Their presence caught me completely off guard.
Working at home a couple weeks ago, I decided to take a little mid-day break and walk to pick up a few items at the grocery store. The half-mile walk to the store situates me mostly through the heart of Ohio State University campus.
The familiar walk greeted me with the restaurants, stores and signs that have accompanied me dozens of times on High Street. My eyes trained a little farther up the street on this sunny summer day; I noticed something very different. Blurry to my not-quite-perfect vision, I started to make out young people standing next to sandwich boards and handing out pamphlets. Not something I see every day here, but not entirely unexpected on a large university campus. As my vision came into focus and my eyes trained on the images on their signs — I realized why they were there. The sandwich boards were splashed with horrible graphic photos of aborted fetuses. They were attempting to hand out anti-abortion pamphlets and sometimes engaging in discussions or arguments with passersby.
Barely conscious of my reaction in the moment, my pulse quickened, breath tightened in my chest and face flushed.
I was OUTRAGED.
Although I am a passionate, opinionated person, it takes a lot to really catch me off-guard and get me to react negatively, especially in a public place. But, that day I did. As I was walking by one of the young men, his pamphlets and signs, I shouted, “I’m actually appalled that you’re even here.”
The young man tried to engaged me. They were clearly ready for angry reactions like mine. Why are you appalled? At the images of abortion? I looked away from him and began to tune out the abortion-related statistics that he began to spout at me.
“I don’t want to hear your statistics,” I said. I quickly crossed the street and picked up my pace so that I could get through their three-block gauntlet of shame as quickly as possible.
As I walked away, I tried to slow my breath and calm myself down. I got to the grocery store and used that time to plot how I was going to deal with them on the way home. I’ve been calling upon all of us, particularly since the November election, to listen to those with whom we disagree. Especially when we have strong reactions, as I just did. I was kind of aggravated that I was now going to have to practice what I preached. Hate when that happens.
So I formulated this plan — I would pick one of the young protesters and ask him or her a simple question: “Why are you here?”
Underneath my strong emotions, I felt a little of my natural curiosity rise up. Why would young adults, who could be doing just about anything during a summer break, decide to spend their week pamphleting a university campus with anti-abortion materials? What would make them think that such tactics, especially the graphic photos, would have the impact they wanted?
Taking deep, yogic breaths I’ve trained to do for more than a decade, I walked straight through the rows and rows of signs, protesters eagerly handing you their pamphlets. About half-way though, I found a young, blond-haired, blue-eyed young man, who tried to shove a pamphlet in my hand.
I stopped and asked, “I don’t want to hear about policies or opinions. I just want to know, ‘Why are you personally here?’” He paused momentarily, perhaps with a flicker of excitement that he was actually getting to have a conversation. He said something like, “When I was younger [he could not have been more than 19 now], I saw a picture of what an abortion looked like. It made me realize how terrible it is. I believe that all life is created equal.”
I listened, then I replied, “Here’s what I’d encourage you to do — listen to the women who have made these decisions. Those decisions are complicated. This is about people, not policies.”
Realizing that even my deep breathing was not going to extend this conversation much longer, I began to walk, small reusable bag of groceries in my hand reminding me I had not yet had lunch. He said to me, “Ma’am, what is your name?”
I paused just long enough to say, “Nicole. That’s Reverend Nicole. I am an ordained United Church of Christ pastor.” I added that last part because I wanted to complicate his idea of who clergy are and what they believe. From the perplexed look on his face, I succeeded.
I finished my walk back to my apartment by ignoring the rest of these young people who continued their visual and verbal harassment of me and everyone else on this busy street.
I unpacked my groceries, made and ate my lunch and contemplated what else I could do.
I got online and gave another donation to Planned Parenthood. I then went on social media to let more people know that not every religious person believes the way these young protesters do.
As I reflected over the next few days, I tried to identify what made me so uncharacteristically angry and unsettled by these young adults. Then, all my reading of Brent Brown came back to me — it was shame.
On her website, (previously in her books like Daring Greatly) she defines shame as “the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging – something we’ve experienced, done, or failed to do makes us unworthy of connection.”
Here’s my note to these young protestors — the discomfort, the anger, the disgust that you probably see in the faces of many passersby is not simply disgust with your graphic images. The images you shove in people’s faces are not any worse than anything I’ve seen by watching The Walking Dead or by spending a shift in the Emergency Room as a hospital chaplain.
That discomfort, anger and disgust is actually shame. Even though your faces are typically polite and earnest, your signs and your pamphlets are judging me and shaming me for having the opinion that women and families should have options to make their own health and well-being decisions. You are telling me that I am not worthy of love and belonging because of the opinion I hold.
What about the women who are passing by who have already made the difficult decision to have an abortion? What if they had made that decision because the pregnancy resulted from rape or incest? Your signs shame them for what I’m sure was a gut-wrenching decision AND most likely causes them to re-experience the trauma they have already endured. My trouble thoughts also turned to the question, “What if people think this is a religious message (even though your signs are not overtly religious)? As a religious leader, I am so tired of having to work through the shame and the resulting anger people (very understandably) put upon ALL religious institutions because they think that your shaming voice is the only one out there. It’s not true. Yours is not the only opinion, nor is it “correct” one.
Shame does not change hearts and minds. Love does. Every. Time.
Try love, not shame next time.