Religious Terrorism meets Religious Liberalism

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.

About kristataves

I am a Unitarian Universalist minister serving the Unitarian Church of Quincy IL. St. Louis is my residence. I am a dual American and Canadian citizen living in the great state of Missouri and building my life in this wonderful and sometimes very frustrating state.
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42 Responses to Religious Terrorism meets Religious Liberalism

  1. ericfolkerth says:

    My thoughts and prayers are with all of our Unitarian friends.
    Flip Benham and this group also did this years ago in Dallas at First Presbyterian in Dallas…ie, disrupting a public worship service. A plan of action was implemented there….and when Operation Rescue moved to begin protests at the church I served at the time, we copied the plan that First Presby had developed.
    Any Unitarian who would like to learn more about what was done to counteract Operation Rescue. Please contact me and I’d be happy to talk it through.

  2. conniemcleod says:

    I real this with horror and disbelief. This past Sunday I was just 90 miles away in my own sacred UU church in Baton Rouge. I know this could have just as easily happened there. I also reiterate. “Thank you New Orleans Unitarian Universalists for your proud witness.”

  3. Thank you for writing this. I appreciate your thoughtful, well written description of this event. I’m proud of the church’s response and am saddened for this organization that feels it needs to do things like this. I don’t believe in a God who would condone this kind of action.

  4. Erika Morphy says:

    I am so proud of you all. I doubt if I could have handled such a hateful spiteful mean-spirited intrusion with the same dignity.

  5. Brian Kiely says:

    Reblogged this on Ministerial Musings and commented:
    An excellent example of living our Principles into the world. It’s also a good reminder that our congregation (every congregation) has a plan in place for handling an intrusion like this. Many years ago I remember attending a service in San Francisco which was disrupted by a disturbed individual In that case as well, the minister graciously stopped the service, spent a few minutes with the man, arranged for a further meeting after the service while ushers respectfully led him to a safe place where they could begin to help get him the care he needed. Nothing makes me prouder that seeing moments where our UU values are put to the test and come up as more than adequate to the situation. Bravo, NO UU’s.

  6. Still can’t believe that we are facing our own religious wars right here at home – the very issue causing wars all over the world. Now, I’m not saying we shouldn’t have religion, just that maybe we shouldn’t be shouting it from the roof tops (and/or posting) our own personal religious beliefs expecting others to believe what we shout or post. Religion is an individual choice which needs to be respected by others even when its different. There is no one religion that has all the answers, no one religion better than another. So enjoy the peace your religion is supposed to bring to your life – and leave others to their peace in their religion. In other words STFU!!!

    • S. Cohen says:

      If you think about it, 99% of the wars in Mankind’s history has had one thing in common: religion. Difference of opinion on the multiple forms of religion that exist. Whether you are Catholic, Christian, Muslim, Pagan, Atheist or any other various form of religion out there, you have been at one point subjected to religious persecution by someone with a different point of view. For those who think the Gulf War or the wars in the Middle East are for oil, you are sorely mistaken, as religion is at the base of it: Christianity vs. Muslim, fighting for domination of the other class. George W Bush’s wars were based on his version of the “Axis of Evil.” Regardless of how much “good” a particular Church does, how much does it benefit the rest of the world? In this specific case, I will give credit to the church members who peacefully turned back the protestors. If it can be done in peace, I am all for it. It’s not a case of who’s got the right religion. Religion is becoming obsolete in today’s society, as a good portion of today’s modern religiously faithful are filled with hate for anyone who believes in something else.

      • Darren says:

        Gotta disagree about 99% of wars being about religion. They are about power and territory (which often comes back to power). Oil (and money) are just a means to power. Vietnam was not about religion, nor was Korea. Neither was WW2 or WW1. The Napoleonic wars? US Civil war? Even the fighting between Israel and its neighbors is not about religion – it’s about territory (Palestine) and the lack of freedom (power) experienced by Muslim refugees.

  7. Jane says:

    Thanks so much for this. I am so proud of FUUNO’s response.

  8. rhology says:

    You used “Terrorism” in the title of the article. Everything that came after is a joke, given how ridiculous that word is in this context. Shame.

    • kristataves says:

      A terrorist is someone who uses violence in the pursuit of their goals, violence for the purposes of inducing fear, shame, and retreat. There is no doubt in my mind that the individuals who entered First UUNO on Sunday used violence. Violence is not just physical violence, but also emotional and spiritual violence. It was a violation of the congregation.

      • rhology says:

        But they didn’t use violence. That is a very serious charge. If they used violence, why weren’t the police summoned to arrest them?

        So…you think that talking to people is emotionally and spiritually violent. That’s the furthest from what I thought “open-minded” UUs would say. I thought you were actually tolerant and all that. Instead, aren’t you yourself engaging in violence by radically mislabeling these people to further your own agenda?

        Finally, you seem to think that “violating the congregation” is morally wrong. May I ask how you know that? On what basis do you impose your morals on the OSA people?

      • It wasn’t terrorism. It was harassment. It was wrong, but please don’t compare this to terrorism. I’ve seen and lived terrorism.

