Legislative Update

Gospel of Life award winner: Jack Odgaard

By Tom Venzor 

I first met Jack Odgaard when I was a third-year law student at the University of Nebraska College of Law. The summer prior to meeting Jack, I had taken part in the Blackstone Legal Fellowship sponsored by Alliance Defending Freedom, a not-for-profit legal organization that advocates for the right of people to freely live out their faith.

During my summer with ADF, I spent several weeks in intellectual formation with over a hundred like-minded Christians, all of us aspiring attorneys. We were learning about law and culture from some of the country’s brightest attorneys, professors, and theologians. Part of the formation entailed a six-week job internship. I spent my time just outside of New York City, working for the General Counsel of a religious order, the Legionaries of Christ.     

I distinctly remember a particular Saturday morning. I took the train into White Plains. Once I got off the train, I walked toward the bus stop—I was on my way to the mall, in need of some new running shoes—but I just missed the bus. Initially, I intended to wait for the next bus. But given that it was a beautiful summer morning, I decided to walk to the mall.

Not more than 50 yards from the bus stop, I noticed a bus preparing to pick up passengers. For a second, I forgot about how beautiful the morning was—and remembered how long it was going to take to walk to the mall. In the time it took me to make a firm resolution to run back toward the bus stop, the bus had already departed—par for the course, for an indecisive mind.

I continued walking down Tarrytown Road in White Plains, New York. Out of complete happenstance, I turned to my right and realized that I had stumbled upon a Planned Parenthood. Except for the small sign identifying the abortion mill, the complex was as camouflaged as any other mundane office building in a New York City suburb.

As quickly as I identified the building, I had already decided to keep moving. After all, that’s what you do when you’re on a mission for new running shoes.

But I was promptly stopped in my tracks. I realized that I had never been in the presence of a Planned Parenthood, ever. It was a curious occasion.

I stood, looked at the building, and wondered what to do next. First, I saw a woman walking into the building. I assumed she was a mother entering for an abortion. After watching her enter, I waited for a little while, and then I entered myself. I was curious. I wondered how much an abortion cost. “$500,” said the receptionist behind the bullet proof glass. I thanked her and returned to the sidewalk.

At that point, I almost made my second departure from the building, thinking I had satisfied my curiosity. But a new experience overcame me. My conscience proposed to me in that moment: “Tom, you are confronted by a facility that murders the young and steals the motherhood of women. With not a soul watching, will you not stop and pray?”

It was a powerful moment. I realized in that moment that God was calling for my faithfulness—not to be praised by a single other soul for what I was about to do, but simply to be faithful to the Creator of Life.

I spent the next 45 minutes praying alone outside of the Planned Parenthood, kneeling on the grass in front of the whitewashed abortion mill.

To me, it seemed like the first moment in my life God was testing my own principles and convictions: Was I truly a disciple for the Gospel of Life, or was I only a disciple when being observed by a crowd?

This unintended visit to Planned Parenthood was the backdrop to my second visit to Planned Parenthood. This time the location was radically different: 38th and South streets, Lincoln, Nebraska. I was with my friend, Jeff Kanger. In fact, it was Jeff’s idea to go and pray at Planned Parenthood that morning.

The first person to greet us was Jack Odgaard. His greeting was accompanied by a smile and what seemed to be a game of “20 Questions.” Jack wanted to know all about us: Who were we? Where were we from?

What did we do? Why were we in law school? Why did we come that morning? And so on and so forth.

What seemed like a case of a veteran overly excited at the prospect of some new young blood to join the Tuesday morning prayer vigils turned out to be my first encounter with a man whose heart has been undivided for the cause of human life.

Jack retired in 2007, having returned to Lincoln after living in Portland. Like so many other faithful Christians, Jack asked the Lord for guidance on how best to serve God and his neighbors during retirement. The Lord’s response was a deeper call for Jack to be more heavily involved in the pro-life movement.

At that time, the Planned Parenthood in Lincoln was still located on South Street and performed abortions two days a week. Jack became a consistent presence outside the abortion mill.

In 2008, Jack was further inspired in his pro-life ministry. After attending a workshop by Msgr. Philip Reilly, who was visiting from New York, the Helpers of God’s Precious Infants was formed in Lincoln. The Helpers, of which Jack is a part, have been a prayerful and hopeful presence outside abortion clinics in Lincoln ever since.

Jack has been praying outside Planned Parenthood every single abortion Tuesday from 8 to 11 a.m. since at least 2012.

Jack’s God-given exceptional talents have given him the ability to calm angry and emotional staff and protestors. His welcoming, helpful, encouraging, and Christian demeanor, especially toward those who are new to praying or counseling outside the abortion clinic, have helped many overcome their initial uneasiness of praying outside the abortion mill.

For Jack, love has been a consistent life theme. He has grown to love not only the babies and the women who go into the abortion clinic, but through his own conversion has learned to love the abortionists and the staff as well.

Jack Odgaard’s ministry to the unborn, to mothers in crisis pregnancy, to abortionists and staff, and to the many other sidewalk counselors and prayer warriors, is a ministry that is marked by one who has encountered the merciful gaze of Christ—and desires to transmit that same mercy into the hearts of every single person he encounters.

Never did I think in 2010, when I was walking up to a Planned Parenthood for only the second time in my life, that I was meeting a Christian gentleman who would become a mentor and friend, an inspiration for what it means to live the Gospel of Life with a true sense of joy, in the midst of the culture of death and vale of tears that abortion generates.

The witness of Jack Odgaard—aided by the grace of God, the love of a tremendous family, and the companionship of true friends in Christ—is why the Nebraska Catholic Conference was privileged to honor Jack with our “Gospel of Life Award” at the annual Bishops’ Pro-Life Banquet and Conference.

May God continue to richly bless the pro-life ministry of Jack Odgaard and may his witness continue to transform the hearts, minds, and choices of all those he encounters.

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