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Church Hosts Candlelight Vigil For Planned Parenthood

Marisa Demarco / KUNM
Vicki Cowart, president and CEO of Planned Parenthood of the Rocky Mountains, speaks at First Congregational Church.

Folks gathered in Albuquerque in support of Planned Parenthood in response to a deadly attack on a clinic about a week ago. But just hours before the vigil, shooters in San Bernardino, California, killed 14 people and wounded at least 21 more. 

People sat in the wooden pews in the sanctuary of the First Congregational Church, lit candles and reflected on the deaths of three people in Friday’s shooting in Colorado Springs. Victor Reyes of ProgressNow read their names. "For Ke’Arre Stewart, the 29-year-old Iraq War veteran, who was killed after running in to warn others to take cover. For Jennifer Markovsky, a mother of two children, who accompanied a friend into the clinic to lend support. And for officer Garrett Swasey, who was killed in the line of duty after he answered the call outside of his jurisdiction."

The gathering was planned to reflect on one mass shooting, but then there was another. Fatigue was evident as people talked about this kind of violence becoming increasingly common. There have been more shootings than days this year: 355, according to the Washington Post.

Bernalillo County law enforcement officers were present at Wednesday’s vigil, and Reyes acknowledged them. "I’d also like to take a moment to thank Sheriff Gonzales for sending two deputies to make sure that we’re safe tonight."

The day of the Planned Parenthood shooting was a busy one at the clinic in Colorado Springs, according to Vicki Cowart. She’s president and CEO of Planned Parenthood of the Rocky Mountains. She explained that a lot of patients use the Friday after Thanksgiving to get their health care because they’re off work.

Some details of the shooting remain unclear, she said, but she’s sure of one thing: "The staff responded exactly as you would want them to do," she said. "They knew what to do when a shooter walked in, when an intruder walked in. And their actions, the way they went through their day—they were pinned down for five hours—but they saved lives."

The Colorado shooter fiercely opposed abortion, according to folks who knew him. But others who are part of the anti-abortion movement have said only the shooter is to blame, not so-called “inflammatory rhetoric."

After the vigil, Cowart talked about virulent discourse in the country around women’s health care. And she pointed out the many services Planned Parenthood offers. "We provide life-saving cancer screening, STD testing and treatment, HIV testing, birth control," she said. "We’re doing breast exams and Pap tests. And yes, we do abortions, and we will always do abortions. It’s a legal service that women need."

Cowart said despite the fear Friday’s shooting created, Planned Parenthood workers squared their shoulders and went back to work as soon as they could. Most locations across the four-state region were open the next day.

Cowart watched the posts from her staff pop up on social media. "They were saying things like, ‘I’ll be there Monday.’ ‘I’m going to open the doors of my center at 7 o’clock in the morning. We’re open. Come see us.’ So there’s a real resolute nature to Planned Parenthood people. We are dedicated to making sure that those services are available no matter what."

Alanna Offield is a field organizer with the state’s chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union. "For a long time, conservative faith community has co-opted the messaging around abortion," she said. "And so we really want to take that back, and really move our conversation from a more middle place, a place of compassion and empathy rather than judgment and shame."

Offield said the mass shooting in San Bernardino, California, was on everyone’s mind at the vigil. "There’s a lot of violence happening in the world," she said. " And if we can bring the community together in any way to talk about it, to heal a little bit, that that’s worth it. We’re really glad that we were able to find a healing space at this church."

Pastor Sue Joiner of First Congregational Church said women need to be able make healthy decisions in ways that keep them safe. "The world needs to know that the faith community stands with all who suffer, and that we value all life."

Joiner said it’s devastating to learn of these deadly shootings day after day. "Somehow we’ve decided gun violence is the way to get through all these issues, and it’s not moving us anywhere except further and further apart," she said. "It’s terribly destructive. It’s heartbreaking. We need to find a new way to move forward as a world, as a planet."

It’s powerful to look at a sanctuary full of people, Joiner said, and recognize that it’s a roomful of compassion and hope.


Public Health New Mexico is funded by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation. Find all of the project’s work at publichealthnm.org.

Marisa Demarco began a career in radio at KUNM News in late 2013 and covered public health for much of her time at the station. During the pandemic, she is also the executive producer for Your NM Government and No More Normal, shows focused on the varied impacts of COVID-19 and community response, as well as racial and social justice. She joined Source New Mexico as editor-in-chief in 2021.
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