For Lani McCarry, being Catholic means taking action for life and justice in big and small ways
Lani McCarry remembers praying like never before. It was 1980, and she was driving a young acquaintance to an abortion clinic in an industrial neighborhood near Seattle-Tacoma International Airport.
“Mary” was young, single and pregnant, and the baby’s father wasn’t in the picture. Because she knew and trusted Lani (pronounced “Lanny”) and her husband Greg, for whom Mary worked, she had come to them for help. She wanted an abortion.
The pro-life Catholic couple tried to talk her out of it. They offered to let her live with them and pay her to watch their 1-year-old daughter, Sarah. They would support Mary through her pregnancy and help her have the baby adopted.
Still, Mary wanted an abortion. But she had no one to go with her for the procedure. “I said, ‘Greg, I can’t do this. I can’t be morally culpable,’” McCarry recalled. “And he said, ‘Lani, she has no one else.’”
Driving Mary to the abortion clinic in Seattle from Kitsap County, “I prayed to every saint I could think of,” McCarry recalled.
When they arrived, she told Mary to wait in the car while she checked the clinic out. Her gut churning, McCarry took one look at the place and knew she couldn’t let the young woman go in there.
But when McCarry returned to the car, Mary had decided she couldn’t go through with the abortion. Instead, McCarry was at her side several months later when she delivered her baby, who was later adopted.
McCarry is grateful that she could help Mary choose life.
“Social justice begins in the womb. I absolutely believe that without a doubt,” McCarry said. “If you don’t believe that, what’s the point of the rest of social justice?”
“From that stems the care of others,” she added. McCarry’s care for others over the years has included working with the homeless, mentally ill and those with developmental disabilities; organizing a low-income food bank and tutoring young readers.
“Coming out of the culture I came from, it’s hard to turn my back on anyone,” she explained. “To be Catholic is to be merciful.”
Born in Brooklyn, New York, McCarry was 5 when she moved with her family to Tacoma, where they attended St. Patrick Parish.
McCarry went to Catholic schools from kindergarten through high school and praises the Tacoma Dominican sisters who taught her. “People say, ‘Oh, all that Catholic guilt.’ I always say, ‘No. They taught us how to form a good conscience,’” McCarry said.
Life for McCarry and her family revolved around their Catholic community. She and her two brothers and two sisters were friends with the same kids at school and church. Her mother was a Brownie leader and a room mother, and her dad pitched in with projects like painting classrooms. It was a community that taught her about respect and helping others, she said.
“You just knew that you were supposed to help people because you were more fortunate,” McCarry said. Not rich, just more fortunate. “I hope I’ve carried that ethic into my work.”
After graduating from Jesuit-run Santa Clara University in 1969, McCarry went to work as a teller at Bank of America and began a yearlong teaching certification program. She quickly decided not to finish the program but continued in the banking field and eventually moved into management.
She met Greg in 1971, and they married in 1975 (she proposed to him). A few years later, Greg’s work meant a move to Kitsap County. Over the years, Lani McCarry has worked in banking, teaching and real estate (today, she is a realtor in Sequim) and the family has lived in several Puget Sound-area cities.
Lani McCarry (left) prays outside of a Planned Parenthood clinic in Sequim on Jan. 21 as part of a vigil organized by her parish’s Respect Life Ministry. Photo: Stephen Brashear
Wherever they have lived, McCarry has been involved in some form of church ministry. “Every person, whether they are Catholic or not, needs to look into their own soul and say, ‘What can I do even in a small way that can make the world a better place to live in?’” she said.
At St. James Cathedral in Seattle, where the McCarrys were parishioners for several years, she volunteered with the Emmaus Companions, which offered welcome and assistance to those coming into St. James who seemed to need extra support, particularly the homeless or those with mental illness.
It’s not a ministry for everyone, but McCarry was very good at it, said Patty Bowman, who started the program. “So much of it is a listening ear, somebody who will stop and listen and just be with the person,” she said. “You have to have a good sense of boundaries, obviously, but also a big open heart.”
McCarry also helped revitalize the food bank at the Frye Apartments in Seattle, back when the Archdiocesan Housing Authority (now Catholic Housing Services) ran the low-income housing complex. She turned the Frye’s depleted and dingy pantry into a redecorated, café-like space that residents could visit to receive a wide selection of foods.
