I quickly rolled down my van window, feeling a blast of heat on my skin. “Hey there,” I yelled, hoping to catch her before she headed inside.
I froze. Protest? With no time for a lengthy conversation, I murmured a hesitant, “OK, I guess.” Shortly thereafter, we parted ways, but I had not yet moved on in thought.
I’d confronted frequent misunderstanding in my now-regular presence in downtown Fargo on Wednesday mornings by strangers, but felt troubled that a friend also had misunderstood.
And recently, all this has resurfaced. The words “protest” and even “counterprotest” have appeared numerous times in our local media to describe the weekly activity on the sidewalk in front of the Red River Women’s Clinic, North Dakota’s only abortion facility.
I’m concerned, as on that day last summer, at what these words unfairly convey.
The local annual 40 Days for Life prayer vigil ended last Sunday. Nationally, this concerted effort to pray for the women who seek abortion resulted in over 500 lives saved, according to the event’s national website, with over 10,000 “saves” since the event’s inception in Texas in 2007.
Despite these efforts, I’ve been hearing from local friends who are concerned that their message — and intent — has been overcome by false perception.
And it comes down to two words, really. Is it a protest or a prayer?
Since Lent of last year, when a friend asked me to join her on the sidewalk, I have come weekly, as often as possible, to pray for the women who arrive with much on their minds.
We also pray for the escorts who shuttle them into the facility, and for the fathers and others who accompany them.
I can’t begin to imagine the myriad emotions they are experiencing, but I’ve talked to enough of the women who’ve been through abortion to know that, for many, it is traumatic.
By and large, those who show up on the sidewalk come with a sincere desire to introduce other, life-giving options, and simply pray.
We want the women to know of our community’s many resources to help them not only give life to their babies but to have someone to walk with them beyond the pregnancy.
There’s not much time to share this hopeful information on Wednesdays, and often, we are impeded from talking to them. But when we can, we try to offer hope.
This summer, recognizing the limitations in speaking words of love to the women, I thought about how I might communicate my thoughts through a handmade sign. After discerning what I most wanted to convey, I came up with a simple symbol: a heart. Because what I want to say most of all is, “We love you, and we love your baby.”
In decades past, things might have been different. There may have been more hate spoken on the sidewalk. And maybe that still happens on occasion. As sinners, we don’t always get it right. But from what I’ve experienced, that’s the rare — and unwelcomed — exception.
As the psychological effects of abortion have become clearer, science has evolved, too, revealing a beating heart at just weeks into a pregnancy, and all components of a human person fully present at conception.
We are no longer discussing a blob of tissues; in other words, the conversation has advanced.
As we’ve seen deeper into the womb, many of us have also seen deeper into the hearts of the mothers. We know that shaming them isn’t helpful and that only love will bring hope, and a possible change in direction.
Spending time out there isn’t easy. I’ve been called names and been on the receiving end of hateful gestures, despite my prayerful stance and intentions.
But I am not there to protest, and I believe I represent the majority who converge on the sidewalk each week.
If media stories have proven confusing, there’s one way to learn the truth of it — by coming to the sidewalk in person some Wednesday to see what happens.
All are welcomed — it’s a public sidewalk — but I speak for myself and, I believe, the rest of the faithful and others of good will who gather: If you come, please bring an attitude of love and help us create a peaceful, prayerful presence.
[For the sake of having a repository for my newspaper columns and articles, I reprint them here, with permission, a week after their run date. The preceding ran in The Forum newspaper on Nov. 7, 2015.]