A voice for life

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When it comes to sharing God's message, Gloria Purvis is not afraid to speak her mind.

"I'm no shrinking violet," she said. "I never have been."

That outgoing personality has proven to be invaluable for Purvis, a parishioner of Christ the King Church in Silver Spring, Md., who has dedicated much of her life to sharing church teaching on life and sexuality in the public forum. As a public speaker, she's given talks at youth conferences and on television news shows. And, in 2012, she helped host the EWTN television show "Authentically Free at Last," which discussed societal issues like marriage, abortion, contraception and forming a Catholic conscience.

Though living her faith in public was never something Purvis planned, she strongly believes she's in the right place. Looking back, she can see how God has led her every step of the way.

Faith at a young age

Though Purvis did not grow up in a Catholic family, she converted at an early age after a powerful experience while attending a Catholic elementary school in Charleston, S.C.

When she was 12 years old, she remembers a food fight breaking out one day during lunch. Though she and her classmates cleaned up the mess following the fight, their teacher - a religious sister - was furious. Instead of teaching religion after lunch, she brought the children to the chapel for an hour of adoration of the Blessed Sacrament. That hour laid the groundwork for a lifetime of faith for Purvis.

"At that time, I had what I would call a mystical experience with the Eucharist," she said. "I remember just coming to know it was real, that it was alive, and feeling like I was consumed with a fire all over my body, but it didn't burn."

Shortly after that afternoon, Purvis remembers that same teacher making an announcement about confirmation preparation. At that time, Purvis asked if she could become Catholic. Her teacher told her to ask her parents.

"I went home and didn't ask them, I told them," Purvis said.

In exchange, her parents told Purvis she would have to do everything Catholics do - attending Mass on Sundays and holy days of obligation, praying the rosary, and fasting on Fridays. They never thought Purvis would stick with it, but she did. Because she had been so convinced during her adoration experience, Purvis practiced the faith regularly in the years that followed. Though her parents never converted, her sisters later did and her family always was supportive.

Purvis brought her faith practice with her to Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y., where she studied human development and family studies. Though her university was liberal and Purvis was not involved in any kind of campus ministry, she said she never felt much resistance to her Catholic faith.

"Part of it was my own naivete, how little I knew of evil and understood the challenges to living a Christian life," she said. "I was just very unaware of how there were people that hated the church and hated Jesus. I was very naive for a very long time."

She graduated from Cornell in 1990, married her college sweetheart in 1996 and moved to Washington. As time passed, she became aware of the many cultural and social challenges facing the church. Today, she looks back on herself during that time as an "in the pew Catholic" who didn't put her beliefs into action. It wasn't until several years later that a second conversion experience would stir her into action once and for all.

A call to action

Purvis attended St. Augustine Church in Washington. One day, while at Mass, she remembers having another "mystical experience" while reciting the creed.

"I was chased and struck down to be convicted," she said. "I thought, 'How can I believe this when I'm doing nothing to protect the gifts of life that are being obliterated?' I fell to my knees and let's just say that from that moment, I had a hunger and desire to learn what the church taught about human sexuality and marriage and it set me seeking to learn why the church teaches what it teaches."

Newly convicted, Purvis and her husband got to work educating their fellow parishioners about church teaching on life and sexuality. They worked through the parish social justice committee to plan pro-life discussion groups and activities. They also took control of the young adults' community, which grew under their leadership from eight people to 100.

"The Lord blessed our ministry work," she said. "I think God was telling us, 'Don't let the people stay in darkness. Let the light shine on them so they can understand.' He blessed everything we did so that it just expanded and expanded."

The more she dedicated herself to ministry, the more doors opened up for her. She remembers many occasions where random encounters or meetings - sometimes on planes or even in fast-food restaurants - led to new career or ministry opportunities.

In the years to follow, Purvis became involved with many pro-life and Catholic organizations. Among other things, she became involved with the Northwest Pregnancy Center and Maternity Home in Washington, the Maryland Catholic Conference's Respect for Life Department, the National Black Catholic Congress' Leadership Commission on Social Justice, Black Catholics United for Life, and the Sisters for Life.

Purvis also became a public speaker, presenting at youth conferences and on Catholic Answers Live Radio, EWTN's "Life on the Rock" and ABC's "World News Tonight" with Peter Jennings. A video of one of her talks, as part of an all-woman panel at the Catholic Information Center in Washington following the HHS mandate last spring, has received more than 40,000 views on YouTube. In 2012, Purvis teamed with Deacon Harold Burke-Sivers and Damon Owens to host "Authentically Free at Last" on EWTN. The show aired 13 episodes.

Because she speaks on human sexuality and life issues, Purvis occasionally faces resistance or hostility. She sees these experiences as positive opportunities to share church teaching in an intelligent way with people who may have never heard it.

"Honestly, rewarding for me is when someone who disagrees with the church's teachings starts to ask you questions in this public forum and it's like, they're hearing what I'm saying and those people who don't agree get to hear an intelligent response to whatever it is that has deceived them," she said. "I've been to places where I've been yelled at. I'm like, 'Good. That means they're hearing what I'm saying.'"

Though the work is challenging, she enjoys making connections with other Catholics and trying to lead them to God.

"(I enjoy) talking to people afterward to hear, 'I'm going through this, please pray for me,' and being able to do this spiritual work of prayer and sacrifice," she said. "The work is hard. You toil for love of God and love of neighbor. What we do is confronting evil and that is a very tiresome task."

Though none of her involvements or accomplishments were in her plans, Purvis believes she was led to them all by God.

"From seeking and searching, I think God really took a step toward me," she said. "None of this was calculated, it all just sort of happened. … I was making friends and from there trying to do this service to the Lord and things just started falling into place. This is something only God could have done."

'Run toward the Lord'

Though Purvis is not afraid of the spotlight, she has no interest in becoming a Catholic personality or celebrity spokeswoman.

"I don't like being recognized anywhere because then it's about me and not about Jesus," she said. "It's not about me, none of it is about me. I'm not anybody special at all, I'm struggling just like anybody else in my journey toward heaven. If anything, we are all in this together, so let's hold hands and run toward the lord."

Still, she is open to following God's will for her life, whatever that may be. Right now, she is embracing her new role as a stay-at-home mom after working for years in the finance industry. Her daughter, Lourdes, is 28 months old.

Becoming a mother has changed Purvis' perspective on the faith and given her much to contemplate about God's love and the unique roles of men and women.

"It made me really contemplate the love of the Father in ways I can't describe, and the love of Mary and how in her body she carried God, how she was a mom to God," Purvis said. "I know the tremendous love I feel for my daughter and the desire to protect her and keep her safe. Definitely Mary had that instinct as well, but how she also loved the rest of us."

For other Catholics trying to grow in the faith, she recommends spending time in adoration and frequent sacraments.

"You have got to avail yourself with the sacrament of reconciliation," she said. "Go once a week if you can. If you can go at least once a month, that's great."

In her faith life, Purvis said she's received great inspiration from spiritual reading , especially the works of St. Teresa of Avila, St. Catherine of Sienna and St. Francis de Sales.

"These books are like they're talking to you about the spiritual life and growing in holiness," she said. "I get lost in these books. Especially when they talk to you about sin, it fries my wig. It's almost like they're smacking me in the face."

More than anything else, she suggests prayer and offering your life up to God.

"Say, 'Lord, I don't know how you can use me, but You do and I offer myself in that way,'" she said. "He understands our weaknesses and He won't plunge you into something if you're not ready so say, 'Help me with my fear, help me with my anxiety,' and then just go, just do it, just trust."

Bahr can be reached on Twitter@KBahrACH.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2013