Other Stories from the Original Sacred Assemblies for the Unborn (SAU), 1989-1991
John C. Rankin
[excerpted and adapted from First the Gospel, Then Politics …, 1999, Vol. 2, not published]
A Marxist-Leninist at Street Level
On June 3, 1989 at our first Sacred Assembly for the Unborn at Preterm, at which hundreds of people were present, the largest banner of the abortion-rights activists said, “Oppose the oppression of working women.” Below it was the larger main slogan: “Fight the Reaganite Anti-Abortion Movement!” On the bottom it said, “Marxist-Leninist Party.” The man in charge of the banner learned that I was the organizer of the Christian pro-life group involved, made his way over to me, introduced himself as secretary for the Marxist-Leninist Party of Boston, and wondered with open hostility if I were a “Reaganite anti-choice clone.” From there he lectured me for up to 30 minutes, in language laden with Marxist nomenclature and assumptions.
He was a large man, and as I listened to him, I found many points where I could have easily raised objections. But instead I remained silent on those divisive points and affirmed with nods or brief words the various places where I agreed. Toward the end of this time, he suddenly realized that I was listening to him – and was visibly shocked. His presumed stereotype of me was wrong, and he perceived the respect I gave him as an individual.
Our conversation was interrupted by some exigency as we stood among so many people on the sidewalk and street. Sometime later, he approached me again, but this time with an eagerness for a true exchange of ideas. We talked, and I made my arguments for a biblical worldview and its pro-life perspectives, and soon he was beginning to ask me question after question. Again the conversation was interrupted. At the end of the morning, he approached me a third time and said, “I have just one more question.” I forget the exact question he posed, but it had something to do with how Christians should conduct themselves in political disputes, and my answer was simple and straightforward. Then he broke into a big smile, shook my hand with the strength of a rail-splitter, said “thank you,” and left.
The power to love hard questions paves the way for the power to love “enemies.” Initially, this man regarded me as the “enemy.” But from my perspective I have no “enemies” who are human beings. My only enemies are the devil and his demons. But there are those who are enemies of the Gospel, or who at least they think they are. It all depends whether or not they understand the true Gospel, and if they have been burned by betrayal or hypocrisy in the name of the church or Christianity.
Acid Test of Integrity
In our Sacred Assemblies for the Unborn at New England’s largest abortion center, Preterm, from 1989-1991, an important component of our strategy was a commitment to communication, face to face, with abortion-rights activists. They were from the Boston chapter of the NOW and other allied organizations. They had recruited many students from the college campuses, acting in counter-demonstration to our presence.
In the fall of 1989, I had four students from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary doing “field education” under my supervision. One student, Andy Davis, now a pastor with a Ph.D. in Church History, was in charge on a given Saturday in October. Andy was holding a sign next to several abortion-rights activists, each holding their signs, and he sought to initiate conversation. One college-age woman conversed with him for some 45 minutes, but in a distant fashion. NOW had told their recruits not to engage in conversation with us, saying that we had an ulterior agenda to eventually surprise them, rush in and physically block access to the abortion center. This we were theologically opposed to doing, but NOW did not yet trust that to be the case. In other words, this woman was committed to being there since we were there, and perhaps the conversation helped her pass the time.
At one point she asked Andy a question, and Andy said something like, “That is a good question, and I really don’t know the answer. I’ll have to get back to you.” This freedom to admit when we do not know the answer highlights integrity in the power to love hard questions – in this case, it was not having the right answer per se as much as having a genuine and humble love that made the difference. This woman was astonished at his honesty, and then entered into a warm and truly probing discussion, and two of her friends joined in as well. For the next 45 minutes, they discussed one question: Who is Jesus Christ?
Andy communicated across the chasm. More remarkably yet, this woman returned to Preterm five months later looking for him. He was not there, so she asked the seminary student in charge that day, Bill Wilder, earlier referenced, how she could contact him, and Bill provided the information. Her statement went something like this, “Where is that fellow I talked with in October? He asked me a couple of questions that have been bugging me ever since, and I need to talk with him.”
When we first arrived at Preterm on June 3, 1989, it was the result of much groundwork, so that we had about 225 people come down, many for part of the morning, and some for all of it (7 a.m. to noon). The abortion-rights supporters were present in roughly equal number. We then came down several more times that summer, and finally by the autumn, we had a presence every Saturday, though the numbers at each event were more modest.
Boston NOW and their allied organizations were organized almost like a para-military organization. They had cell-phones (when they were expensive and comparatively rare) and walkie-talkies, and a very distinct hierarchal structure, where we could identify their chapter president who was in charge, and various “lieutenants” (as I called them) underneath her, coordinating other NOW members, and the larger core of college students. The NOW recruits were told that we were Nazi-types, and were in reality trying to catch them off guard and “rush” to blockade access to Preterm at an unguarded moment. Thus, psychologically, most of their recruits were poised the whole time, awaiting a “rush” that never came.
In preparation for this fiction, the NOW lieutenants were frantic as they moved about the perimeter of the crowd, watching for any “signal” on our part that would indicate the coming “rush.” During the first hour-and-a-half on June 3, we essentially worshiped in song and prayer, and NOW et al. chanted slogans until they tired of it (it was much harder for them to yell slogans to try and drown out our worship, than it was for us [on our lungs] to joyfully, peacefully sing). During this time, the detail of Brookline police officers were keeping us and the NOW contingent separate, even though we had written them beforehand outlining our planned conduct.
