The following appeared in slightly different form in Celebrate Life, May-June 2002.

Practicing What They Preach:
The Gabriel Project Churches

Logo of Gabriel Project, with Angel Gabriel in background and mother and child in foreground

Mary Meehan

You may have seen the large signs outside of churches in Maryland or other states. "Pregnant? Need Help?" they ask. "We offer immediate and practical help to any woman faced with a crisis pregnancy."

The signs, bearing a hotline number, are referring to the interfaith Gabriel Project. Started in Texas some years ago, the project is named for the Angel Gabriel and stresses his words to the Virgin Mary about her pregnancy and that of her cousin Elizabeth: "Do not be afraid...nothing is impossible with God."

Paul Mulligan, a married father of three who heads the Gabriel Project in Maryland, recalled a pregnant women who had "been thrown out of her house" by her parents and "was pretty desperate." She saw a Gabriel Project sign and called the referral line from a pay telephone. The Project quickly linked her with a church that found her a home with a "shepherding family." Church members then helped the young woman and her host family with transportation, groceries, and babysitting. The young mother later said she had found hope in the Gabriel Project "when I thought all hope was lost."

Mulligan's office works closely with pregnancy aid centers, often referring a woman first to one of the 45 centers in Maryland and the District of Columbia. "We go right back to the pregnancy centers for the things they do best," he said.

Often, though, a woman needs support throughout her pregnancy and beyond. This is where a church's Gabriel Project volunteers, who are called "angel friends," step in. Their steady friendship and support, Mulligan said, mean that the woman is no longer alone.

The angel friends respect her privacy. They use the church bulletin to request prayers and practical help for her; but the congregation is likely to know only her first name.

Because of their low income, many women with crisis pregnancies qualify for state and county programs such as health insurance and rental assistance. The Gabriel Project helps them obtain such aid, but women often have other material needs. The angel friends may find maternity clothes for them, find drivers to take them to doctors' appointments, and arrange baby showers for them.

Mulligan remarked that the "vast majority" of Gabriel Project clients already have housing, but "just don't know how to put the rest of it together." Some, though, desperately need a place to stay.

Maryland's Gabriel Project is quite strong--with 83 member churches, including a few in Washington, D.C. and southern Pennsylvania. So in addition to dozens of "shepherding homes" with private families, it's able to provide housing in three group-living "Gabriel Homes." The private homes tend to be ideal for teenagers, and the Gabriel Homes for older and more independent women. Gabriel Home residents are either working or in school. They may stay in the homes while pregnant and up to six months after their children are born. They pay rent, but it's fairly low; so the project must also raise money from donors to keep the homes going.

While the Gabriel Project is interfaith, it is specifically Christian. Most churches in the Maryland network are Catholic; but it also includes Baptist, Methodist, and nondenominational Christian churches. Participants, Mulligan said, believe that "this is our living out the've got an opportunity here to really bring Christ out in the world where the clients are."

Gabriel Home residents must attend religious services on Sunday (or whatever Sabbath they observe) and also take part in Scripture studies. Mulligan sees residence in the homes as an opportunity for women, "in almost a retreat sort of way, to explore life's bigger questions and really make some adjustments to their own lives."

How about working with fathers of unborn children and helping them meet their responsibilities? Mulligan said that if there is a man "in the picture," then "we're happy to work with him." A great role for a male Gabriel Project volunteer, he said, "is mentoring another guy."

What advice does he have for people who want to involve their churches in the Gabriel Project? First, he said, the church must have "real regard for human life as seen in mother and child," and that regard must be "unwavering."

Second, the church's pastor must support the program and see it as a real priority.

Third, the church needs a Gabriel Project coordinator and several other volunteers to make the program go. With just four to six truly committed people in a church, Mulligan said, "you can have a really great, great Gabriel Project."