Q&A: Theresa Karminski Burke, Founder, Rachel’s Vineyard Ministries, King of Prussia, Pennsylvania
“Real healing doesn’t just restore you to what you used to be. Real healing transforms and makes you better than you used to be.”
By Julie Rattey
Teresa Karminski Burke has been selected by Catholic Digest as one of 12 Catholic heroes — laypeople living and/or working in the United States who are performing exemplary work in the spirit of the Catholic faith. In 1986, Burke founded Rachel’s Vineyard, one of the first therapeutic support groups for women who have had abortions. Today, more than 90 teams in 45 states and 17 countries hold retreat weekends each year to offer healing to women, their families, and those who have been involved in the abortion industry. Catholic Digest recently spoke with Burke, 47, about her work at Rachel’s Vineyard and about her coming project for sexual abuse victims, From Grief to Grace.
CD: What urged you to create the Center for Post Abortion Healing and then the Rachel’s Vineyard retreats?
Burke: Just being aware that there was a problem that was being dreadfully under-addressed and not even acknowledged, and feeling that people who had this wound needed to be listened to and their feelings accepted and explored so that they could heal and move beyond the pain of that trauma. When I first started counseling work, it was coming up as an issue, and I realized that people needed a process for healing.
CD: How does your faith sustain you when you’re doing this work day by day?
Burke: Well, I feel like the faith is the foundation from which I extend myself, and it’s the foundation that’s the success of this ministry. I saw really quickly that what I could offer — or a priest or any counselor, no matter how skilled — is [insufficient] to match the depth of this wound, and so the process of Rachel’s Vineyard is really allowing Jesus to be the healer.
CD: How does a program like Rachel’s Vineyard help not only someone who has gone through an abortion, but that person’s family in general?
Burke: Well, I think being able to expose the problem, which most people don’t talk about, being able to explore the ways that it has impacted the relationship, and usually that involves a tremendous amount of reconciliation, because there’s anger, there’s grief, there are feelings of shame. A lot of abortions are done to please the family because they’re trying to avoid scandal or embarrassment, or they’re down-out pressured and driven by their parent to a clinic. So there’s just tremendous brokenness in family relationships.
CD: I can imagine that though many people need someone to talk to about their abortion experience, many are also hesitant to open up about such a delicate topic or to attend an event that might heal them. How do you encourage people to get involved with the program?
Burke: I would say that all of our growth has come because of word of mouth. I would say that those who’ve been healed in this program are its greatest advocates. I just got home from Ireland last night. We had a huge (Rachel’s Vineyard leadership) conference over there for all the European countries and all the sites that are starting. You could hear a pin drop when people got up to give their testimonies of where they had been and what Rachel’s Vineyard had done for them. We’re really talking about an experience of resurrection that’s completely, profoundly life-changing — you know, people who had been in psychiatric wards and with suicide attempts, (coming) from the brink of destruction back to this place where they’re the ones leading the conference, they’re the ones starting up these sites. Real healing doesn’t just restore you to what you used to be — like reclaim your peace and your joy. Real healing transforms and makes you better than you used to be. And the ultimate healing is someone who then is completely invested — and I don’t just mean interested, I mean on fire — in spreading the kingdom of God, and I think that’s the phenomenon of Rachel’s Vineyard.
CD: Is it mostly Catholics who come to Rachel’s Vineyard?
Burke: Our retreat is rooted in Catholicism, but because so many people of so many faiths were coming for the healing, and some of them wanted to bring it back to their church, we just made another manual for interdenominational use. That’s growing rapidly now, the interdenom group, but I would say the majority of the sites are Catholic. We don’t have an agenda to proselytize — it’s just healing from Jesus — but as a result of that healing experience, people want to know a whole lot more about where it came from. And I can’t even count the number of people who have returned to the Church as a result.
CD: You’re starting a new program, from Grief to Grace, for people who have suffered sexual abuse. How did that get started?
Burke: Well, that’s been on my heart for a while — easily over a decade. In all my retreat work, I’ve never been on a retreat where at least half the people there weren’t sexually abused, so I saw abortion as an extension of abuse and a symptom of abuse. That doesn’t mean all abortions are rooted in that — some are bad counseling, coercion, pressure, you name it — but I saw that it was a huge problem. Then when the abuse scandal broke out in the Church, I thought, The lawsuits will never stop until the Church engages in some work of healing. Anyone who goes through Grief to Grace is saying, “This is going to spread faster than Rachel’s Vineyard,” because they know there’s such a need, and there’s not much out there that does ministry from a spiritual perspective.
CD: When did you officially start Grief to Grace?
Burke: Well, it’s being piloted by a number of dioceses. Right now there’s a huge demand for it, but I need to do some development of an infrastructure. I need to develop trainers, and that’s what I’m doing right now, so that when we’re ready to launch it, we have enough help. So you can invite people’s prayers that God sends the people and the gifts and the resources that we need so that we can spread this and meet the demand, because I tell you, I have a database of thousands of people who have asked for it.
CD: How has your work affected your own faith life, your own family life?
Burke: Well, I think that the work has enhanced my life, because I see miracles all the time, so I could never question the power of God to do anything with the most hopeless case. And then, just hearing the woundedness that can be caused in the home … forever sears into my mind the importance of imparting love and affirmation and faith to our children — making them so special, and a priority. God gave every one of us very powerful gifts to advance his kingdom, and the Evil One will do anything he can to destroy and distort, whether that’s abuse, abortion — it’s his goal to pull us off our destiny and our vocation that God intends. So to me there is no greater, more important work than the work of healing. And I really mean that at the foundational level, because when those gifts are freed, the kingdom can advance. CD
A closer look at Theresa Burke
- Favorite book: “I really like the book Having a Mary Heart in a Martha World, and I love anything by Mother Teresa, and another nice little book, God Calling.”
- Favorite music: “I play the banjo — bluegrass. My kids all play violin and so we play fiddle music. I started playing that when I was a teenager. I don’t have a lot of time, but I play in the summer when we’re up in the mountains. I think my favorite thing is sitting around the campfire playing and singing music up in the mountains.”
- Favorite thing to do with your family: Theresa and her husband Kevin, a licensed social worker and family therapist who works with Theresa in her ministry, have five children ranging in age from 8 to 20. “We like to go to the mountains, and we go biking and hiking and sailing and kayaking. All that nature, wilderness stuff. My favorite thing in the world is skiing; it’s my drug.”
- Who are your heroes? “Mother Teresa.”
- Favorite way to relax: “Bike riding and walking and talking.”
- Best advice you’ve ever received: “I [find] great comfort and strength in St. Thérèse’s Little Way.”
Theresa Burke is the author of Forbidden Grief: The Unspoken Pain of Abortion, a definitive work on helping to understand the depth of post-abortion trauma.