Under The Collar Experiment

Monday, January 6, 2014

God at the Abortion Clinic


The first time I volunteered at the abortion clinic as part of Peaceful Presence, was my first year in ministry in Oklahoma.  I did not wear a collar.  Frankly I was not planning on telling anyone I was a minister.  I did not want to make anyone uncomfortable in that already volatile environment.  I spoke to a woman who was waiting to see the doctor. As I tried to support her she said boldly, "Why are you helping me?"  I told her I was a minister. and that I believe people who are making difficult decisions in their lives, should be treated with dignity. She began to cry and said that God brought me to let her know that she was going to be OK. At that moment, I knew I could no longer sit quietly while the loudest religious voice in our country proclaims to know whose side God is on.




In my last year of college, I accompanied a friend to have an abortion when she found out she was pregnant with her abusive ex-boyfriend's child.  As a teacher, I supported a student after she made the difficult decision to terminate so that she could accept her admission into an Ivy League school.  I have ministered to a woman who bore her daughter at 16 and was torn about what to say to her 16 year old pregnant daughter.  I have helped a woman write a letter to her unborn child in her grief and mark on her calendar what would have been that child's birthday.  I have witnessed a stillbirth and had a 21 week old little girl die in my arms after being removed from life support. I have sat in the foyer after a sermon on abortion and held a man as he grieved a child that could have been and his own powerlessness. 

I have never had an abortion. According to the Guttmacher Institute, one in three women will have had an abortion by the age of 45. I am also not yet 45. These numbers are not about one in three atheist women or one in three uneducated women.  It is one in three women.  Despite their age or ethnicity, financial situation or intention. 


A few years ago when Oklahoma landed on John Stewart's The Daily Show, yet again, for our embarrassing politics– this time for The Personhood Bill –I chose to respond by volunteering at the clinic again.  This time I wore my collar.  When you turn off the main road onto the street of the clinic, it is difficult to see the entrance through the throng of protesters. The Catholics have purchased the land directly across the street from the clinic, and they use that space to put enormous signs of imperative phrases written in letters that appear to be dripping blood and 4-foot tall signs with graphic images of developing fetuses. Often, there is a row of young people praying the rosary. (Rumor has it that students from a local Catholic school receive extra credit for showing up.) In addition to lining the opposite side of the street, they are also allowed to be on the same side of the street as the clinic because there is a publicly owned sidewalk.  Every car must drive between shouting protesters and the signs just to get into the parking lot. After parking the car, a woman is greeted by a Peaceful Presence volunteer wearing a purple vest who walks with them to the front door. We hope to offer them a kind face and a focal point until they can get inside.


When I arrived at the clinic in my collar, I was clear I was coming to bring a religious representation. The volunteers of Peaceful Presence do not actively promote any church or religion. Nor do I think they should. Although I am certainly still uniquely me, no one in a collar is standing solely for themselves.  We are in relationship with a community who has called us. When I got out of the car that Friday, it was like I’d poked a bees’ nest. Near the driveway entrance, the protesters had placed a CD player blaring Christian music.  In an effort to bridge the chasm, I moved near it and began to sing quietly.  After about 20 minutes of shouting from afar, while I stood singing to their music, one of the protestors came and began to pray for me, loudly.  I stood quietly as he yelled a prayer for my misdirection, for my false prophethood, and for my broken soul. When he was finished, I realized not only how important my presence was for the women but also to the larger context.  I wanted the protestors to know that God was not limited to one side of this issue.

After he prayed for me, I went to each of the Peaceful Presence volunteers and asked if we could pray together. Despite their varied theologies, they all agreed. We circled up near the driveway, and I prayed a prayer of thanksgiving to God for the opportunity to be present with those in their deepest time of need.  I asked for courage and clarity for the women during what would likely be a significant moment in their lives. And I prayed for the volunteers of Peaceful Presence – for their willingness to be the faces and hands and feet of compassion for those who were publicly being persecuted. The protesters were stunned into silence as they watched us pray. I found myself feeling sorry for them; I wanted to pray for them. So I crossed the street and walked from one protester to the next, reaching out to shake their hand. As I took their hand into mine, I looked each of them in the eye and said, “God is bigger than all of this. Bless you.”
It was obvious by some of the facial expressions that the impact on them had been significant.  Others were cruel in their responses to me.  On the outside, I was unwavering: smiling, compassionate, calm.  They said that I was blasphemous, that I shouldn't or don't represent the clergy. One asked me if I was willing to repent with him right there on my knees. I held my poise, and my ground, breathed deeply, and kept saying, "God is bigger than all of this." When I drove away and could no longer see them in my rear view mirror, I broke down and sobbed. I cried for the women who were in this situation, for the well intended people on both sides of this issue, for my inability to stop their hatred and for my relationship to God being called into question.

