MILWAUKEE — Though it can be frustrating and discouraging work, Matthew Von Rueden finds his commitment to the pro-life movement renewed at the annual March for Life.

Participating in the 2007 March for Life in Washington D.C. as a Marquette University High School senior inspired Matthew Von Rueden to make pro-life advocacy his life’s work. Von Rueden, second from the left, is pictured with fellow Marquette University High School students. (Submitted photo courtesy Matthew Von Rueden)

Whether it’s the national march in Washington, D.C. in the end of January or a smaller local event like the Chicago March for Life held earlier in the month, for Von Rueden, the experience is a source of inspiration and strength – “a mini-retreat,” said Van Rueden, now the Development Director for Pro-Life Wisconsin.

“Just having that enthusiasm and energy and being a part of so many people marching, that’s always kind of helped propel my daily work,” he told the Catholic Herald.

It was, after all, at the national March for Life in 2007 that the then-Marquette University High School student realized his future would include some form of activism to promote the legal protection of the unborn.

Raised in a Catholic home, Von Rueden and his three younger sisters “were always taught the pro-life message, but we didn’t really take much action aside from the Life Chain once a year,” he said. While at MUHS, he became active in the Hilltoppers Defending Life club and as a senior traveled to the National March for Life in Washington, D.C.

Held every year since 1973 to coincide with the anniversary of Roe vs. Wade, the March for Life draws hundreds of thousands of people from all over the country to protest the Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion on-demand.

Though organizers say it is the world’s largest pro-life demonstration, the march receives scant coverage in the national secular media.

Being there in person for the first time a decade ago “helped me to realize the pro-life movement is just so strong just in sheer numbers,” he said.

“We lined up on the lawn of the National Mall, and from there we went onto the street and marched up the Hill, past the Capitol, into the Supreme Court,” he said. “As we were going up the Hill next to the Capitol, I just remember looking back and being so amazed that there was just not an end – literally not an end to the people in sight.

“Having that kind of support and knowing that I’m a part of something so much larger than just my own beliefs and myself, that was really what made a huge impact for me in that first March for Life.”

March ‘creates leaders’

It’s not uncommon for these large-scale events to leave that kind of impression on a young person just forming his or her worldview, said Marie Mansfield, faculty moderator of Hilltoppers Defending Life.

“I believe that many students come back with a renewed passion and commitment to help build the culture of life within the school but also within the community and even the world,” she said.

The Hilltoppers Defending Life group is still going strong with 14 core members who meet up to four times each week to discuss issues, pray and plan their activism. Their focus is on all pro-life issues, including poverty, homelessness and capital punishment. Twelve of the group members will travel to Washington this week for the 2017 march.

After attending last year’s march with the students, Mansfield said she felt a “profound sense of peace” because of the event’s emphasis on communal prayer and solidarity. That left its mark on her students as well.

Matthew Von Rueden, development director for Pro-Life Wisconsin, is pictured with his wife, Sophia, and son, Francis in this photo taken in 2015. (Submitted photo courtesy Matthew Von Rueden)

“Hopefully they even feel empowered to advocate for life. I think sometimes that’s scary to have sort of a position that may be the minority position, depending on what group you’re with,” she said. “I think they come back empowered realizing that they’re part of a huge group of people that love life.”

Von Rueden’s boss, state director of Pro-Life Wisconsin Dan Miller, agreed the experience of attending a March for Life can be “crucial in galvanizing these young leaders.”

“Whether they go on into pro-life work or not, the beautiful thing about it is it encourages them to stand up for something,” he said. “Whether they stand up for themselves later on or for somebody else, or for a cause … it creates leaders, and I think that’s one of the best things about it.”

Finding ‘a calling’ at Pro-Life Wisconsin

Von Reuden stayed involved in pro-life work while pursuing undergraduate studies at St. Louis University, where he would become the president of the campus chapter of Students for Life during his junior year.

During that time, the Students for Life sought to “foster a culture of life” on campus by increasing resources for students who were pregnant or had small children. They established the university’s Pregnant and Parenting Student Endowment to assist student parents in continuing their education, and established several designated breastfeeding rooms around campus.

For Von Reuden and other march alumni, this outreach to at-risk pregnant women and struggling mothers is one of the most crucial aspects of pro-life work. Pro-Life Wisconsin always begins its stay in Washington with a stop at a local Planned Parenthood, to pray and act as sidewalk counselors.

“We want to help people experience what it means to be a part of this pro-life movement and to be that loving message, that life-affirming message,” he said.

After achieving a master’s degree in theology from Boston College and marrying Sophia in 2012, Von Rueden worked as a teacher at a Catholic high school in Chicago. But he felt drawn to a different path, and a job opening as development director at Pro-Life Wisconsin seemed like the perfect fit. The couple relocated to the Milwaukee area and reside in Oconomowoc, where they are parishioners at St. Jerome Church.

Miller said Von Rueden “filled a crucial void” in the organization as development director, saying that pro-life work is the young man’s “vocation.” “You can tell being around him – it’s completely a calling,” said Miller.

Chicago march has ‘large-march’ feel

Now a husband and father, Von Reuden is not always able to make the trip to Washington to participate in the national March for Life. But he has helped to bolster Pro-Life Wisconsin’s presence at one of the march’s regional affiliates in Chicago, which took place this year on Jan. 15.

“This March for Life Chicago has grown tremendously in the last number of years, and there were between 5,000 and 10,000 people in downtown Chicago this year,” said Von Reuden.

He described the 1.25-mile Chicago march as more manageable and affordable but equally affirming trip for those who, like him, cannot always commit to a four-day bus trip out to the East Coast.

“It really still has that large-march feel that gets people energized for the rest of the year,” said Von Rueden of the Chicago March for Life. “It’s very family-friendly, youth-friendly, virtually anyone can participate, even elderly people who can handle a two-hour bus ride.”

Miller credits Von Rueden with bolstering Pro-Life Wisconsin’s presence at the Chicago march. “That was really Matt’s brainchild,” he said.

Three years ago for their first participation, one Pro-Life Wisconsin bus chauffeured 50 attendees from one pickup location in Brookfield. In 2017, that number had grown to seven busses carrying 308 participants from 11 pickup locations throughout the state.

Though those numbers are encouraging, Miller and Von Rueden are still waiting for the day when there are no more marches.

“The prayer for us always and everywhere is to not have to go back – that one day, as impossible as it may seem, Roe will be overturned,” said Miller. “That’s the reason we exist. We’re here to work ourselves out of a job.”

“I don’t want to be working at Pro-Life Wisconsin. I want this to end,” said Von Rueden. “We’re working for the end of abortion. There are many little victories along the way but we always want to keep that main goal in mind with everything we’re doing.”