Stuck on the Pennsylvania Turnpike for 24 hours. Lessons learned.

by Maggie Dewitte, Executive Director of Iowans for Life.

As I planned this year’s March for Life in Washington DC I was filled with a lot of mixed emotions. On the one hand, we had a record number of participants planning to attend, but on the other, the weather updates continued to put a damper on the upcoming trip. And it wasn’t just a typical winter storm, it was coined ‘snowmaggedon’ and ‘the storm of the century’. We continued to watch the weather and forged forward with the trip. Unfortunately, we lost three schools to this forecast and decided that we would need to cut the trip short and eliminate the sight-seeing day in order to beat the storm home.

The trip to DC was largely uneventful and arrival at our hotel was smooth. As always, our trips consist of education, prayer and fun. When we arrived, Father Pat Behm celebrated Mass at the hotel for those groups interested. Some groups attended Mass at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, while others packed in a quick tour of the national monuments. The morning would come early as we decided to save time, and load all luggage back onto the buses before heading out to the Archdiocesan of Washington DC Youth Rally & Mass held at Verizon Center and The DC Armory. The rally was a powerful experience for everyone. We participated in reconciliation, Rosary, and Mass. It was a perfect way to enter into our March down Constitution Avenue. During Mass, one of our groups opted to leave early in fear of the weather. The other two buses remained. We attended the rally before the march and had an opportunity to hear some great speakers and begin to see the sheer magnitude of people in attendance. Understandably the crowd was smaller than in years past; however, despite the impending snow storm, there were well over 200,000 in attendance. The rally this year was in front of the Washington Monument and at the beginning of the event, we sang the National Anthem. There was such a well-spring of patriotism in that moment and I felt hope. A hope that we will prevail and a hope in humanity. As we began our walk, so began the snow. We were fortunate to be able to finish the march and head to our buses waiting at Union Station. When we left DC, there was barely a dusting of snow on the ground and we were glad to be ‘getting out of dodge’ before the big flakes began to fall. We were clipping right along and into Pennsylvania when we were stopped at Mile Marker 132.9 and 133 around 8:30PM Friday evening.  

We caught wind early on that there was an accident ahead and everyone hunkered down for the delay. After a few hours we would learn more details that two semi-trucks had an accident going up the mountain just before the tunnel and because of the location, it was making it extremely difficult to get the equipment needed to pull them out. All the while, the snow really began to come down and when we woke up the next morning, we knew we wouldn’t be going anywhere. Snow had quickly piled through the night and everyone was stuck. Fortunately, our buses had just fueled up at the last town and we had plenty of snacks and water to get us through the night. Later that morning, the National Guard was employed to help and our buses got two cases of water.

Having spent the night on the bus, everyone needed to get out and get some fresh air. It was then we learned the scope of this mess and all the other buses from the March for Life who were here with us. It was the bus from Minneapolis-St. Paul that began to walk around to all the buses and inquire about having a Mass. We had two priests on our bus and one had a Mass kit. From that moment on, kids from all over began building an altar of snow on the hillside and the word spread we would celebrate Mass at noon. Immediately, the attitude and atmosphere of the buses changed. Everyone was looking forward to being together in prayer.

When we all walked out, it was overwhelming to see everyone coming from all the buses with a single purpose. We began to sing and soon the Mass began. The Gospel reading for Saturday Mass couldn’t have been more perfect. Mark 3:20-21 Jesus came with his disciples into the house. Again the crowd gathered, making it impossible for them even to eat. When his relatives heard of this they set out to seize him, for they said, “He is out of his mind.” God certainly has a sense of humor, because I am quite certain that everyone who saw us or heard what we were doing thought we must be completely nuts! Father Behm started his homily with a story of a bus trip with Iowans for LIFE three years ago, his first year ordained as a priest. He told of another unusual place he celebrated Mass- a McDonald’s. We had the unfortunate luck of having a bus break down in Indiana. We were stranded a mere 5 hours (chump-change compared to what was to come) and decided the best use of our time was again to celebrate Mass. Hence forward, we lovingly referred to that Mass as the McMass. He stated that this Mass, would take over as the #1 most unusual place to celebrate Mass!

It was cold to be sure, and the snow hadn’t let up since we arrived several hours earlier. Further we were on a hillside and several inches of snow made it difficult to gain traction. Despite that, there was calm and peace and kids began kneeling in this thigh-deep snow. When communion began and everyone started singing ‘Jesus, I need you Jesus’, words cannot begin to explain that feeling of holiness and witness to the Body of Christ. Little did we know at the time that this scene would become viral and become known as the #turnpikemass.

