This past Sunday, something pretty scary happened at the First Unitarian Universalist Church of New Orleans (First UUNO). Operation Save America, a fundamentalist anti-abortion organization that is known for descending upon abortion clinics and making life a living hell for anyone coming or going, chose to land in one of our congregations. Several members of OSA showed up at First UUNO as if there to attend worship, and during the service stood up and began verbally accosting the worshippers and pushing anti-abortion pamphlets into their hands.
I don’t think they were prepared for what followed. That Sunday, First UUNO was commissioning the College of Social Justice youth leaders who had been gathering all week. The youth leaders immediately circled in and began singing. Rev. De Vandiver, a New Orleans-based Community Minister who was leading worship that morning, asked the protesters to please respect the worship space and if they couldn’t, to relocate to the front steps of the church. As she spoke, church leaders began to carefully guide the protesters towards the front door. Some protesters respected her request and remained silently behind. At the same time. Rev. Jim VanderWeele of Community Church Unitarian Universalist called the police who gathered a block away in case things got violent. The Director of Religious Education did a sweep of all points of entry, ensured they were locked, and discerned that OSA had indeed surrounded the church. OSA had identified the rooms where the children met for Religious Education and were pressing disturbing pictures against the windows. The children were moved to an interior room, with a note left on their classroom doors to inform parents of where they had been moved to. Back in the sanctuary, Rev. Vandiver preached about how fundamentalism offers only one path of truth, whereas liberal religion recognizes a diversity of paths, and that this offers us a significant way to engage the challenges of our world. After the service, Rev. Vandiver called Planned Parenthood and within ten minutes escorts arrived at the church to help parishioners return safely to their vehicles.
First, let me say that I’m extremely disturbed that this has happened. This protest was a violation of our sacred space, and when I say “our” I mean it. We Unitarian Universalists are in sacred covenantal relationships of mutuality. When one congregation is violated in this way, we are all violated.
But unfortunately, I’m not surprised. I have been active in the reproductive justice movement in the United States for the last nine years. The anti-abortion movement has become increasingly radicalized, willing to use violence to achieve its goals, from intimidating women as they enter clinics to murdering the doctors that serve them. I’ve stood outside the entrance to Hope Clinic in Granite City IL, allowing anti-abortion protesters to hurl insults at me hoping to deflect some of their venom away from the patients on their way in. They hate clergy who are pro-choice. We drive them crazy because we use the same scriptures they do and pray to the same God. They take pictures of us and our vehicle license plates and post them online. We get hate letters in the mail. It’s very intimidating. But heh, we aren’t the ones trying to get an abortion. So if just by standing there in a clergy collar, holding a sign that proclaims a love bigger than their hate, we drive the protesters a little crazy? Crazy enough to direct their venom at us? May it make one woman’s day just a bit easier.
But we don’t take chances either. We always register with the clinic so they know we’re there, and escorts always take us back to our cars.
This summer, anti-abortionists got a big pass from the Supreme Court to escalate the level of bullying they can legally get away with. They no longer have to respect the buffer zone that used to keep them away from the entrances of abortion clinics. This gives anti-abortion protesters the right to get up close and personal. Just like the protesters who took their place at First UUNO, they can shout their judgments and push their pamphlets into the eyes and hands of women who just need a break, who need some respect and some space to access the health care that they have decided is best for them and their families.
It makes my blood run cold…..
I am incredibly relieved that there was no physical violence or bloodshed at First UUNO.
But let’s reflect a bit about how First UUNO responded. First, they responded with respect. No one yelled back at the protesters. No one pushed back. The response was non-violent. This did not mean that the good people at First UUNO simply took it on the chin. They claimed their sacred space back from those filling it with hateful words and pictures by responding with music. They claimed it by establishing the expectations for those who wished to occupy it. They then enforced the expectation by gently and respectfully removing those who refused to meet the expectations they had set. They also didn’t take any chances. Doors were locked. Kids were relocated. Police were called. Planned Parenthood was contacted for help.
The ministers, the youth leaders, the Director of Religious Education, and all the good people attending that morning lived into their faith in every action that was taken that morning. They witnessed to our values of respect and diversity every step of the way. We can learn a lot from them.
Actually, we have to learn from them because what happened to First UUNO could happen in any of our churches. I’m not saying we should expect it. Most of our churches will never face this kind of sacred violation, thank the spirit, but that doesn’t mean it can’t happen. In fact, given the increasing legal challenges to reproductive justice, and the fact that many Unitarian Universalist leaders are publicly active in the women’s reproductive justice movement, we need to be ready. Radical anti-abortionists don’t play fair. Rev. De Vandiver called it right. These are religious terrorists. These are strong words, but let’s call a spade a spade. By standing up for freedom, for respect, for the true complexity and diversity of life, we could be made targets. This means we have to have safety procedures in place and practice using them. It also means becoming skilled in non-violent passive resistance when others would violate us for the purpose of furthering their political goals. We can turn that violation on its head and proclaim our values, healing values that we believe will usher in true justice and peace.
OSA crossed a big line on Sunday and I think it could turn around and bite them. Americans have a deep respect for religious freedom and for the sanctity of religious houses of worship. No matter what you may think about what goes on inside any specific house of worship, violating sacred space is a big deal. Sunday’s violation is a direct mirror of the kind of violation that religious fundamentalist terrorists would like to enact legally in this country against all women.
New Orleans Unitarian Universalists are now planning a media outreach to respond to what has happened to them, to use this awful experience as a tool to continue changing the hearts of this nation, to show that religious people have diverse ways of being pro-child and pro-family, and that religious liberalism might just be where we see the clearest embodiment of what it means to be, dare I say, pro-life in its truest sense.
Thank you New Orleans Unitarian Universalists for your proud witness. May the rest of us be worthy of it.