As Supreme Court weighs abortion, Christians challenge what it means to be 'pro-life'

Jaweed Kaleem, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Religious News

But something felt off. D.C. wasn't home. Being progressive church planters was difficult in a big, liberal city, where for many, picking a house of worship seemed like shopping at a department store. It also wasn't easy to support a family of six on part-time jobs while running a new church. The lease to their house was running out. And their son, who had severe dyslexia, wasn't getting the care he needed in school — something that was readily available back home in Michigan.

God was telling the family it was time to go.

The return to the Midwest was a delicate one. The family moved to Holland in 2014, settling in a small house on the same plot where Berghoef grew up. Her dad, who remains a conservative, anti-abortion Christian, still lived on the property, where he tended to his flower farm. The old bonds of love were as strong as the new divides of politics.

"Like us, they're passionate about following Jesus," she said. "But we have very different experiences in the world. Some of my family members have just lived here their whole life. They've never left. This is the world they know."

More settled in her liberal views, Berghoef made waves in the tightknit community with her Facebook postings and articles in church journals and the local paper.

"At the risk of angering my friends who lean progressive, I will admit I personally consider myself broadly pro-life (from the womb to the tomb)," she wrote in one piece. "At the risk of confounding my friends who lean conservative, the evidence does not reveal that the most effective way to reduce abortion in this country is to simply overturn Roe vs. Wade, but rather to examine who is having abortions and why, and work at those things."

Her middle-of-the-road statement and other opinions — such as her stance against Trump's first presidential campaign — were radical for Holland. Old high school friends blocked her on Facebook and refused to speak to her, describing her as supporting "baby killers." Others reached out to her to share their secrets of undergoing abortions and hiding them out of fear of being ostracized.

A small Bible study started meeting at the Berghoef home. A community within a community began to grow. By the weekend after the 2016 election, it was a church with its own rented hall. Christy and Bryan had left their denomination for the more liberal United Church of Christ.

Today, Holland UCC, as it's called, attracts a variety of ex-conservative Christians and a few agnostics. One of the few local churches open to LGBTQ Christians, its members have also marched in Black Lives Matter demonstrations. The logo on the church's website is a white comma over a rainbow circle, a reminder to never "put a period where God has placed a comma, because God is still speaking."

But abortion remains a most potent subject, one millions of conservative Christians see as indivisible from their faith.

"I don't think many in our community would support making it illegal, but we come in with different views," said Bryan Berghoef, who lost a Democratic bid for Congress in 2020 and was mocked by other Christians for not being "pro-life" enough. Some in Holland questioned how a man could be both a pastor and a Democrat.

"We welcome people in however they are and whatever they believe, wherever they are on their journey," he said, thinking of the long road to where he is today.

Over the years, the church has led the annual Women's March in Holland. But last year, after the Texas Legislature passed a law allowing civil lawsuits against people who indirectly aid in abortions — such as Uber drivers — Holland UCC decided to not officially take part in the protest march formed in response.

The gathering, in the hundreds, was large for Holland, though nowhere close to the size of the crowds at anti-abortion events. A church member who was a survivor of rape was among the organizers. The Berghoefs, who were not in town at the time, said they would have joined as long as they were not representing the church.


In the spruced-up shed in their backyard, the Berghoefs have created an informal community space for like-minded individuals to come together over craft beers and Michigan wines. During the waves of the pandemic when the church met only online, it's where he broadcasted sermons and she played guitar to lead worship songs with titles like "I Want Jesus to Walk With Me" and "Change My Heart Oh God."

On a recent chilly spring evening, a few church members and fellow Christians had come to the shed to swap stories with Christy Berghoef over what it meant to be "pro-life" and "pro-choice." Some were Holland UCC members. Others were part of more traditional faith communities.

Judy and Scott Vander Zwaag had joined the church several years ago after spending much of their adult lives in a conservative Holland congregation. Former Republicans, they had crossed political aisles — and denominations — later in life.

"I feel bad about how I treated others in the past and the things I said or did when it came to being 'pro-life' or 'pro-choice,'" Scott Vander Zwaag said. He had spent years as an elder in his former church. His duties included determining who wasn't following church teachings on sex and marriage.

The group spoke of how abortion wasn't always a Republican issue. Up through the 1960s, conservative Christians advocated for the right to abortion as a matter of separation of church and state. Then, in response to the civil rights movement, which fractured old Democratic alliances, evangelical leaders launched the "pro-life" movement as a political strategy to unite voters.

They also discussed how Michigan was one of the states where a law banning abortion in nearly all cases was already on the books, dating to 1931. If Roe were overturned, the legislation may apply once again.

Kris and Vern Swieringa, who were still members of the Christian Reformed church — Vern pastored one about 30 minutes away — were also in the shed.

"Personally, I'm against abortion," Kris Swieringa said. "But making a law won't make something go away. I look at these groups against abortion and they don't care about rape or incest or when a mother is in danger. They just want to make abortion illegal. Republicans are so much about a child before it's born. But what laws do they pass to help a child after it's born?"

A close friend, she said, had recently had an ectopic pregnancy — where the fertilized egg implants outside the uterus, usually in one of the fallopian tubes — and required an abortion.

Berghoef guided the conversation, at once speaking like a counselor, friend and pastor.

"The things we grew up with in the church are the same things that make us question some of its positions now," she said. "We were taught to be loving, truthful, serve our communities and seek justice the same way Jesus did."

Each had lost friends and at times family for speaking out on abortion or politics. To them, it was the right thing to do. The Christian thing to do.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.

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