A large, upscale fundraiser occurred at the Virginia Theater in Champaign on Tuesday, May 10th, drawing hundreds of donors who enjoyed a night of music, film, and guest speakers in support of a new local non-profit, Merci’s Refuge.
According to their website, Merci’s Refuge (MR) is “a residential program offered at no cost to women in crisis who desire to arise to their created purpose.” Once enough funds are raised, the directors of MR plan to build a live-in facility for unwed pregnant women, to give them private, supported opportunities “to focus on the root causes that hold them back from reaching their God-given potential.”
The proposed facility can house up to 12 pregnant women ― who will each complete a 9-12 month program ― and several live-in staff. During her stay at MR, a pregnant woman can expect guidance on spiritual, moral, financial, and social issues, as well as hands-on experience learning about nutrition, pre-natal care, parenting, and even entrepreneurship; MR plans to collaborate with local business and charities to teach the pregnant women job and life skills that will help them achieve success after their stay at the facility.
Since the home has limited space and is at zero financial cost to the female residents, MR’s occupants “must forgo many of the freedoms and privileges they may be used to.” Ultimately, Merci’s Refuge aims to help women maintain a healthy pregnancy and become closer to God, and will best serve residents who “truly desire to work hard towards their goals to enjoy and benefit from this program.”
The proposed Merci’s Refuge facility is an affiliate of Living Alternatives, a pro-life pregnancy resource center (PRC) that is “committed to saving the lives of unborn children by promoting life-affirming options and providing practical assistance, while sharing the gospel of Jesus Christ in word and deed, and to minister restoration to those who have been wounded by the trauma of abortion.” Since 1985, Living Alternatives (with locations in Illinois and Indiana) has helped over 4,000 women commit their lives to Christ, and has assisted more than 1,200 women “choose life for their baby after considering abortion.”
The local Living Alternatives PRC, on Wilbur Avenue in Champaign, provides free pregnancy tests and confidential counseling to women who are pregnant or suspect they may be pregnant. In their Statement of Principal the PRC reports they are “committed to creating awareness within the local community of the needs of pregnant women, and of the fact that abortion only compounds human need rather than resolving it.” While the PRC does not refer clients for information on contraception or abortion services, the organization promises, “We absolutely do not coerce or badger any woman into making any type of decision about her baby. We present the truth and it is up to the woman to make any decision concerning the outcome of the pregnancy.”
Champaign PRC’s Executive Director Greta Henry (pictured first right) has worked with pregnant women in a variety of settings for many years. She noticed a gap in services for young pregnant women who wanted to continue their pregnancies, but were experiencing extreme financial, emotional, or social barriers to becoming mothers. While the PRC could help with pregnancy tests, counseling, and even adoption referrals, Henry and her colleagues were at a loss for how to effectively help women stay safe and healthy through the duration of their pregnancies and into motherhood. After working with local families who would temporarily house such women (Henry’s family would even take women in on occasion), she became part of the planning process for what is now the proposed Merci’s Refuge program.
During the MR event on Tuesday, Henry discussed the numerous women she would counsel who felt scared or hopeless, many who had nowhere to sleep at night. Merci’s Refuge, which is based off a successful similar program in Tennessee, would become the safe haven for women to live and learn about motherhood and God, while creating new skills to ensure the health of their future family.
The Merci’s Refuge fundraising events occurred throughout the day on Tuesday. Donors who committed $1,000–$25,000 to the cause were treated to a private dinner and book signing with former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee early in the evening.
At a small press event at the Hilton Garden Inn, Huckabee fielded questions about considering another run for president and whether Planned Parenthood deserves funding. And he expressed his admiration for the mission of Merci’s Refuge:
Merci’s Refuge is a refuge for not just the baby but the birth mom … [S]ometimes we put such a focus on protecting the unborn child … but there also has to be a real sense of regard for the life of the birth mother. This is not a person we are upset with or angry with; this is a person who needs love, needs acceptance … and [who should be] reminded that they are very special. An important message for them is that they have not lost the love of God. Sometimes people go through such guilt, and such anguish and even shame, but they need to know that by deciding to keep their baby they have made a wonderful decision … [T]hey have decided to give life, and that is a very admirable and laudable decision they have made, and they should be loved for that.
