I Went to Christian Summer Camp and Left an Abortion Activist

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Commentary Abortion

I Went to Christian Summer Camp and Left an Abortion Activist

CoWanda Rusk

I wanted to put my abortion behind me. I didn't want anyone to know about it. But I wouldn't feel that way for long.

I was 17, I needed an abortion in Dallas, and I didn’t have the consent of my parents. I knew for sure that I wanted an abortion, but I didn’t know how to access care.

I was living separately from my parents. I was taking care of myself as best as I could, managing a healthy school and work balance, and finding a way to provide myself with everything I needed. So when Planned Parenthood told me I needed parental consent to have an abortion, and that it would cost $710, I felt completely helpless. My independence had been taken away.

I was devastated, but a friend told me about Jane’s Due Process, an organization in Texas that helps young people get abortion care without parental consent by seeking permission from a judge, in what’s known as a judicial bypass. It involves working with a lawyer and navigating a complex court system that isn’t designed with the best interests of young people. And as a Black woman who has seen the corruption and injustices of our justice system in my own family, I couldn’t wrap my head around the idea of going through such a criminalizing experience to access abortion care.

I’m a Christian. I kept my faith in God the whole time. I was in constant prayer as I took off school multiple times to attend court and visit the clinic. In the end, I was lucky to have a wonderful judge who approved my bypass. Jane’s Due Process provided me with a lawyer who prepared me for everything the judge might ask—questions like how abortions are performed, why I can’t involve my parents, and the possible risks involved.

Sex. Abortion. Parenthood. Power.

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I’m grateful the judge considered my unique situation and the goals I had for my life, like going to medical school. But other judges have unjustly denied young people a judicial bypass based on their opposition to abortion rights.

Because of the stigma associated with abortion, I wanted to put my abortion behind me. I didn’t want anyone to know about it. But I wouldn’t feel that way much longer.

Shortly after my procedure, I attended a Christian youth summer camp, fleeing from an abusive relationship. I was beaten the night before I arrived at the campgrounds, a place where I had undergone spiritual and testimonial experiences years prior. It was like a breath of fresh air after the physical violence I had survived.

It was standard to have a preliminary interview with a camp leader that focused on our beliefs and perspectives, and one of the questions was whether I was against abortion. I didn’t share my personal experience, but I told them I was pro-choice. I was still accepted into the camp.

I went to camp with zero expectations. I hoped the camp community would show me the same warm and loving affection they did when I had visited years before, but after having an abortion, I wasn’t sure what to expect. To my surprise, I was able to be completely vulnerable with about 12 other women of color from around the world. We were complete strangers brought together because we were believers of Christ and wanted—needed—to be there. We learned we were all looking to heal from trauma in our lives: trauma that led us on this path of life full of Godly endeavors.

I remember some of the women talking about spiritual fellowships and programs they were in, and I knew that was the type of community I was wanted. After all, I was at camp running from what was back home.

One of the best moments was when I told a staff member—a person I bonded with on my first day there—that I had recently fled an abusive relationship and had an abortion. She had this light about her and held fresh perspectives about life. We were so vulnerable with our shared—yet different—experiences. She’d never been sure how she felt about abortion, but after hearing my story, she said she felt passionate about our right to choose. She hugged me, and told me I made the best decision for my life, and that sharing my experience is important and needed in a society where abortion is stigmatized.

I told her I had a strong desire to be a part of something bigger than myself, and she believed an opportunity would arise for me—one that would feed my heart’s desires so I could do more in this world than just survive. I didn’t know that I’d soon be sharing my story as an abortion storyteller with We Testify, a program dedicated to the leadership and representation of people who have abortions.

Following my conversation with the camp staffer, I opened my email and saw what I considered a sign from God. I had been nominated to attend the first Youth Testify cohort, a program created by the National Network of Abortion Funds’ We Testify program and Advocates For Youth, where I could share my experience as an abortion storyteller. The talented Renee Bracey Sherman, a renowned reproductive justice activist, was cultivating powerful experiences for people who had abortions. She created safe spaces to learn, grow, and share our stories in a way that would not only fuel a fire within us, but provide opportunities to connect with others in ways that only young people who’ve had abortions would really understand.

I soon realized each and every moment in my life led me here. Having access to an abortion when I needed it allowed me to escape an abusive relationship and plan my family the way I wanted. But attending camp taught me something invaluable: God wanted me to open myself up to the life experiences I had shut out, because God knew my experiences could be used to help people. Through Youth Testify, I did just that, and it was powerful from the start.

The first person I met said, “Hey! I’ve had an abortion!” I told her I had an abortion, too, and it was a beautiful moment, because like all of us at the camp who sought community through our various life experiences, everyone in the cohort sought community through our experiences with abortion. There were lots of hugs and plenty of love, and to me, that’s what God is. God is love. And if I, as a Christian woman, am supposed to promote this faith, then there should be nothing other than love in it.

I took a hike with another Christian, and we talked about the way our religion intersects with abortion. I told her, “I don’t think God hates me or doesn’t love me. God is incapable of such things.” It was emotional for both of us, because so often we hear abortion is a sin.

I was expecting the same love and understanding from my cohort that I was shown from the camp staff member, and I got it. The storytellers and I were spiritually connected before we ever met in person, because we made the same decision, navigated the same barriers, and wanted a community to call our own.

The opportunities to share my story didn’t end there. Jane’s Due Process invited me to become a peer support leader, which meant I would later provide emotional support to another young person who needed a judicial bypass. The organization has continued to help me grow professionally, ensuring I have transportation to speaking engagements and providing me with further opportunities to share my experience. I also joined another abortion storytelling cohort, We Testify Texas, and have shared my experience in publications like Bitch Media, Bustle, and Teen Vogue.

I’ve grown so much since my abortion, and I’m grateful every day that I can help others. There is space for us in this movement, even if it means creating that space for ourselves by shouting our abortion experiences.

Some people say they don’t believe in abortion. But abortion doesn’t need you to believe in it. Abortion is essential health care, and it will always be needed. I believe in a loving God, a God who understands our unique situations and sees us in our entirety. I believe this was God’s plan for me.

I was 18 years old when I attended camp, but sometimes it feels like the day I left was the first day of the rest of my life.