This past week, I went to the wake of a woman who was born in 1925. As her son, Ed Mechmann, a New York lawyer who is active in the pro-life movement, wrote to friends, “Her family was with her at the end. It was a peaceful, holy death, of a good Christian woman.” On such occasions, at the passing of someone who lived a good and long life, you wish you could have present during her last days to ask questions — to download the wisdom of 86 years. But she leaves us her legacy in the dedication of her family, who cared for her in her final years, and who work tirelessly for church and community.
As I stood waiting for the train back to Manhattan, I got word that Jon Scharfenberger, coordinator of Pregnant on Campus and campus-support coordinator for Students for Life of America, had died from injuries suffered in a car accident. He was born in 1989.
I still can hear Kristan Hawkins, executive director at Students for Life: “You’ve got to meet Jon, K-Lo. He’s awesome.” And when Kristan says “awesome,” she actually means the word seriously: self-sacrificial, a leader, tenacious in the cause of saving lives and helping others lead good ones.
I never did manage to meet Jon, although I had connected a person or two to him during his short tenure at Students for Life.
Jon’s job was to be a conduit for support and healing, and he was part of a generation of builders. As one missionary (that’s the official title) with the Fellowship of Catholic University Students at New York University put it to me recently, “We’re like the Early Church.” Shining a light, being beacons. Building. Educating. Not only walking the walk, but walking with their brothers and sisters — walking with people who may be lost without solid examples of successful marriages that make them feel capable of the same.
Shunned and feeling totally alone when an unexpected pregnancy brings with it only the lie of the rhetoric of choice, young women — abandoned by boyfriend or husband, abandoned by family and friends — often see only one option. For these women, in pain and confusion, Jon and so many like him in this life-filled generation are offering good news, support, and their own witness.
“One of the first nights after we had moved in,” Charles Atkinson tells me, “we stayed up late into the night discussing what the nature of the good life is.” Charles was Jon’s roommate last year at Ave Maria University in Florida. “This was the first of many conversations I had with Jon about finding happiness, what real success consists of, and following the will of God. Jon was dogged when it came to finding the right path and following it. He had a healthy discontent with the state of things both in his own life and in the culture around him, which led him to always search for more.”
Explaining the position Jon would take with Students for Life of America — a non-lucrative and exhausting one, requiring hours of travel most weeks — Charles tells me that Jon wanted to “change the culture.” His job was dedicated to achieving a world without abortion, one campus at a time.
According to the Guttmacher Institute, 46 percent of abortions are performed on women in college. During his short tenure at SFLA, Jon helped establish a pro-life group at Florida International University that had already kept one mother and child from joining that statistic.
In addition to the Pregnant on Campus Initiative Jon was spearheading, SFLA and Feminists for Life have been working together to create a Pregnancy Resource Guide that will cover campuses nationwide. The aim is that no young woman will ever find herself alone on campus with no alternative but abortion. Child care, money — you name the obstacle, these groups seek to help in one way or another.
Jon’s death came as the result of injuries sustained when his car was hit by another during a working weekend earlier this month. His colleague Kortney Blythe Gordon and her unborn child, Sophy, died that night.
I met Kortney this summer, during a training weekend for SFLA Wilberforce fellows, named for the British parliamentarian and abolitionist leader. “Fellows” are college students who make a commitment and are given leadership training, mentors, and resources to be campus pro-life leaders.
Mrs. Mechmann, living to age 86, saw a great deal — including years of cultural tumult. Jon and Kortney are two faces of a generation that I keep encountering throughout the country. They are occupying fully human lives, not forgetting their brothers and sisters, and not letting injustice go unaddressed. Jon and Kortney did not believe what young people of the Woodstock generation did, about radical individualism and wars of the sexes and entitlement. They, and those who survive them, want to live lives of responsibility, gratitude, and service — lives more rooted than endlessly searching. Many of them want God. They at least want to know there is truth.
Jon didn’t embark on this “abortion abolition” business alone though — Charles is insistent on pointing that out. This gets to the heart of what motivated him and Kortney and others of this generation I’m talking about, and it is also what makes it possible for their family and friends to go on. “When Jon got up out of bed in the morning,” Charles tells me, he prayed. “Even if his body was barely awake, his spirit was pushing forward, drawing strength from his Lord.” The day ended in prayer, as well.
Charles remembers Jon with the words from John 10:10, in which Jesus says, “I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.” “He always wanted more,” Charles tells me. “And wherever he went he carried a particular joy in his characteristic half smile, half smirk.”
The long and the short of it is this: Jon’s, Kortney’s, and Mrs. Mechmann’s were three rich lives. We don’t know the day or the hour, but we don’t have to. As we get caught up in the headlines and all our daily challenges, these three lives can be an inspiration to a rededication, to living each coming moment to its fullest, with joy in service to one another.
— Kathryn Jean Lopez is the editor-at-large of National Review Online. This column is available exclusively through United Media.