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Protesting vs. Sidewalk Counseling

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There are such noble reasons for protests. Truly there are.  As I sit here, my office prepares to protest the so-called “deal” with Iran, which is really no deal at all, but an unwise and naïve concession.  Protests matter.  They start conversations.  They move hearts.  Some are crazy and violent and without a message (think Occupy Wall Street), but really, at that point, they have ceased to be a protest and become a riot.

Yet peaceful protesting is an important tool for action.  It helps people feel they are not alone but in solidarity with others who are like-minded.  It sends a clear message to those who are not like-minded.  And it is one of the best ways to stand up for righteousness, speak the truth, and raise awareness regarding an issue.

Nowhere is this more relevant than in this era’s fight for the unborn.  Christians have rightly been protesting the horror of abortion since Roe v. Wade.  This protest culminates each year in the March for Life.  At protests, signs are appropriate.  Especially respectful, impactful signs such as “I regret my abortion.”  It is worth exploring which signs tend to send the most effective messages.  Graphic signs of mangled bodies may or may not have a place; it must be judged delicately and discussed respectfully so as not to unnecessarily divide the movement from within.  Some signs like “Abortion is murder,” though 100% true, may do less to spread the right message than the impact of “One Dead: One Wounded.”

But for all of its merits, protesting is not always appropriate.  It can be misplaced, a valiant effort at the wrong time.  Truth out of context.  Even if the message is true and the cause noble, in certain circumstances protesting is inappropriate because of the way it will be perceived.  It may end up sabotaging the very cause it wanted to protect.

And nowhere is this more relevant than in sidewalk counseling.  Women literally walking into an abortion clinic to kill their child right then and there don’t need someone yelling and screaming.  They need someone holding them.  Holding them like the baby’s father likely hasn’t.  Loving them and caring for them as a life just as valuable as the child within them.  And the best way to love them is to present the truth in love.  And the best way, the most effective way, is to put down any barriers between us and the mother that there might be.  Including our signs.

Over and over again I’ve seen women respond well to tender words of comfort and horribly to harsh words and signs.  One woman I saw change her mind did so after I just kept saying how beautiful and capable she was.

One of the most challenging things happens when the pro-life movement is divided in on itself when it comes to this.  One night at the clinic I prayed at weekly, I proposed a new strategy: let’s have one or two people talking to the women, literally counseling them, and the others huddled nearby at a local pregnancy center praying.  We would save our signs to come back on a day when the clinic was closed to alert the passersby to the reality of abortion, a much more appropriate context.  But I conceded that we could keep the “I regret my abortion” signs as they helped connect, rather than alienate us, from the circumstances of the women.  Unfortunately, one of the pro-life women I was speaking to got angry and walked away from me.  Somehow I had struck a nerve.

I know it was difficult for her to change the way she had always done things.  I understood, because I had once been equally adamant about the importance of signs.  I had always argued against those who said protesting was always inappropriate.  But it had taken me a long time to internalize this theory about pro-life signs which had been explained to me through a sidewalk counseling training pamphlet.

Although I know opinions on when to use signs and what should be on them still differ drastically throughout the pro-life movement, I hope these thoughts will help move all of us towards bravely analyzing and speaking up for what may have to change in order to be as effective as we can at saving lives — the lives of both babies and their mothers.