Hundreds of Catholics from throughout Maryland gathered in Annapolis on Feb. 21 for the annual “Catholics in Annapolis” gathering, organized by the Maryland Catholic Conference. Welcoming the participants, Wilmington Bishop W. Francis Malooly spoke about the importance of having lay Catholics advocate on behalf of the Church.

“Where we [bishops] might not have credibility with some people, you do,” he said.

Expressing a similar sentiment, Washington Auxiliary Bishop Roy Campbell Jr. told the Catholic Standard that he thought for the legislators “to hear from priests and bishops is one thing, but to hear from the people who make up the local Church is even better.”

Bishops Campbell was joined at the event by Washington’s two other auxiliary bishops, Bishop Michael Fisher and Bishop Mario Dorsonville.

This year, the day began with all of the participants praying a rosary for the legislators. Following the prayer, the participants heard from inspirational speakers about some of the pressing issues during this legislative session.

Amanda Rodriguez, an attorney who has represented survivors of human trafficking, spoke about how she has learned about “the amazing resilience of survivors” from her clients. She said it is important for everyone to know, “human trafficking is a horrific thing and it is happening here in Maryland.”

This issue was of particular importance to Sophia Cooney, a junior at Elizabeth Seton High School in Bladensburg, Maryland, who is working on a Girl Scout Gold Award project related to the issue. After going to a conference where she learned about the issue of human trafficking, she launched into an effort to educate her peers about its dangers. She started reaching out to leaders in her community who work with survivors, and she presented to the freshman class at her school about the issue.

She felt it was important to get involved because “it affects people who are my age,” she said, noting that she has heard the average age of human trafficking victims is 13. In addition to educating her peers, she has made a collection of care packages for survivors and made a petition to pass the Anti-Exploitation Act of 2019 (HB 734), which would criminalize labor trafficking in Maryland. During Catholics in Annapolis, she met with Senator Douglas Peters, a Democrat representing District 23 in Prince George’s County, and asked him what else she could do to advocate for the bill.

Two mothers of students attending Holy Angels Catholic School in Baltimore spoke to participants about the importance of the Broadening Options and Opportunities for Students Today (BOOST) Scholarship. The BOOST program provides scholarships for low-income students to attend a nonpublic school, and Governor Larry Hogan has proposed increasing the funding for the program to $10 million per year.

Trishaun Talbert spoke about how after switching from Baltimore City Public Schools to Holy Angels, her son “never had anything bad to say about school.” He made it on the honor roll for the first time in his life, and when she decided to get her GED, he helped her study for the math portion.

Dawnella Tillman, whose son is now in fifth grade at Holy Angels, said before she knew she could get the BOOST scholarship, her son’s teachers had begged her to get him out of his school, and “it was disheartening to feel I had no choice but to leave him there because I wasn’t financially able to move him.” Now, her son is thriving, she said.

Trishaun Talbert (left) and Dawnella Tillman (right) speak about how the BOOST scholarship has helped them afford for their sons to attend Holy Angels Catholic School in Baltimore. (CS photo/Mihoko Owada)

Mark Wallen, whose daughter, Laura, was murdered by her boyfriend when she was 14 weeks pregnant, spoke about the proposed “Laura and Reid’s Law,” which would expand fetal homicide protections to as few as eight weeks’ gestation. When his daughter was killed, her boyfriend was only prosecuted for her murder, because the law currently only applies to the baby if the woman is 24 weeks or more pregnant.

Finally, two women spoke about the harm that abortion can cause, in light of House Speaker Michael Busch’s proposed legislation, which if passed would allow Marylanders to vote to enshrine the right to abortion in the Maryland constitution.

The first woman, Amy, told the story of how she had accompanied her friend to get an abortion when they were young, but said, “I never knew how much she would suffer.”

For a long time, her friend turned to drugs to cope with the hate she felt toward herself. Her friend did not forgive her for her involvement in the abortion until she attended a weekend Project Rachel retreat where she experienced God’s mercy and love, and called her to offer forgiveness.

After that experience, Amy began volunteering with pregnancy centers, was trained as an ultrasound technician, and now helps other women find healing from abortion.

“If you have had involvement with abortion, please know you are not alone,” she said.

A second woman, Justine, spoke about how she had chosen life during a “dark and hopeless” time in her life. She had just gotten fired from her job because of her alcoholism when she met a new man and got pregnant. Because they were so poor, she searched for free pregnancy tests, and was pointed toward a pregnancy center in Annapolis.

When they found out that they were pregnant, she was terrified and decided to have an abortion. But after seeing her baby’s heartbeat and receiving counseling at the pregnancy center, she changed her mind. Her now 4-year-old daughter stood beside her at Catholics in Annapolis as she told the crowd that her choice to give birth had motivated both her and the baby's father to stay sober. Now, the couple is happily married with their second child on the way.

Justine and her husband "have talked so much about what our lives would have looked like [if she had had an abortion],” she said, noting that they both think they would have turned to drinking or drugs. “…I knew God was guiding me to life. Life for my baby, but also life" for her and her husband.

Elena Leon (right), a parishioner of St. Raphael's Parish in Rockville, speaks with Senator Cheryl Kagan (left), a democrat representing district 17 in Montgomery County. (CS photo/Mihoko Owada)

After hearing these personal testimonies, the participants met with their legislators to discuss why these issues are important to them.

Mary Babbitt, a parishioner of St. Bernard of Clairvaux in Riverdale Park, Maryland, said she has been coming to the event for years because she sees it as an opportunity to both share with legislators what is important to her and to listen to their perspective on the issues. She said all life issues are important to her, “from birth to natural death, including everything in between.”  

“I’m here to provide a voice for those that don’t have one, [whether] it is the unborn, the dying or the low-income students who need scholarships," said Terri Yates, a parishioner of Our Lady Star of the Sea in Solomons, Maryland.

Teresa Leard, a parishioner of St. Aloysius Parish in Leonardtown, Maryland, said she was attending Catholics in Annapolis because “we have to stop this march forward to destroy human life.”

“Things are going to happen and we are going to regret not speaking up,” she said. “We can’t rely on anyone else to do it.”

The day concluded with a reception, which included a performance by the choir from Cardinal Shehan School in Baltimore. Bishop William Lori, the Archbishop of Baltimore, thanked all of the participants for attending.

“When you think about it, these are not just public policy positions, these are things we actually do as a Church: care for the unborn, care for the sick, care for the newly arrived, care for the young people who we educate, care for the elderly and dying,” he said, noting that although Catholics are not perfect, “because of God’s grace, we are able to do amazing things in the state of Maryland.”

Baltimore Archbishop William Lori speaks to participants at the Feb. 21 Catholics in Annapolis lobbying effort. (CS photo/Mihoko Owada)