Musings from the sidewalk: 40DFL Spring ’14 comes to a close

(This is a personal reflection and is not an official statement on behalf of 40 Days for Life.)

Me & my big mouth …

And to think it started with a few "likes" ...
And to think it started with a few “likes” …

As those who follow the blog’s Facebook page know, I made a commitment recently to give an hour to 40DFL for each new “like” on the Facebook page. Five or six, I figured. Nope: try nineteen. Readers shared the challenge, and the clicks just kept on comin’.

As laughter subsided – especially from my husband, who saw what was coming even when I didn’t – I looked nervously at the vigil schedules in Concord and Manchester alongside my work and family schedules. I had only six days before the end of the campaign. Abby Johnson’s talk about priorities and comfort zones was still ringing in my ears. I put my name down on the vigil schedule where I could.

(And for those of you considering stepping up to be coordinators in the next campaign in September, I hereby note that I still owe thirteen hours.)

Some of you may be thinking what’s the big deal? Being out there on the sidewalk outside the abortion facility comes as naturally as breathing to some people. Not to me. My views of sidewalk witness have changed quite a bit over the past thirty years. I am not courting arrest. I am not trying to spit in the eye of the neighbors or the clients or the workers or even the abortionists. I simply want to witness for life without anyone getting mad at me. And I don’t want to be out there alone.

Timid enough for you?

Here’s what I saw as a very inexperienced 40DFL supporter last week. Maybe it’ll give you some encouragement to join me in the fall.

Concord: invitation to “pledge a protester”

My first time slot was in Concord. The Feminist Health Center is on Main Street, at an intersection with a quiet residential side street.   I was alone, with the Concord 40DFL coordinator Christine Suarez scheduled to join me later.

There’s a little sign on the lawn in front of FHC, a backhanded tribute to 40DFL: “pledge a protester.” The idea is for anyone who supports FHC to donate money to offset pro-life witness outside the facility. The sign indicates that somewhere between $2000 and $2500 has been donated. Is that for this campaign, or over several years? No telling. So there, is the message. It fits with the banner across the front of the building that advises uncritical minds that “safe and legal abortion IS pro-life.” For those keeping track, $2500 would cover six-tenths of one percent of what FHC spent on compensation, wages, and salaries for executives and employees in 2011, according to the FHC’s IRS Form 990.

From January 2014: Concord Feminist Health Center, with supporters countering the March for Life
From January 2014: Concord Feminist Health Center, with supporters countering the March for Life

I had no sign to carry. In my pocket was a scrap of paper with the address and phone number of the CareNet a few blocks away. Thus armed, I took a deep breath and started praying. I walked on the sidewalk past the front of facility, up Thompson Street to the back driveway, and back to Main Street. There was virtually no traffic in or out of the FHC except for two women who appeared to be bringing in their lunch. They looked at me curiously but made no remark. There were a few passersby to whom I gave a nod and a smile.

A few residents on Thompson Street looked on without interest. The presence of witnesses outside the FHC is old news to them. I wonder how much more interest the neighbors will have if the 25-foot buffer zone now under consideration at the State House passes. Perhaps next time, I’ll be legally obliged to be on their sidewalk.

An hour went by on the cloudy day as I prayed holding my Rosary. Yes, that Catholic thing that seems to draw particular ire from abortion supporters of the keep-your-rosary-off-my-ovaries ilk. I wasn’t using it to show off. Quite the contrary: the Rosary helps keep my prayer focused, away from worry, not about me.

Halfway through the hour, Christine arrived. She greeted me like a treasured friend, even though it was the first time we met. I admire her commitment and her cheerful spirit that have obviously done so much to make 40DFL in Concord a force to be reckoned with (that pledge-a-protester sign speaks volumes). No sour face or wrinkled brow for her: a true witness for life and hope.

Thus passed an uneventful hour. No one yelled or jeered as I made my way back and forth. No one threw anything at me. No patient crossed my path. I’m not even sure anyone made a “pledge.” Barely a ripple. A gentle beginning.

Manchester: 40DFL + “the regulars”

Two days later, I was in Manchester. Thursdays are surgical-abortion days at Planned Parenthood of Northern New England’s Manchester facility. Other procedures might be available as well, but the surgical abortions seem to be limited to that day, according to the regulars. I say “the regulars” to refer to the group that is outside PP every Thursday year-round, without regard to 40DFL. PP has definitely taken note of the year-round witness, as we can see from the buffer-zone bill and Senator Soucy’s grave pronouncements that it’s all about “safety.”

