Eleven o’clock at night. Everyone in the house is fast asleep. The telephone rings. Jenny Shier is slightly startled, but answers the phone with, ‘Hello, this is Jenny speaking’. Nervously, the caller says ‘Hello’, then hangs up.
Jenny Shier goes back to sleep with mixed feelings. On the one hand she is disappointed that she was unable to help the caller any further. But on the other hand she is pleased. The woman whose nervous, scared voice she heard has just taken the first courageous step towards healing.
This is a common occurrence for Jenny Shier in her work as the state director of Rachel’s Vineyard, a non-profit, volunteer-run organisation that offers grief counselling to women suffering from the trauma of abortion.
Mrs Shier often receives telephone calls from women who are desperate for healing, some of whom have suffered from the pain of their untold secret for many years.
“It takes a lot of courage because they’ve kept their secret for so long and they are afraid of being judged, but they are not judged at Rachel’s Vineyard,” Mrs Shier said.
“When people have an abortion they try to put it behind them and try to suppress it. It takes five to 20 years for some people to actually seek help … I’ve even had people who have waited and suffered for 40 years before coming.”
Rachel’s Vineyard began in Western Australia in 2009, and currently holds two weekend retreats each year.
The retreats are purposely limited to a maximum of five participants.
“I find that a small group very quickly bonds and they become very supportive of each other,” Mrs Shier said. “Everybody gets enough time to tell their story, to do their grief work and anger work, so that’s why I deliberately keep them small.”
Although the retreat participants are primarily women, the work of Rachel’s Vineyard is aimed at anyone affected by abortion.
“Husbands, boyfriends, grandparents and siblings come to our retreats,” Mrs Shier said.
“Post-abortion stress negatively affects relationships, it can affect bonding with future children and [cause] problems with existing children that people don’t often realise.”
But the organisation, which is supported by the Archdiocese of Perth, is in urgent need of more volunteers to assist with weekend retreats.
“We’re looking for mature women who are sensitive, compassionate, and non-judgemental listeners … and people who can be confidential,” Mrs Shier said.
“We don’t want people who like to jump in and fix things but people who have experienced a bit of life, who know what it is to suffer and because of that they can be empathetic.
“We just need good, prayerful women who are compassionate and who are able to be there for other people.”
Mrs Shier said Rachel’s Vineyard also needed volunteers to help out behind the scenes.
“In between the sessions we need helpers to organise the next session … so if people can’t commit to the whole weekend, they can still be a part of the team,” she said.
Rachel’s Vineyard was the brainchild of Dr Theresa Burke, an American Catholic psychologist.
In 1986, Dr Burke founded the Centre for Post-Abortion Healing, one of the first therapeutic support groups for women who had had an abortion.
Eight years later, Dr Burke published a 15-week support group model for counsellors, titled Rachel’s Vineyard: A Psychological and Spiritual Journey for Post-Abortion Healing, which she soon adapted into a format suitable for weekend retreats.
In the United States, without any form of financial or advertising support, Rachel’s Vineyard quickly became a grassroots national outreach.
The success of the retreats led to more and more requests for the program in other American states. By 2000, 35 retreats were being held around the country.
In 2003, Rachel’s Vineyard became affiliated with Priests for Life in the US.
There are now more than 700 retreats held each year in 25 different countries including Canada, Mexico, New Zealand, France, Spain and Portugal. More recently, the organisation has held retreats in Singapore and Penang.
It is estimated that Rachel’s Vineyard is supported by the efforts of more than 8,000 volunteers.
It’s been hailed as the most successful treatment for post-abortion trauma and stress, and its work overseas and in WA is widely applauded.
“You can see the healing in relationships starts to happen on the retreat between people, and that’s a very positive thing,” Mrs Shier said.
“There are young women who have suffered for many years, from their teens, who, following the retreat, have got their life back on track, have gone to university and finished their degree, and got on with their lives.
“Others … feel comfortable going back to church. They feel they can go back to their church community and not feel ashamed or guilty.
“People feel they are welcome back and that’s a beautiful thing.”
Unlike other forms of counselling which rely heavily on what is called ‘talk therapy’, the retreats held by Rachel’s Vineyard adopt a different strategy.
“There are no lectures, talks or teachings,” Mrs Shier said. “It is an ‘experience’ of God in the context of one’s suffering and grief.
“We engage the whole person, very gently, and that enables them to be able to tell their story later on in the retreat.”
The small group setting also helps to build friendships between the participants.
“They grow together, almost like they’ve known each other for a long time, because they’ve all been through a similar experience … it’s really powerful,” Mrs Shier said.
“[Dr Burke] found that the majority of victims wanted to join with others who had suffered the same loss and thereby end the isolation and secrecy.”
Participants are also invited to the Sacrament of Reconciliation on the Saturday night of the retreat.
On Sunday, a memorial service for children who have died through abortion is held, followed by a special Mass of Entrustment for them.
For Jenny Shier, volunteering her time to contribute to Rachel’s Vineyard continues to be rewarding.
The Floreat-Wembley parishioner said she had learnt that miracles still happen.
“I’ve seen [people] change over the course of the weekend,” she said.
“They walk in at the beginning of the weekend, all very scared … When they leave on the Sunday after lunch they look years younger and they’re happy.
“I’ve learnt an awful lot from the women because they suffer in silence and they try to get on with their lives, but this secret that they try to ignore won’t let them have any peace.
“The human condition is exactly the same now as it was in biblical times – people need healing and Rachel’s Vineyard provides psychological and spiritual healing.”
And no matter how many late night or early morning phone calls she gets, Mrs Shier will continue to answer the call.
“It’s the best work in the world to be involved in because you see the transformation in people … It’s a beautiful ministry to be involved in,” she said.
The Rachel’s Vineyard weekend retreats in WA for 2013 will be held on June 14–16 and September 6–8.
If you would like to volunteer your time to assist the work of Rachel’s Vineyard, you can contact Jenny Shier on (08) 9445 7464 or via email: [email protected]