After NOW et al. tired of their chants, we later brought our worship to a close for a time. It was hot and sunny, on its way to temperatures exceeding 90 degrees. We were equipped with plenty of ice-cold spring water, and NOW apparently was not. We began to distribute it to Christian and pagan alike, and in the process it naturally served an important priority, which was to engage the NOW activists in honest dialogue at street-side. Most of the NOW activists, especially the college students, were grateful for the water.
I was told of one encounter, however, that was as tragic as it was comical. As one of our volunteers was passing out the cups of water, a woman reached out to take it, then hesitated and looked at the person offering the water, and queried, “Which side are you on?” When she learned his Christian identity, she refused the water. But she was the exception as it turned out.
Very quickly, dozens of ad hoc conversations broke out, involving groups of two, several or up to fifteen people from both sides engaged with each other in discussion about our presence, abortion and the Gospel. Prior to that June 3, I had come down once myself to gain a sense of the territory, and had engaged in conversation with some pro-life picketers whom I knew. One, as best I remember, was a member of OR and had been a supporter of my ministry on college campuses. When I spoke to him about my strategy to engage the abortion-rights activists in honest dialogue at street-level, he told me how impossible it was for such a goal to be realized. He profiled for me their antagonistic nature, and how what I did on the campuses was great, but in front of an abortion center it was a different reality.
But I felt otherwise, and to see it come to pass was a joy. At its height that Saturday, some 100-200 people from both sides were involved, and the din of conversation was so great, that it competed well with the street noises and passing trolleys, cars, buses and trucks – almost like the din which precedes an event in a concert hall when the lobby is packed with people awaiting the opening of the doors. It was exceedingly fruitful, as I participated in various discussions, and in the intervening times, circled about to gain a larger perspective.
After one such circling, as I made my way back to the center of the discussions nearest the doors of Preterm, I stopped to look around and gave an ear. As I did, I noticed the president of Boston NOW about ten feet away. As I did, a sudden panic came over her as she observed what was going on about her. She then spoke to one of her “lieutenants,” and said, “What’s happening here? We are not in control. We must put a stop to this!”
She then gave instructions to have the conversations forcibly broken up, and the lieutenants and others actually grabbed their own people, shoving them away from our people, and commanded them to cease talking with us. Even yet, about half of the NOW recruits ignored these commands and continued their conversations. So, for our first several times down to Preterm, we saw large numbers and much interaction with NOW recruits, and increasing frustration on the part of the NOW leadership and its lieutenants. They were not “in control” in their censorship of informed choice. We had the godly control based on the power to give, the power to live in the light, the power of informed choice, the power to love hard questions, the power to love enemies and the power to forgive.
In one of those early assemblies, one of our volunteers heard one of the NOW recruits ask one of the lieutenants how to respond to our slogan, “You have the power to choose life.” The NOW leader responded, “Well, that’s their language, and we tell our people not to use it anymore.” They forfeited the language of choice, and thus we saw the reversal of the reversal. They tacitly acknowledged that their “pro-choice” rhetoric is dishonest, and that the power to give and the power of informed choice, as rolled into our slogan, redeemed the language of choice to protect the unborn.
It was very frustrating for these lieutenants. There was one young woman in particular, a “lieutenant” with NOW, with whom I crossed paths often. We never spoke, but she knew who I was. Her energy level was very high. One time we had a remarkable morning at Preterm, where worship was powerful, witness was engaging and where we noted seven women turning away by the power of informed choice from their abortion appointments.
Afterward, I saw her sitting on the sidewalk as most people had left, her head buried in her hands. We were gathering up our signs, and in my only interaction with her, I stopped as I walked past. She looked at me, and I said, “God bless you.” I cannot now remember her exact words, as I must not have written them down at the time. But it was something like, “Yes, I need it.” In that moment I saw the Holy Spirit working on her heart, as she had come to know what our true agenda was – to show equal love to women and their unborn, to show the power to love enemies, to state with conviction that “You have the power to choose life.”
Part of Boston NOW’s paramilitary organization was the presence of “peacekeepers” who wore armbands to identify themselves.
I was once engaged in a conversation with such a “peacekeeper” named Erica, and a man who was also wearing a purple arm band approached her and said, “You are not allowed to talk with them if you are wearing a peacekeeper arm band.” Erica questioned the policy, and after she did not change his mind, she took off her arm band and we continued the conversation.
I then said to the man, who would not face me, “Oh, you mean that dialogue is not a part of peacekeeping?” Stone silence on his part, but he listened intently to the dialogue that Erica and I continued, standing nearby the whole time.
Their fear of dialogue and honest questions came to the point where by March of 1990, we were told by some of the escorts that the word had gone out from Boston NOW to stop recruiting people to come and counter-protest our presence. The word was that we were persuading too many of them, especially among the college recruits. Now persuasion involves many levels, from a salting influence of helping to remove false stereotypes, to complete conversion to Jesus Christ. What I took this to mean was mostly in the “salting” capacity, the rototilling then scattering of the seed. It was clear to us from the outset that Boston NOW and their allied organizations tried hard to portray us as bigots, anti-democratic, homophobes, Nazis and such.
But from our initial Sacred Assembly, this false stereotype was shattered. In the din of conversations catalyzed that day, I remember overhearing one abortion-rights advocate exclaim in wonder, as she was observing the event, “Why, these people are nice!” The reversal of the reversal, and the devil fears such redemptive power. Thus, from March 1990, until we ceased activity with the bankruptcy of our organization in June 1991, there was no organized opposition to our presence at Preterm apart from a few exceptions. There were only the few escorts and occasional others. We won the territory spiritually, and were able to concentrate more on worship.