It’s not that there’s criminal activity going on. Ask the Manchester Police Department. PP made much at the Senate buffer-zone hearing about how much they spend on security in Manchester. The PP lobbyist testified that there have been 60 complaints from patients about the people on the sidewalk. When asked how many of those complaints had been reported to the police, as opposed to reported to the PP receptionist, the PP lobbyist was at a loss. That tells me that there has been no patient safety issue that has been brought to the attention of local law enforcement thus far.

In the three hours I spent outside PP on Thursday, I could see that there were at least two simple, no-cost things that PP could do to interfere with the Thursday regulars – but both would mean police involvement. (I needn’t outline the steps here. PP has highly-paid people to figure these things out.) Apparently, whatever PP says about the need for a “patient safety zone” in Manchester, that concern for safety has not yet extended to involving law enforcement to the slightest degree.

The building’s exterior has cameras mounted everywhere. A faded but visible orange line is spray-painted on the property boundary, so everyone on the sidewalk knows where not to go.  We prayed under the polite but watchful eye of PP’s hired security guard. He would occasionally walk past us, between driveways, to keep an eye on things. He was not averse to friendly (if brief) conversation.

I saw a PP worker come out of the building to put something in a car. I smiled at her and nodded. She looked at me as through I were a coiled snake. So much distrust …

40 DFL is about prayer and fasting, peaceful vigil, and community outreach. It is not about pictures of aborted babies. Abby Johnson has written about how such images actually help abortion providers stay in business. One man, who I’m guessing is one of the Thursday regulars, had a bloody-baby sign that he put on the windshield of his parked car nearby. Fortunately, the sign was so small and indistinct from more than twenty paces away that I doubt anyone entering PP realized what it was.

One of the regulars had leaflets that she offered to everyone entering and leaving the facility. She did not block traffic.

I was never with fewer than ten people as I prayed that morning. A young mother with her two preschool-age boys, a smiling woman quietly praying in French, a military veteran in his thirties: a varied group. I saw that there wasn’t much traffic coming and going from the PP lot. As I left, one of the regulars commented to me that this was a very slow business day for a Thursday. A good thing, I hope.

Manchester II: solitude

Palm Sunday, last day of this season’s 40 Days for Life campaign, dawned cloudy with a promise of rain. I had the sidewalk outside PP all to myself. The office was closed, although there was one car in the lot. No guard. I assumed the cameras were turned on. I realized when I got there that I had forgotten to bring my camera-equipped phone, which made me feel very vulnerable. Alone and no camera.

The street was extremely quiet. On the PP side, there’s a RiteAid and a small one-story office building. Across the street are seven old houses of two or three stories each, most of them divided into apartments. A few folks came out to walk their dogs. Even the dogs were quiet; the sight of me didn’t prompt a bark from any of them.

I pace as I pray. In some cities, a person standing on a sidewalk is considered an impediment to navigation. I wasn’t sure what Manchester’s ordinances had to say about that. To be on the safe side, I kept walking. Sixty paces, turn, sixty paces, turn.

The PP building looks unremarkable when it’s closed. The property wouldn’t rate a second glance if not for the stockade fences flanking the driveway. No way to tell that human life is disposable inside, except for the “Planned Parenthood” sign on the building. Unlike the FHC, this Manchester abortion facility has no “pledge-a-protester” sign or abortion-is-prolife banner. There’s a distressing amount of trash on the ground along the building, but I dared not pick it up – that would require reaching across the property line. There’s a plaque on the building proclaiming “Metropolitan” as the company responsible for leasing and management. I guess the lease doesn’t include cleanup. No lipstick on that particular pig.

No distractions to prayer that morning. I thought of a lot of people to lift up in those prayers. I thought of the people who work at the facility during the week, and I wondered how to reach across the chasm to them. I thought about the patients, and I wondered how many of them know that their “trusted health care provider” would shut down the facility – cancer screenings and all – rather than stop offering abortions. I thought of the landlord, to whom PP’s just another tenant. I thought of the health-care professionals who are complicit in abortion.  I thought of the 40DFL vigil participants who are as nervous as I, and of the vigil coordinators whose work is so important. I thought of our overwhelming need for peace,.beginning in the womb.

From Luke’s Gospel: In the tender compassion of our God, the dawn from on high shall break upon us, to shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death, and to guide our feet into the way of peace.

I returned to my car after two hours. No one came running up to me and said I want to leave the industry or I’ve changed my mind about having an abortion. No heroics for me. All I could say was that for a couple of hours, I’d stood vigil.

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The next 40 Days for Life campaign will begin in late September. I’ll play my small part in it, and I invite you to join me.