This gathering of 500 made national and even international news. For the first time in 43 years of the March for Life, there was significant secular media coverage of the March because of the groups stranded on the Turnpike and because of this Mass. Does our God know what He is doing or what? He took this situation and used it for the greater good. He took our suffering and used it to spread a message of love, unity and awareness of the sanctity of human life.

After the Mass, the teens used this time to do something I don’t think they get to do much with their overscheduled life- they played. They used the pro-life signs from the march and slid down the hillside, they made snow angels and had snow-ball fights. They talked and several in the groups commented about how this time gave them an opportunity to get to know one another in a more intimate way. What was remarkable for me is that during that entire 24-hour period, I didn’t hear a single complaint. And they rightly had a lot to complain about. We didn’t have great food, limited water and the bathroom facilities were less than ideal. Despite that, they chose to have a positive attitude and take the situation in stride. I couldn’t have been prouder of these students and the adults who chaperoned them. What’s more, is that these groups of students and chaperones used this time to help others. Amidst all the semi-trucks and buses were cars stranded with us. Many had run out of gas and had no food or water. I witnessed students bringing their snacks to the cars and using the signs to help dig them out. It was peer selfless acts of kindness toward others that touched me and so many who witnessed it. The students also began shoveling our buses out in the hope that would help when we were finally able to leave this historic mile marker.

Nearly 24-hours later, we finally got the green light from the PA Department of Transportation that we could get out and would be re-routed east as the tunnel was still impassable. It was then we saw the line-up of trucks and buses that were still waiting to get out- a 30-mile stretch to be exact. We immediately began to pray for all those left behind that they too would soon be able to leave.

As we moved forward and were told the roads home were clear, we stopped for a well needed meal. While eating, one of the chaperones informed the students to be thankful for this food as the National Guard was issuing MRE (meals ready to eat) to all those still stranded and that they likely would not get out until the next morning.

We continued to drive through the night and in the light of the day and knowing soon we would be home, we prayed many prayers of Thanksgiving. We sang the Chaplet of Divine Mercy and asked all to come to the front of the bus and share. One student stated, “I am glad we got stuck, because we got to sit here and just be with each other.” A chaperone shared, “I truly believe that God wanted each and every one of us to be there and we are a part of it because we said YES.” Another student bravely stated, “I am living proof of the power of the pro-life movement; my mom chose life and placed me for adoption.” Then we had the blessing of Father Pat Behm using this time to talk about the teachings of the church; I was astounded by the deep and thoughtful questions these teenagers and adults asked Father. To say this was a spiritual pilgrimage is an understatement. What would have been a less than ideal March for Life given the smaller crowd and having to cut our trip a day short, turned into likely one of the most memorable events for everyone who attended.

When we arrived back in Des Moines, we again had the blessing of celebrating Mass at St. Francis in West Des Moines with Fr. Pat Behm. When we all departed, there were lots of hugs to be sure. But there was something more that truly touched me. Every single person who said good-bye to me also said, “I am coming back next year on this trip for sure.” Who would have thought that a 24-hour delay on the turnpike would result in an even greater conviction on the part of these participants to attend the next year’s march.

I am left now with many lessons learned on this fateful trip to DC. First: most things in life are completely out of my control and I shouldn’t waste another second worrying about it. All the second-guessing on this trip was for naught. Something happened while stranded that helped me realize that. Let. It. Go. Second: tough situations can bring the best out of people. It would be very understandable to just keep to yourself in this situation, but many chose to help others and sacrifice their own comforts. Third: we can decide how we choose to handle things and the attitude we have. There were no complaints, no-one lashed out in anger, no-one threatened anyone. Everyone made the choice to stay positive and hope for the best.

Lastly, and most importantly, it was a reminder that when we are brought to our knees in despair, Christ is there. He was with us on the bus and in the snow and is with us now. This was exactly the shot in the arm that I needed to help me continue in this battle for life. The stakes are high and He blessed us with the time on the turnpike to reflect on that in many ways.

So, I am going to keep on keeping on. I am going to take one day at a time. I hope you will keep going with me too. I hope you come to the March next year; I can’t guarantee the #TurnpikeMass, but I can guarantee you will be blessed and convicted to join this fight.