        I can understand how the people in this congregation could feel fear and have every right to that feeling. But, again, what happened here wasn’t terrorism, it was emotionally abusive and while it is understandable that people can feel the ordeal was an attack on their beliefs and peace of mind it was not a violent act.

        Terrorism looks very differently. Terrorism has no regard for lives lost, or people hurt. I’m very sorry for what this congregation had to endure, but I don’t see it as a time to make a play on words.

        Rhology: What they went through wasn’t “a joke” as you put it, simply because of the misuse of a word. I would not have liked to live through that experience. Can you imagine the confusion and unease the attendees may have felt?

      • rhology says:


        I hope they did feel unease. Unease in this life is nothing compared to the wrath of God that is coming upon the sons and daughters of disobedience, such as anyone who joins a UU church.
        And I don’t know about confusion. The message was pretty clear, as I understand it, and it was the same message that Jesus preached: Repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand.
        This is the single MOST LOVING message I or anyone could give to a UU.

      • Labeling another being is maybe dangerous, too. One might loose the perspective of oneness, which is where peacefulness resides.

    • Heather says:

      I also would not call what happened “terrorism” but as a UU I do feel its impacts strongly. I’ve spent time in the congregation they visited and found it one of the warmest I’ve ever entered – that experience makes me feel they are especially undeserving of this violation, but of course no congregation of any faith deserves that experience. Whatever their mindset, which I freely admit I cannot comprehend, OSA meant to inflict their beliefs on another group’s with no respect to how we as UUs arrived at our mindset. We would not walk into their space during worship and do the same to them. It is not okay what they did and the folks at First UUNO had every right to insist on controlling the shape of their Sunday morning worship experience – after all it was their sanctuary not OSA’s. The members of OSA can believe what they want to believe – that does not mean they get to insist that belief has more weight in this world than ours or any others’ simply because it is theirs. And make no mistake that is what they were trying to do. If we walked into their space, they would have the right to expect we be respectful of their practices – it is not a joke for us to ask the same of them.

    • defter says:

      While many may have experienced greater violence, intimidation is one of the oldest accepted definitions of the word terrorism and its strategic role in creating violence is a vital part of understanding how terrorism functions in societies. ( Invasion and desecration of memorial rites where people are gathered, many vulnerable and in grief, is an act of deep violation that is recognized in many different cultures going back to prehistory. Describing this act as “talking” is absurd and your motives in posting have been made clear. The police were contacted and they have, indeed, assured citizens that they will have an active security presence after this and other incidents:

    • arachne646 says:

      I have a good idea of the kind of pictures that those terrorists would have been holding up against the children’s activity room windows. They were hoping to evoke emotions of disgust and panic in the community’s youth. That is terrorism.

    • I completely disagree with you. Terrorism is exactly what it was. Shame on you; for you obviously feel the protesters were in the right to attack that congregation in their own sacred space.

    • I, J says:

      Rogue members of this group were caught planning bombings of abortion clinics, and another killed Dr. George Tiller in his church in 2009. In addition, July was the six-year anniversary of a shooting at another Unitarian Universalist church. This is the context when these people violated the UU’s sanctuary and targeted their children. The experience felt in the church at the time is called intimidation, fright and: terror.

  9. Mary Gelfand says:

    Thank you, Krista, for this well thought out response. I could not be prouder of First UU–the church where I learned how to be a Unitarian Universalist.

  10. Megan says:

    This makes me so sad. They claim the love of Jesus, yet I see so much anger in their hearts. Do they truly practice what they preach? I believe what makes this world beautiful is the many religions we are all free to practice. Buddhism, Hinduism, and other religions have been around much longer than Christianity. After studying world religion, there are so many similarities in the web that connects us to the spirit anyway … it should not matter what path we take. Thoughts are with my fellow Unitarians. They acted with the love they are known for.

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  12. Kim says:

    Good job. Those fundamentalist terrorists are the worst haters. How can “your GOD” convert you into that?

  13. Kim McElwee says:

    I am very impressed with the Church’s response to these horrible acts. Skip over, if you will, the acts committed toward the adults, but adults must do something more when children are involved. Under Louisiana Law, if a person is placed in fear of receiving a battery, that is an assault. It is a crime and the fear felt by children is very damaging. Anyone in this country, for whatever cause, or pursuant to whatever hateful interpretation of a constitutional right, who assaults children should be held to answer in the criminal justice system. If these people can assault children in a church in America, they can do anything.

