Unfortunately, there may be a time when threats or acts of violence against you become a reality while sidewalk counseling. It is important to know how to handle such a situation, and, in particular, when and how to involve the police.
When I arrived at the facility there were already some sidewalk counseling volunteers there. I spoke with one volunteer who said that one of the abortion facility escorts, Roy, was acting particularly aggressive that day. He was physically pushing his way in between sidewalk counselors and abortion-minded people at the facility. A couple of hours later, I saw two sidewalk counselors persuade an abortion-minded couple outside the facility to come down to talk with them.
Roy saw the sidewalk counselors in conversation with the facility’s potential customers and started marching aggressively in their direction. I could see that Roy was going to try to break up their conversation, so I walked over to them to intercept Roy. I stood with my back to the couple and faced Roy. When he was about ten feet away from me, he stuck his arm out horizontally at about shoulder height and continued to walk until he ran into me with his forearm.
Jacob Nels is the Operations Coordinator at Equal Rights Institute. One of the most important things Jacob brings to the table at ERI is his expertise in gracious dialogue, particularly with people who are post-abortive and abortion-minded. In addition to putting those skills to good use at college campus outreaches, Jacob has a regular presence outside an abortion clinic as a sidewalk counselor and has had the joy of helping many women, men, and children leave the clinic alive and whole.
Jacob Nels sidewalk counseling in Georgia
A few years ago I watched a black sedan pull into the parking lot of an abortion clinic. A man and a woman got out and walked up to the clinic, ignoring my attempts to engage them. After the man walked her into the clinic, he came back to his car for something. Raising my voice to carry across the parking lot separating us, I tried again to start a conversation with him. I said,
Jacob: Hey, man! I know this is a hard day. No one really wants to be here. I’m here if you want to talk.
Ross: I’m not for this. I don’t like it.
Jacob: What do you mean? Would you tell me your story?
To show my respect and friendship, I did something that almost always works with other men. There is a white line painted on the sidewalk that I cannot legally cross. Pressing my toes to the line, I extended my hand to the man and said,
Sometimes when I have an opportunity to share my faith in Jesus, I don’t take it.
Stay with me.
Sadly, many people have had negative experiences with Christians, which makes them disinclined to engage with one again. If I jump at the first chance I have to witness to them, they are more likely to close up and be unwilling to talk at all.Instead, I try to very intentionally create an environment where the person feels safe to discuss religion. [Tweet that!] It’s like the difference between welcoming someone to come inside and opening the door, and grabbing him by the hair and dragging him through it. Notice that I am not justifying Christians perpetually avoiding conversations about religion. We must be intentional about sharing our faith, but while also being prudent, making the most of the opportunity (Colossians 4:5-6). Sometimes the person never opens up, but other times, this approach really pays off.
On February 21st, 2015, Equal Rights Institute trained a group of students and community members in Bakersfield, CA. Then on the 23rd and 24th we brought them to CSU Bakersfield so they could put what they learned about dialogue into practice. We set up two simple poll tables to get conversations started.