Eric, Ann and Joe Scheidler at the NSCS in Birmingham [Photo by Kelly Manley]
Along with my husband Joe and our eldest son Eric, I was honored to be among the featured presenters at the fourth annual National Sidewalk Counseling Symposium in Birmingham, Alabama, sponsored by our friends at Pro-Life Action Ministries.
Birmingham was selected as the site at the invitation of Fr. Terry Gensemer of the Charismatic Episcopal Church. The past three conferences have been held in the Twin Cities, where PLAM is based, but this time director Brian Gibson jumped at the chance to hold the meeting in a different part of the country, making it available to sidewalk counselors in the South.
Obstacles en Route to Birmingham
Getting to Birmingham turned out to be more of a challenge than we had anticipated. Our first delay was in Chicago where a tire needed to be changed on our plane, a process which takes a little longer than changing a tire on your car. Then, because we were behind schedule, there was no open gate at the Birmingham airport.
While waiting on the tarmac it began to rain. Evidently there was some lightening in the area, so the plane could not be moved even when a gate did open up. Once the gate was available, there was no personnel to operate the jetway. You get the picture. Joe was scheduled to be the first speaker on that Friday evening. But we were still at the airport when the symposium began.
Fortunately pro-life activists are by nature flexible. Rev. Walter Hoye of Oakland, California was moved into first place and was just finishing up his testimony of being invited out to the sidewalk of Oakland by two Catholic ladies who saw the need for an African-American presence in front of the abortion clinics.
Clergymen Offer Unique Insights
Walter answered their call and has been sidewalk counseling for the past several years. Shortly after he began offering assistance to abortion-bound women, Oakland enacted a bubble zone to discourage him. But he was not deterred. In fact, he was the first person arrested under the ordinance and served a 30-day jail sentence. His crime? He holds a sign out on the sidewalk with the message, “Jesus Loves You and Your Baby. We can help.”
Walter’s insights into the unique problems of the black community are invaluable to those who sidewalk counsel in areas where many of the abortion patients are black women. Walter also spoke to the importance of challenging men to behave like fathers and to protect their babies and the mothers of those babies.
Fr. Frank Pavone spoke about the spiritual aspect of pro-life work and the importance of recognizing our own sin as we pursue our work to save lives. He emphasized the role we play when we grieve for the babies who die in abortion, often serving as the only persons who acknowledge the loss of life for what it is.
Pray and Work
Joe Scheidler wrapped up the evening rather than starting the evening. He told the audience that the day, like most days in the pro-life arena, had been quite interesting. He had spent the morning and through lunch interviewing with Robin Marty, a pro-abortion blogger who has been doing research for a major piece on pro-life activism. Marty has read Joe’s book, CLOSED: 99 Ways to Stop Abortion, and, according to her, all but three of the approaches in the book are still being used by pro-lifers.
The lengthy conversation with Marty had reminded Joe of the many ways we can confront the culture of death and bring about conversion. He advised the group to adopt the Benedictine motto he learned during his years as a monk, “Ora et Labora” (“Pray and Work”). Always pray before you embark on a pro-life activity, but don’t leave it at that. Take the next step and work to make it happen.
The presentations on Saturday included a summary by Arizona attorney John Jakubczyk of McCullen v. Coakley, Supreme Court ruling on the Massachusetts buffer zone law. Effectively, John said, buffer zones are gone, though there is still some maneuvering left to rid the country of the remaining laws. John emphasized the importance of having an attorney at the ready in the ministry of sidewalk counseling and of developing a good relationship with local police.
Standing Outside an Abortion Clinic is Always Valuable
Edmund Miller of Guadalupe Partners in Michigan gave a deeply insightful talk on staying the course even when the work is very discouraging. He said that it will seem as if most of the time our efforts are failures because there are so few definitive “saves.” But our presence at the clinic is valuable whether we see results or not, because it is not a numbers game. What sidewalk counselors do cannot be charted or counted. Standing outside an abortion clinic as a witness to the dignity of life is always valuable.
Eric Scheidler discusses the challenges of Planned Parenthood’s “mega-centers” [Photo by Sarah Howell]
Pro-Life Action League executive director Eric Scheidler addressed the particular challenges of dealing with what he calls the Planned Parenthood “mega-centers,” those that are 10,000 square feet or more. He detailed the strategy of vigilance where a mega-mill is concerned. Frequently check the agenda for town meetings and zoning meetings. Alert the community to who Planned Parenthood is and organize spokespersons from the community to attend and speak at village board and city council meetings.
Eric quoted former Planned Parenthood of Chicago CEO Steve Trombley, who said in 2007 that Planned Parenthood was aiming to become the “LensCrafters of family planning.” While the numbers of abortions has steadily dropped, Planned Parenthood’s abortion numbers have steadily increased.
Eric advised sidewalk counselors to become thoroughly aware of the local laws and of the boundaries of public access and private property so that they can take full advantage of whatever pubic property abuts the Planned Parenthood fortress.
Best Practices for Recruiting and Training New Sidewalk Counselors
I gave two presentations on Saturday afternoon. The first was on the task of recruiting and training new sidewalk counselors. I suggested that the first place to look for potential sidewalk counselors was within other pro-life organizations, parish respect life committees, lobbying groups, pregnancy resource centers and any other pro-life group. Partnering with another organization in hosting a training seminar is a good way to attract more people.
Ann Scheidler explains how to effectively manage a local sidewalk counseling program [Photo by Kelly Manley]
I urged anyone organizing a training session to advertise the event in every way possible: email, Facebook, church bulletins, postcards, phone calls, even radio announcements. In scheduling the training, I recommended checking possible dates against other activities and events to make sure you don’t choose a date when potential attendees are likely to be going somewhere else.
For the training session itself, select an affordable and easy to locate site, have the necessary technical needs in place – microphone, screen, projector, etc. and someone who knows how to operate the equipment. And it is important to get the contact information of all who attend and to follow up with them to get a commitment.
In the second presentation, Advanced Sidewalk Counseling Training, I explained the “Chicago Method” of researching lawsuits against abortion clinics and doctors and giving that information to the abortion-bound woman. I reminded the sidewalk counselors that they should never go to the clinic alone and should never interrupt another counselor engaged in a conversation with an abortion-minded client.
I stressed the importance of creating a calm, peaceful environment outside the clinic because the environment inside is highly stressful. I addressed the question of whether it is appropriate to use abortion victim images outside the clinic. Pictures of the victims of abortion can be an effective tool, but should be kept a reasonable distance from the sidewalk counselor, who should not hold any signs.
A panel presentation by Walter Hoye, Rev. Brian Walker of Pro-Life Action Ministries and Alicia Wong of Guadalupe Partners on how best to approach men at the clinic was excellent. The same panel discussed the best ways to reach minority clients.
All in all, the National Sidewalk Counseling Symposium was a great success. Clearly, this annual event has become an important opportunity for veteran sidewalk counselors and new recruits alike to learn more effective ways to reach out to the women who mistakenly think abortion is an answer to their dilemma.