The First Shift
“For the first time...I have come to love the darkness--for I believe now that it is a part, a very, very small part of Jesus' darkness and pain on earth. --Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta
I narrowly made it to Planned Parenthood in time for my 8:00 a.m. shift on the sidewalk today. My partner this morning was Julie*, one of our best and most prolific sidewalk counselors, and we agreed that she would counsel while I covered her in prayer. As Julie took her position--just a few feet from a used condom somebody has discarded on the sidewalk, I found a place to kneel and begin my Rosary.
As the clock struck 8, a Planned Parenthood employee smiling brightly came to unlock the door and welcome the morning's clients. In unison, women emerged from their cars to line up and enter the abortion facility. They scurried in as quickly as they could, hoping to avoid any interaction with Julie and me. The empty look in their glazed-over eyes stood in sharp contrast with the cheery Planned Parenthood employee who welcomed them in.
We could tell by their loose fitting sweatpants and wind pants that they were abortion clients. There were around eight or ten of them in all, depending on how many of them were there to be the "support person."
I hadn't even started my first decade of the Rosary when a man parked in the parking lot began heckling me. "Go pray for your own sins!" he shouted. I assured him that I would.
He continued to hassle me, insisting that life is about choices. He then quoted Scripture and said nobody came to save Jesus from the Cross and that we're not going to change anyone's mind either. I acknowledged him and explained that we were there to offer a better alternative and told him how we've been averaging one changed mind a week and that maybe today was our day.
I moved down the sidewalk closer to his vehicle so I could hear him better. He poured out his heart, explaining that he wasn't the baby's father. He had driven his friend, who wanted to sever all ties with the baby's father and felt that abortion was necessary for that to happen. He said he didn't like abortion. Several times, Julie and I told him he needed to encourage his friend to see a healthy alternative at the Women's Care Center across the street. Every time, he replied that there was no way she'd change her mind; he'd already tried.
As he kept talking, I suppose there were a million things I could have--perhaps should have--said. But I just kept kneeling and listening. Before he'd listen to what I had to say, he needed me to listen to him.
Some time ago, I realized that Western Civilization won't be saved through politics or the courts or a mass shift in public opinion. Western Civilization will be saved the same way it was built--through evangelization. Through serving people as men and women created in the image and likeness of God one at a time.
And so I served this man by listening to him.
I listened to him for 45 minutes. Sometimes I'd chime in. Sometimes I'd answer his questions or correct him when he said something that was flat-out wrong. But mostly I listened.
I listened to him tell me about growing up black in a segregated part of Dallas. I listened to him tell me about growing up in a broken home. "If I hadn't come from a broken family, I'd be in the NBA, NFL--I could have been something!"
I listened to him talk about the children he's lost to abortion--children he didn't even know about until after the abortions happened. I listened to him talk about saving a child from drowning and seeing a person shot to death right in front of him. I listened to him tell me that he's homeless, but he works and he loves his job.
I couldn't do much out on the sidewalk but I focused on what I could do and validated this man as a person by acknowledging him and his concerns and simply hearing him out.
The Phone Call
As we spoke, you could see my new friend's heart soften. He praised Julie and me for being there. He asked if I had kids and said he appreciates me being out because I could be spending my time with my family or at my job. And when a passerby shouted "Quit harassing people!" at me, he supported me.
After a pause in our conversation, the man looked at me and said, "I'm gonna pray with you."
Imagine that! The guy who started our conversation by yelling, "Go pray for your own sins" had now bowed his head and prayed with me for his abortion-bound friend inside Planned Parenthood.
Not only that, but he also told me, "I'll call her and try to change her mind." A few feet away, Julie got down on her knees and prayed, tears streaming down her face.
I didn't listen to the conversation, but twice I heard him say, "I will raise this baby. I will!" He had answered his call as a man to protect women and children.
It wasn't enough; she didn't change her mind. Julie's tears continued to fall.
"Are you crying?!" the man asked.
"Well, yes. I had thought this might work out," she responded.
"I know; I'm crying a little bit too," he said.
Sidewalk Counseling in the Parking Lot
At this point, he developed a sense of purpose. He walked around the parking lot, speaking to other Planned Parenthood clients--trying to talk them out of abortion. I noted one of the patrons who ignored him was wearing blue jeans--an encouraging sign that she wasn't there for abortion.
As my new friend continued to talk to Planned Parenthood clients, I realized that we basically had a sidewalk counselor roaming the parking lot of the abortion facility! He even approached the security guard and questioned his line of work. "He's confused," he told me. "Keep praying. Maybe God will shut the power off for these motherf*****s."
Meanwhile, the sister of an abortion client came out to smoke. She lectured us about how children are better off aborted than raised in abusive homes. While she wasn't there for an abortion herself, she said she'd absolutely get one because, "My daughter has seen some sh**" and it isn't fair to put kids through that."
Another heckler drove by.
The woman in blue jeans exited Planned Parenthood and sat at a picnic table across the parking lot. She buried her head in her hands and sat there talking with her boyfriend for some time. There's no way to know exactly what happened, but it seemed likely that she had just received a positive pregnancy test and was trying to decide what to do about it.
We had hoped to speak with her, but after about 20 minutes, she went back into the abortion center. At least, we imagined, she wouldn't have the abortion that day in her blue jeans. We'd have the opportunity to counsel her when she left--and could maybe reach her when she came back for the procedure next week.
Those aspirations washed away when her boyfriend met her at the abortion center door to hand her a pair of pink sweatpants.
"God Be with You"
I was now two hours into my one hour shift, and I figured I better get home. I asked my new friend if I could give him some information. He came over, and I handed him a Rachel's Vineyard brochure for his friend and some general information on both Planned Parenthood and abortion.
I shook his hand and thanked him for trying to save his friend's baby. "God be with you," he told me.
As I said goodbye to Julie, the friend of the man in the parking lot emerged, now post-abortive. As they drove off, she glared at me out the window. "Y'all assholes. We pray too!"
In God's Hands
Now this would certainly be a much better, more enjoyable essay if I could wrap it up neatly with a dramatic story of a last-minute success before I packed it up. Maybe a saved baby or a post-abortive woman who came forward to seek healing. But God doesn't always affirm us like that--not on the timeline we'd like Him too at least.
I recognize that my tale of a heartbreaking day in which we saved no babies while getting cursed at is not a great advertisement for getting involved in pro-life sidewalk counseling. It's much more rewarding to be out and about when the good stuff happens.
Still, I have no regrets. I trust that God put Julie and me where he wanted us this morning. Maybe our Christian witness will help turn around a life some day down the line. It's not for us to know.
What is for me to know is this: this morning, in spite of everything, Julie and I gave God everything we had. We did so by affirming the dignity of the man in the car...by turning the other cheek when we were insulted...by loving the mothers who came to Planned Parenthood because they aren't receiving the love they need and deserve...by loving the babies who weren't loved by a single other person during the course of their all-too-short lives on this earth.
This was all we can do, and it's what we did. The rest is in God's Hands.
The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. --John 1:5
*Julie is a fictitious name.