  14. Proud of the New Orleans church, but really doubtful of how much Americans actually respect houses of worship sure if it’s a Baptist church or any number of mainstream Protestant churches they’re safe enough as are most Catholic churches, but here in the south where I live UU churches are considered to be not real Christians along with Jehovah’s Witnesses and Mormans. I’ve heard people call them cults and Pagans my whole life, and seen people vandalise their churches with impunity. The local police department generally shares the same sentiment, and only pretends to do any sort of investigation. Jewish Temples and Muslim Mosques get even worse treatment. There is something scary going on in this country, the fundies are turning into a sort of Christian Taliban believe as they believe and do as they tell you to, or face harassment, intimidation or worse. Some of them have become increasingly legalistic and downright hateful, the Bible becomes a book by which to judge others as unworthy, unChristian and even unAmerican and to marginalize those who they feel don’t fit the mold. It’s scary and I wish I had more hope for Americas future, but I don’t I see the seeds of another civil war being planted. I just can’t decide if this one is going to be liberal versus conservative/fundimentalist, or the very rich versus the poor and middle class, but something has to give soon before something awful happens.

    • It’s Mormon not Morman and actually it is properly LDS I’ve known Mormon kids to have their lockers at school vandalized by “Christian” kids. Christian taliban is probably right..but how did we get to this point? And may I say that If Christ came back tomorrow there would be a lot of shocked “Christians” when he refuses to recognize his “followers” that spew this hate. “My God loves me but he doesn’t like you” seems to becoming the major doctrine of Protestants.

  15. Knowsrhology says:

    rhology needs to be quietly escorted from this building. rhology is not a “troll.” he is one of another cell of terrorists.

  16. Nils Hruch says:

    My apologies to those offended by this un-Christian behavior. Unfortunately not all that call themselves Christians understand the difference between the Old Covenant and the New Covenant. Jesus ushered in a new era bringing Grace to all that believe. Jesus gave us two commandments: Love God and Love your neighbor. Love is defined in 1 Corinthians 13. Love does not mean you believe or condone behavior not compatible with New Testament teaching nor does it mean you condemn or judge people.The Holy Spirit brings conviction where needed. We are called to Love. The behavior at this gathering place was disruptive and did nothing to change anyone’s mind or demonstrate the Love of God. Prayer is a better activity.

  17. Sharon Williams says:

    Good blog. Can I give it to my minister and DRE at Unitarian Universalist Church of Arlington, VA? We have a reproductive clinic in Falls Church, VA that we have taken our OWL 8th grade class to just about every year for the past several. I have always thought something like this could happen to us too.

  18. Sharon Williams says:

    Thank you for your witness

  19. David Pollard says:

    Reluctantly agree that this is harassment, not terrorism. If they had smashed up your sanctuary, or threatened violence against health care workers, that would cross the line. What happened several years ago to the Oak Ridge UU Church was terrorism. Fortunately nothing like that has happened to one of our North American congregations since then.
    That stated, harassment in the middle of a service is not trivial or acceptable. It does sound like the congregation responded admirably to these folks.

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  21. greyrobedsr says:

    I believe the title of the original post used ‘religious terrorism’ not terrorism. Religious terrorism involves carrying out any type of action whereby the influences, motivations, and goals are predominantly religious in character. Considering OSA’s own words prior to planning the nationwide protest, e.g. “Providentially, we will be…” and subsequent actions they took to disrupt, disgrace, scare, and act otherwise un-Christlike in the name of Christ & in a house of God, I’d say what they did in New Orleans was in fact an act of religious terrorism. I realize OSA plucks here & there from scripture to justify their deeds, but in truth, there is not one scintilla of pure faith in it.

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  23. Kathleen says:

    Reblogged this on KaleidoscopE and commented:
    Well said, Krista.

  24. Patti Gunderson says:

    As along time social justice chair, volunteer and clinic escort from the UU church of Pensacola, Fl. I commend the NOUU’s for their response and their refusal to be intimidated. Thank you for being you (and UU). Know that I, and many others, stand with you. I’m looking forward to visiting your congregation on my next visit to NOLA.

  25. Souris Optique says:

    Of course it was terrorism! Just because they claim they frightened and trapped children out of “love” doesn’t mean it’s true, or that someone so morally bankrupt as to disrupt a moment of silence for the dead this way even knows what that word means.

  26. leo grady says:

    i commend you all. i used to live near a womans clinic that offered abortion to ladies that chose that route. this was years ago and the protestors behavior was disgusting back then. what they can get away with now is offensive on every level, these people need to be controlled, and monitored, they are becoming a blight on society. they are free to believe and feel whatever they choose but, when it comes to this level of harassment, and stalking somthing must be done. my heart goes out to all of you involved, and especially to the woman that sees abortion as her only option, im sure its a hellish decision and will affect them for the rest of their lives (one way or another) at that point in their lives the last thing they need is idiots shouting slurs and messages of hate at them, they are already traumatized enough im sure. so please be strong and brave, these women NEED you and your non judgmental support. thank you for your acts of courage, you all deserve a huge hug, and a even bigger pat on the back, your doing the right thing, do not doubt that. thank you for your time and commitment.
    sincerely, Leo Grady.

  27. jollyjudy08 says:

    Kudos to the congregation for the way they responded.

    I don’t think “passive non-violent resistance” is the best term. As I recall, Gandhi said in the movie about him, “I have never advocated PASSIVE anything.” I see non-violent resistance as being ACTIVE.

  28. syrens says:

    Reblogged this on syrens and commented:
    So, uh, this happened in New Orleans…

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