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Snow stuck: March for Life pilgrims perservere through blizzard

Pro-life advocates attending the March for Life in Washington D.C. on Jan. 22 were in for a cold surprise when a mammoth blizzard dumped nearly three feet of snow on parts of the East Coast and left many pilgrims stranded.

Among those stranded was Matt Newell, a campus missionary for the Fellowship of Catholic University Students (FOCUS). Newell is from Colorado but is currently serving the college students of the University of Nebraska in Lincoln, Neb. He and a group of about 75 travelled by charter bus to Washington D.C. to participate in the March for Life and found themselves in a hairy situation on their way back home.

Newell and his group left for the March on Wednesday. It’s a 24 hour drive to D.C. from Lincoln, and they wanted some extra time to do some sightseeing in the city. By the time the march began Friday morning, not a single flake of snow had touched the ground in D.C.

However, that quickly changed. By the end of the March, Newell and the thousands of other pro-life marchers were traversing through a full-on blizzard.

Immediately following the March, Newell’s group got on the road for the long drive back to Lincoln. They headed up into the Appalachian Mountains, hoping they’d make it to the clear that was reported to exist beyond the mountains. However, after hearing about an accident up ahead of them on the Pennsylvania Turnpike, they exited and pulled over to a rest stop, where they waited for several hours until they got word that the accident had cleared.

Little did they know, that wasn’t the case at all.

Stranded on a highway

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Once back on the highway, they came to a halt at mile marker 133.6, where they would remain much longer than they expected to. About 10 miles ahead, there was a big pile up right at the entrance to a tunnel, Newell said.

Newell and his group waited it out, hoping that the bus would start to to move within the next few hours. They went to sleep and expected start moving overnight.

“I kept waking up in the middle of the night, thinking we were moving, then I would look out the window and notice that we weren’t moving at all,” Newell said.

At 8 a.m. Saturday, they hadn’t budged an inch. Their bus driver had done some investigating overnight and discovered that the National Guard had been called in to help clear the highway and they hoped to have the stuck vehicles moving again by 6 p.m.

To pass the time, Newell and the students played cards, napped and watched movies. They were luckily on a charter bus, so they all had access to a restroom. Despite the circumstances, Newell never felt like they were in any sort of danger.

“I didn’t think we were going to die on the road, but part of it was a little disconcerting,” he said.

Granola bars, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and bottled water were all they had to eat while stranded. However, volunteer firefighters were wandering the highway ensuring everybody had food and water.

The priest who was with them even said a vigil Mass on their bus to fulfill their Sunday Mass obligation, Newell said.

After nearly 24 hours of waiting, they started moving again at 9:15 p.m.; not before they dug the bus out of two and a half feet of snow, though.

Further complications

As if that wasn’t enough, even though traffic was moving again, it was being redirected to Bedford, Penn., which was the closest town. Newell and his group were forced to stay the night in Bedford, but everybody else was doing that too, making it impossible for them to find a hotel room.

Luckily though, Newell was in touch with another group from Sioux Falls, S.D. who were abel to find refuge at the Catholic Church in Bedford, and they were able to get in touch with the pastor and sleep on the floor of a gym with high school students from Sioux Falls. After spending the night in Bedford, they were finally on their way back home to Lincoln.

“It was kind of a wild ride,” Newell said.

Though the entire situation seemed like a nightmare, Newell kept positive spirits and said there were a few hidden graces that came from the ordeal.

“[The snowstorm] got more media attention on the March for Life than it normally gets,” he said. “March for Life was [also] able to work it so that a lot of the hotel rooms for people who had cancelled reservations or left early went to homeless people in the city of D.C.”

This, he said, is what the March for Life, and the greater pro-life culture, is all about.

“It speaks to actual pro-life culture.It’s not just about abortion, it’s about the dignity of human life at all stages,” Newell said. “If we can help come homeless people to get shelter during a storm, or if we can help people who need to go to the bathroom by bringing them onto the bus when we were stuck and let them use our bathroom, that’s the actual pro-lifer attitude.”

Pilgrims from Machebeuf

The students at Bishop Machebeuf High School are a force to be reckoned with. Unfortunately, so are blizzards.

MJ Brennan, campus minister at Machebeuf, said she knew a storm was coming to  D.C. However, her students had been preparing for the March since October and she didn’t want to let them down.

“I wanted to go on the March for Life to stand up for the rights for life, and also to stand out with a crowd in D.C., because there are a lot of pro-choice people in D.C. It was a way to tell the public what we stand for,” said Gene Lang, a senior at Machebeuf.

Although they were able to see a few D.C. sites (the Holocaust museum, an in-depth search of the national mall after their car was towed…), the weather became a problem the first night. The group was staying with Dominican Sisters of St. Cecilia (alias: Nashville Dominicans) outside of the city.

“That evening, we had freezing snow and rain. It took us four hours to get 30 miles,” Brennan said.

However, as the day of the March approached, they decided to move closer to the March (and airport) so they wouldn’t be snowed out.  But when they arrived at a pre-March rally, they learned that many events had been cancelled and the rally was ending early. Many people chose to skip the March. This left Brennan in a difficult position.

“Being in charge of the kids, I wanted to give them the experience of the March, but I needed to keep them safe,” Brendan said. “The weather was seriously looming the whole time.”

However, her students insisted on marching, proving that they really had come to march for life, and not just to get out of school.

“Our whole purpose was to march. Yeah, a lot of the groups took tour buses and the roads were going to get really bad, but we flew, and we had a plan. So we wanted to go to the Vigil Mass and the rally at the Capitol,” Lang said.

They did a private march to the Capitol rally, but Brennan decided they needed to leave after about 45 minutes. However, walking alone with their pro-life signs through downtown D.C. wound up being a powerful moment.

“When you’re in the March, you’re surrounded by people who agree with you. We had a different experience walking back: A woman cut us off with her car and started yelling about right to privacy…To me that was just the culture of death; you’re going to cut people off to get your point across,” Brennan said.

The group wound up snowed into a hotel. Brennan said the kids had great attitudes about the experience.

“We had all these plans to visit all these places and be really busy, but the blizzard forced us to just be together, Brennan said. “It’s so easy to be busy instead of encountering the other person. But I saw how much fun they had in the midst of that, just playing spoons and truth or dare and watching a silly movie. It was just really fun to be a part of it.”

Lang said he was happy with the experience.

“I don’t think people were really bummed to be in the hotel. We had snowball fights and would push people in the snowbanks. We took pizza boxes and we went sledding off the hills,” he said. ” We actually bonded more as a group because we all gathered in a room and played games.”

The group arrived safely in Denver on Monday. And don’t worry–they were able to keep their Denver pride on Sunday.

“We watched the Broncos game. It wasn’t very full, but we were very passionate. We were the only Bronco’s fans there,” Brennan said.


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