WASHINGTON, D.C. - On the 24-hour bus ride home from our nation's capital, where she'd participated in the 45th Annual March for Life, Shanley High School junior Michaela Doescher was still processing the personal nature of this year's march theme, "Love Saves Lives."
"I'm lucky to be alive," she shared through a microphone at the front of bus three, noting that her parents, teens who were young and fearful at the time of her pregnancy, had considered aborting her.
But her grandparents, pledging support, diverted the tragedy. "My family loved me enough for me to be here today," Doescher continued. "They fought for me, and now I can fight for those around me. It's just the most amazing feeling."
The yearly march protests the 1973 U.S. Supreme Court decision of Roe vs. Wade legalizing abortion through nine months of pregnancy.
A similar message of life-saving love had been shared the night before the march, on Jan. 18, with approximately 170 Shanley students their first evening in D.C. at the "Life Is Very Good" youth rally, by religious sister Miriam James Heidland.
"I stand before you here on this stage tonight because a scared 17-year-old said 'yes' to life, and I was the child in her womb," Sister Miriam told more than 7,000 youth, mentioning she'd once been a star volleyball player and a struggling addict, before surrendering her life to God.
Borrowing from "Star Wars," Heidland told the teens, "We don't win the battle by fighting what we hate. We win the battle by saving what we love."
Junior Maria Lusardi borrowed the bus mic to express concern over the perception some pro-choice people seem to have about pro-lifers, "that we have no feelings for the mothers who end up in these situations; that we're callous and don't care."
Recalling Heidland's words from the rally, he said "it's not 'us' versus 'them,' it's just 'us'. We don't have to fight this war with each other. We're all in this together," suggesting "compassion and calmness and real understanding when dealing with this topic."
Junior Kaitlin McLaughlin recalled the difference love had made within her family, sharing how her great-uncle had saved her grandfather in the Vietnam War by preventing him from heading into the jungle at a crucial point.
"Love did save his life, and then my grandpa went on to have six kids," she said. "I'm the oldest of his 28 grandchildren."
"You don't know who you're killing," McLaughlin continued. "It could be someone who might find the cure for cancer or talk someone out of committing suicide."
Junior Jake Pollard recounted the feeling of walking down Constitution Avenue with the vast crowd. "When you get that many people together in one place for one cause, I think that's a wonderful definition of what love is, and when it's for a higher purpose, that's powerful," he said.
Grace Beauchamp said marching with so many other pro-lifers felt amazing.
"You don't only love the mothers and babies, but you feel loved as well," the Shanley junior said, noting how several peers in the crowd, strangers, requested to connect on Snapchat. "Everyone is so nice and friendly."
Teacher Kari Brock shared with the students how an elderly woman had "pressed some bills," $100 worth, into a chaperone's hands at the end of a Mass they'd attended at St. Veronica's parish. "That happened because of your witness," she said. "They noticed the reverence and the smiles on your faces."
Daniel Wanner, a member of Shanley Teens for Life, led his bus in praying for others and safety along the way.
"It's kind of nice to have something else to do that isn't just being on your phone," he said. "The goal of prayer is to connect with or talk with God ... it's the most important thing you could be doing on earth."
The Shanley pilgrimage, now in its eighth year, included four buses and nearly 200 students, staff and parent chaperones. Not all were Catholic, nor from Shanley. A Catholic home-schooled student, Francis Silverman, joined as a guest, along with several non-Catholic Shanley students, including Miles Wosick and his mother, Crystal, a chaperone, and Kevin Shen, a non-Christian foreign-exchange student from China.
While in D.C., the pilgrims also experienced the temporary government shutdown and toured what sites remained open - connecting them as much as possible with school curriculum - and many glimpsed the Women's March, with its contrasting tone.
"This endeavor provides so many opportunities for total-person education - body, mind, spirit, social - with a depth and breadth the classroom alone cannot capture," said Mike Hagstrom, Saint John Paul II Catholic Schools Network president.
Roxane B. Salonen is a freelance writer who lives in Fargo with her husband and five children. If you have a story of faith to share with her, email email@example.com.