Later, the main fundraising event at the Virginia Theater began with an introduction from Emcees Tim Sinclair and Pam Peoples of WBGL‘s The Morning Show, and a prayer led by MR’s executive staff. The Tons O’ Fun Band warmed the crowd with live music, and even showcased Mike Huckabee as a guest bass player during their final song, “Soul Man.” Merci’s Refuge Executive Director Greta Henry took the stage to show a locally-filmed video that portrayed the shame, fear, hopelessness and abuse that young pregnant women face in Champaign-Urbana. After describing the drastic need for a home like MR, she introduced Mike Huckabee as the Keynote Speaker.
Huckabee began the hour-long speech by joking he would not yet announce his run for presidency because, “I don’t have my birth certificate with me,” and later humorously recapped his experiences with low name and face recognition during his 2008 run for president, once being mistaken for Bob Dole during a speaking tour. His talk spanned several topics and numerous anecdotes, including stories from his childhood and his ability to transcend the assumed fate of generations of uneducated ancestors through hard work to become Arkansas’ 44th Governor.
Former-governor Huckabee described the founding fathers’ definition of life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness. and each person’s unalienable rights as granted by their creator – “whether an unborn child or an elderly person in a nursing home” – as the backbone for how to understand and value individual worth. He continued:
The reason I am pro-life is because if we ever come to the place where we believe some lives are worth more than others … we have to have a criteria on what we base that. … The argument for taking the life of an unborn child is that the birth mother has an economic problem and can’t afford the child; … [she faces] social challenges; … [a baby] might mess a relationship up; … she might not be emotionally prepared or equipped. I want you to follow the logic here. Once we decide there is a life that is worth less than another and … we create criteria … then we have determined the reason we can end this life is because of economic conditions or social disruption. That is what we have essentially said in this country when we have an abortion-on-demand mindset. Here’s the problem: If we can set that as the criteria for a child that has not been born, then that criteria, in essence, has now been set for all stages of life. And if someday we trained the generation coming after us that it is okay to end a person’s life because it would represent economic hardship or social inconvenience or dysfunction … one day that generation … will be our caretakers when we are very old, and we will represent to them an economic hardship and a social disruption.
After defining the “sanctity of life” – which, according to Huckabee, begins at the moment of conception — as a moral issue instead of a political one, he highlighted the local absence of services for a scared, unwed pregnant woman. He asked,
Where does she go? Does she go to some place where … they will do everything they can to encourage her to end the life of the child? Because it’s a very lucrative business. Several hundred dollars to have an abortion, and almost all of it is pure profit. Is that where she will go? … [Do] you want her to talk to … somebody who will talk her into an abortion so they can make a few bucks off of her and leave her emotionally and physically scarred for the rest of her life? Or do you hope there’s someone she can talk to who will love her … cry with her … provide medical tests to see if she’s pregnant … and help her think through the steps of what she can do … and lead her through the steps of an adoption instead of an abortion?
Merci’s Refuge, according to Huckabee, is the answer to these questions because, although the pregnancy may be unplanned or unwanted by the mother, it wasn’t unplanned or unwanted by God. He asked the audience to help fund the no-cost facility where a pregnant woman will find “love and affirmation” instead of “judgment and condemnation.”
“It’s one thing to say we’re pro-life … [but] we can open our hearts, wallets and checkbooks and [give] generously so that a child will be saved. … I don’t ever think there will be a time in a downturned economy where we will downturn our compassion,” he concluded, as he encouraged donors to spare any support they could offer to “affirm life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness for an unborn baby.”
After a standing ovation, the executive staff of Merci’s Refuge announced the fundraising goal required to build and open the first-of-its-kind residential facility in Champaign. Six hundred thousand dollars will ensure the launch of MR, but the desired $2 million in funds will guarantee that the home will be adequately staffed and supported during its first years of operation.
Attendees left the event with a program that included donation information, a floor plan for the MR facility, and information about the numerous services and partnerships MR plans to provide its residents.
A final count of funds raised has not yet been reported, but those interested in donating to Merci’s Refuge, whether monetarily or in-kind, can contact Terry Lipscomb, Director of Fundraising Development.