear Witness

01/3/20

Guest Columnist

It was a strangely pretty day in March when I visited Dachau concentration camp in southern Germany. With a central walk lined with tall Aspen trees, the camp is irritatingly pretty. A brick building is situated in the corner of the camp near woods and a flowing brook, removed from the rows of sterile barracks in the camp’s center.

I walked inside the brick building, alone, and stepped past two furnaces into a bright room, light streaming through a window and reflecting off clean white walls. I searched for a sign to tell me what the place once was, and found a placard on the wall, which displayed a WW2 era photo of the room. Dead bodies of starved, diseased, or euthanized prisoners were stacked like lumber from floor to ceiling.

Two seconds later, I found myself cowering far outside the room. I had made no conscious choice to leave; my reflexes had taken over and I had fled out the door. Staring at the room from the outside, I cried.

I don’t want to go back in, every bit of my being protested. Yet I had traveled thousands of miles by car, plane, bus, and foot for exactly this purpose: to bear witness. A moment later, I forced myself to step back inside the room, sit on the floor, and feel the full truthful weight of where I was. In the 1940s, the world had failed to bear witness to the thousands of bodies stacked in this room. Seventy-some years later, it was the least I could do.


Each time I observe an ultrasound, I watch with full attention, solemnly aware of the possibility that no one else but me, the woman on the table, and the sonographer may ever see this precious, powerful life.


In the six years that have passed since my visit to several Holocaust sites in central Europe, I have stood in no place so dark as I stood that day. Yet I have not stopped bearing witness.

For two years I have volunteered in direct client care at a pregnancy health center aimed at promoting the human dignity of mothers and children. As a licensed health clinic in our state, we perform ultrasounds, pregnancy tests, and sexually transmitted disease tests under the supervision of our OB-GYN medical director and our army of registered nurses. Further, we provide countless material resources, social service referrals, support groups, and classes for at-risk families in our community at no cost.

Yet because our center receives donations from churches and faith-filled individuals and does not refer for or recommend abortion or abortifacients, we are castigated by pro-abortion advocates and media members. The world is told that we are “fake clinics” and religious propagandists. I have quickly learned that thick skin was a requirement for all pregnancy center staff and volunteers.

But the outside criticism is not the most painful part of working at a pregnancy center. The most painful part is bearing witness.

I bear witness to the stunning pain and injustice of our world over and over and over again in our pregnancy center consulting rooms. I routinely look into the eyes of women weighed down by homelessness, abject poverty, disease, addiction, abuse, self-harm, mental illness, and more.

I see fear in the eyes of women trapped in religions that condone honor killings for unwed pregnancy. I see defeat in the eyes of women with stories of domestic violence written on their bodies. I see absence in the eyes women telling their stories of rape to complete strangers.

But I bear witness to other lives too—lives that show themselves through the ultrasound screen as I observe the sonographer carefully probing and measuring. At 18 weeks, I have stared in awe at a little girl’s perfectly formed spine, ears, button nose, thumb-sucking, and endless movement filling the screen as she stretched and flipped in her mom’s belly. At 12 weeks, I have watched babies dance and flip. Even at 6 weeks, I have been mesmerized by the steady heartbeat.

Each time I observe an ultrasound, I watch with full attention, solemnly aware of the possibility that no one else but me, the woman on the table, and the sonographer may ever see this precious, powerful life.

There are a number of happy endings at our pregnancy center. But there are also many tragic ones. In truth, pregnancy center staff and volunteers bear direct witness to countless vibrant human lives that the world never sees. We watch even when we know our hearts will be broken. We love even when we sense that death is imminent. And we lie in bed and think of the little people we meet that the rest of the world never does, because their lives end in the abortion clinic across town.

But we see them. And though we probably never talk about it, sometimes when we close a client’s file, we take one last look at that ultrasound image and remember the child that danced on the screen.


When faced with horrific injustices against God’s image-bearers, Christ’s Church must not flee out the door. We must open our eyes and walk into the painful places of ministry, shouldering the full weight of God’s call with our sisters and brothers in the fight.


While working with moms and babies is a true blessing, pregnancy centers are more than fuzzy warm places of pink and blue joy. Pregnancy center workers find themselves squarely in the warzone in a battle of life and death—on many levels. We feel the weight of the darkness. Insults, pain, and grief are all givens. Without the support of the Church in prayer, labor, finances, and encouragement, we will struggle to fight on.

Yet when the opportunity arises to confront the reality of women’s suffering and children’s death by supporting pregnancy centers, too many Christians flee the scene. Consciously or not, many churches and Christian individuals find themselves standing far outside the door of pregnancy centers or other related ministries. Some convince themselves that this work is too political, too awkward, or too polarizing. Others admit the need for such work, but find themselves running from the pain and responsibility of advocating for a life and inevitably failing. Both are understandable reactions, yet both fail to answer a fundamental calling of every God-crafted human being.

In the wounded woman, in the squirming fetus, and in the executed prisoner of Dachau, we are called to witness the image of God.

When faced with horrific injustices against God’s image-bearers, Christ’s Church must not flee out the door. We must open our eyes and walk into the painful places of ministry, shouldering the full weight of God’s call with our sisters and brothers in the fight. Some days we will laugh, other days we will weep. But together, we must bear witness.

The author is a writer and researcher working in the Midwest.

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