I had been dismissed. My religion had been dismissed – if we weren’t on their side, we must be for killing babies.  My religious authority had been dismissed – the clinic, the workers, the volunteers, and the patients had been dehumanized, so my presence was nearly inconsequential.  And my gender had been dismissed. For the Catholics and many of the fundamentalist Protestants, I was dismissed simply because I was a woman in a collar.  If you know me at all, you likely will know that I don’t do dismissed well.  So, I rallied the troops. I asked every minister I thought might be sympathetic if they would be willing to show up regularly.  By the end of the day, I had a schedule set up. For the next 16 weeks in a row, a different minister – white, black, women, men, older, younger – would show up in a collar to bring God to the abortion clinic. I was going to show the other side of the street that I am not a lone actor.  There is, in fact, an army of liberally religious clergy who will not be polarized, who will not oversimplify, and who are willing to shake hands with the other side to make sure they know we are standing in a balcony view above the politics and the polarization. We are now on our third year of Clergy rotation. I am one of a steady stream of about 20 ministers who consistently show up.   

I volunteered this past Friday morning again at the only abortion clinic in town and the only nonprofit clinic in the region.  I was in my collar.  I am glad I am no longer just that lone woman in a collar at the abortion clinic. I am one of a steady stream now of about 20 ministers who all look different and show up consistently.  God is now represented at the clinic with regularity.  We are on our 3rd year of Clergy rotation in this manner.  In a sense nothing has changed.  The protesters still show up in the same way they always do. A protester from outside the city named Bill, at one point yelled to a woman I was accompanying, "Don't pay any attention to that phony preacher." And then when I walked out again he called me by name.  I could hear him yelling "Tamara, Tamara, Tamara."  I did not respond because I was trying to stay present with the woman coming in for her appointment.  I remember thinking, "Oh Sir, I answer to someone way greater than you." In another sense, what has changed is that we know one another's names.  Maybe in creating more room for God at the abortion clinic, we have made a little more room for humanity.  

9 comments:

  1. Thank you for writing about these experiences! I really appreciate this post, and will look further into Pleasant Presence!

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    1. Toby- Peaceful Presence needs lay volunteers on Thursday and Friday morning. Show up at 7:30 a.m. takes about an hour. Let them know you are there to volunteer and that it is your first time. Ministers are coordinated through me.

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    1. Lewis- and yours. Thank you for helping me remember I am not in this alone.

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  3. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

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    1. Melissa- When I went to reply to your comment I accidentally removed it. EEK! Would love for you to repost and I'll remove this chatter... Sorry

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  4. Whew...this one...THIS ONE...wow...I had it open in a tab on my computer from the moment that you posted it until now...I've read it 5 times...I wanted to share it immediately, but hesitated because of all of the friends and relatives who do not share our view of this subject but reside on my friend list. I finally won the debate against myself over what really matters and what is at stake over this topic. Good grief. I even scolded myself over being such a fraidy cat. Finally, I thought to myself, "If it's THIS hard to repost/share this piece, imagine how much courage it took to WRITE it!"

    So thank you for being brave. It has a ripple effect...it reached me, and made me feel a little more brave.

    Keep it coming.

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    1. Jyl- Thanks for taking the risk. 1 out of 3 women means that there are many silenced women out there. Coming out of the closet takes many forms. When we can come out of the closet and talk about the complexity of this painful and difficult issue instead of making it about good gals and bad gals, maybe those who have had abortions will be more likely to talk about their experience. When more women who have had abortions can come out of the closet we can reduce the shame that grows in the silence. My guess is that we do not fully understand the consequences of having an abortion and we do not fully understand the consequences of those who do not have access.

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  5. This is very wicked. God hates abortion. He hates the hands that shed innocent blood! One day, we will all die and stand before Him and give an account for our lives on earth, and He is a just God. He will not allow the guilty to go unpunished. I urge you to repent of your sin, and turn to Jesus for salvation! He is faithful to forgive those who repent and turn to Him! But make no mistake-repentance does not mean that you can continue on in wickedness. You must turn from wickedness to be repentant.

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