“She took on real ownership of the food bank,” said Kirby Brown, the Frye’s program director at the time who had recruited childhood friend McCarry as a volunteer. “She used her own energy and contacts to reach out for both funds and food donations.
“Her regular personal presence at the Frye was always uplifting for staff and tenants and it markedly improved what the food bank could offer,” Brown said in an email.
“Each person has their own mission in life, what they feel that they can do, and I always felt my gift and my energy is to organize,” McCarry explained.
Since moving to Sequim, she has used those organizational skills to start a Respect Life group at her parish, St. Joseph.
“She’s the type of person you want as a leader because she gives us direction and energy but she includes everyone,” said Mary Mitchell, communications coordinator for the Respect Life group. “This is her passion as far as, ‘What can I do for
The group holds a weekly prayer vigil outside the Planned Parenthood clinic in Sequim, shares pro-life pamphlets and emails, spreads the word about available pregnancy resources such as the parish’s Gabriel Project, and organizes talks on a wide range of subjects like advanced directives for the dying.
“We’re a tiny group, but we have a mighty voice,” McCarry said.
She also is a key organizer of her parish’s Memorial for the Unborn, held on Respect Life Sunday each October. “The last three or four years, every memorial we’ve done, a woman has come up to us in tears because she had an abortion,” McCarry said. Volunteers listen, mention the option for the sacrament of reconciliation, and give information about Project Rachel, a Catholic post-abortion ministry.
“We want them just to realize that God loves them right where they’re at, no matter what they’ve done in the past,” said Joyce Kirsch, Gabriel Project coordinator at St. Joseph Parish.
“It’s just so important that we represent what we believe in a really loving, compassionate and merciful way,” McCarry said, referring not just to the Respect Life committee, but to all Catholics.
“I wish people could just sit down and talk to each other and realize abortion is not about women’s choice,” she said. “It’s about protecting the most vulnerable of us. And if we don’t provide that protection, what does that say about us as people?”
Protecting the vulnerable
McCarry’s volunteer work goes beyond church ministry. She is a reading tutor at a local elementary school. As a member of Clallam County’s Business Leadership Advisory Committee, she works to integrate people with disabilities into the community and the workforce. It’s a mission close to her heart because her brother-in-law Patrick is developmentally disabled. He lives in California, so she and Greg manage his care long-distance.
“I can’t be pro-life and neglect him,” McCarry said. “It all works together, because he is vulnerable. The baby is vulnerable. The elderly are vulnerable.”
McCarry’s close friend Claudia Pétursson praises McCarry for “her absolute love of the human person and her respect for their dignity, which motivates her heart of service.”
The women met while working on master’s degrees at Seattle University. After becoming Catholic as an adult, Pétursson intellectually accepted being anti-abortion, but said it was McCarry who “converted my heart to the ethic of life.”
She has also seen McCarry living out her Catholic faith both in her work at the Frye food bank and with Emmaus Companions. Pétursson recalled once leaving a service at St. James Cathedral with McCarry and coming across a man with schizophrenia who McCarry knew through Emmaus Companions.
“He wasn’t looking too good,” Pétursson said. But McCarry greeted him and asked how he was doing. “I don’t understand why people are afraid of this,” McCarry said to Pétursson afterwards. “This is our Catholic faith. We don’t have a choice. The decision has been made for us.”
“Everybody has human dignity. That’s the bottom line with her,” Pétursson said.
The friends meet monthly for lunch and conversation, often on spirituality. “I would say she’s someone who stands up really strongly for her beliefs, but always is merciful to the person she is confronting,” said Pétursson, a pastoral assistant at Holy Family Parish in Kirkland.
McCarry does not see her ministry work as unique.
“There are so many parishes with what I call the unsung heroes of all of these ministries,” she said. “They just do what they know needs to be done.”
And she believes service is key to living out her
“Every single day people can do the smallest thing and they never know the impact that they have,” she said. “It’s about being kind.”
Northwest Catholic - March 2016
Anna Weaver is the multimedia, online and social media editor for Northwest Catholic. She also writes for the magazine and website.