Jennifer Neville, Special to The Catholic Virginian

As Peter Barker, a parishioner at St. Matthew Parish, Virginia Beach, prayed outside of Planned Parenthood in Virginia Beach just over a year ago, a woman and her granddaughter pulled into the parking lot of the facility. They sat in the car for about 10 minutes and then drove away, stopping first to tell him, “We’re saving this baby.”

It was a “victory of Christ, plain and simple,” Barker said. 

He connected the women with Hope 4 Life, a Catholic nonprofit mobile crisis pregnancy center based in Hampton Roads, which offers free services such as pregnancy tests, ultrasounds, confidential counseling and information on community resources.

‘They just abort them’

For nearly 50 years, Barker has been on a mission to end abortion. He has worked with pro-life organizations and has prayed with others outside of abortion clinics in Hampton Roads. 

Barker, 87, was born and raised in Queens, New York. He said his pro-life passion can be traced to the strong Catholic foundation his family and Catholic education instilled in him. 

The first time abortion came to his attention was in 1953 when he was returning from Japan, where he had been stationed with the Army during the Korean War. While talking with a friend, he asked “what happened to all of the babies” conceived between American soldiers and Japanese women. His friend responded, “They just abort them.”

 “At that very instant there was no hesitation on my part. I knew that was baby killing. Period,” he said. “I didn’t need an ultrasound. I didn’t need to hear the heartbeat. There was never a doubt in my mind.”

Although outraged, he didn’t engage in pro-life efforts at that time because he was unaware of any movement in the United States to legalize abortion. 

Barker started a construction company specializing in concrete paving and helped build sections of the New York State Thruway and Connecticut Turnpike. In 1957, he married Maureen Gilligan, whom he met at a dance. She died in 2001.

The couple adopted their son Peter in 1964 and daughter Janine in 1968, both as babies. When she was 13 months old, Janine was diagnosed with cerebral palsy. Barker said raising her made him a “better person.” 

The family moved to Maryland in 1969 and Virginia in 1971.

Advocate for life, Divine Mercy

In January 1973, the Supreme Court decision in Roe vs. Wade established a woman’s right to abortion. 

That spring Barker started the nonprofit Southern Hampton Roads Chapter of the Virginia Society for Human Life, which works to protect life from conception to death. 

The day Hillcrest Clinic, which Barker said was the first abortion clinic in southern Hampton Roads, opened in October 1973 on Little Creek Road in Norfolk, he was there looking for the best place to protest, he said. At staggered days and times, he and others advocated for life outside the facility until it closed in 2013. When Planned Parenthood opened on Newtown Road in Virginia Beach in July 2011, he joined pro-life advocates there, too. 

In 2016, after learning of St. Faustina Kowalska of the Blessed Sacrament, Barker shifted his approach. St. Faustina, a Polish nun who lived from 1905 to 1938, had several visions and conversations with Christ in which he emphasized his Divine Mercy. Barker created the Divine Mercy Project to share that message with pregnant women, mothers who have had abortions and abortion clinic workers.

“God cares about every soul,” Barker said. “His love is open to everyone.”

’Super vitamin’

From noon to 3:30 p.m. each Friday, rain or shine, an average of six people, including Barker, are outside Planned Parenthood as part of the Divine Mercy Project. A seven-foot, two-sided image of Christ as he appeared before St. Faustina with the inscription “Jesus, I Trust in You” is staked to the ground.

They have received positive and negative responses to their presence. According to Barker, police have tried to “shut us down” and sometimes drivers shout expletives and “give the finger.” But there have been “far more” positive reactions than negative, he said, such as when drivers give a “thumbs up” or respond to the “Honk for Life” sign or when the residents in the surrounding neighborhood bring them hot chocolate in the winter and iced beverages in the summer.

The protesters pray, hand out the Divine Mercy prayer and attempt to converse with individuals as they pass by or enter and leave the facility parking lot. They encourage pregnant women to get a free ultrasound from Hope 4 Life which is parked nearby. The ultrasounds are done either immediately or scheduled depending on whether an ultrasound tech is on board.

“It’s a beautiful thing when they can see that baby is swimming in there,” said Cheri Britt, co-director of Hope 4 Life.

There were 15,381 babies aborted in Virginia in 2017, said Christine Martinez, a St. Matthew parishioner and a member of the Hope 4 Life board of directors. She added that based on the number of people who sought assistance from Hope 4 Life, “since 2015, through the grace of God, more than 400 babies have been saved from abortion.”

Asserting that 40,000 vehicles pass Planned Parenthood on weekdays, Barker stressed that many more individuals are needed to advocate for life there, especially during rush hour when bumper-to-bumper traffic crawls. 

“If people don’t want to or can’t pray at Planned Parenthood, they can pray at home. They can form prayer groups,” he said. “Praying outside is like a super vitamin.” 

To be part of the Divine Mercy Project, call Barker at 757-361-9229. To be a sidewalk advocate with Hope 4 Life, text or call Cheri Britt at 757-334-6149.