There is that old adage, you can pick your friends but you can’t pick your family. Well, you can’t pick the people in your religion either. And there are some days that my fellow Christians bring me to a breaking point.
I was crying in front of the entire Planned Parenthood staff, as well as, the police officer who had escorted me in, on one of those days. They were lined up two by two. Two nurses in scrubs, two secretaries, two women in business suits all watching me cry. They stood their silently, with compassionate smiles on their faces, waiting for me to compose myself. I had never been inside a planned parenthood before, but it seemed like these women had experience watching people cry.
“I’m sorry for those Christians outside protesting.” I said wiping away my tears. “Sometimes I wish I was a Buddhist. They just seem like nicer people.”
I hadn’t expected to find myself inside a Planned Parenthood. But though a confluence of factors I was there. It was the morning of the Supreme Court Hobby Lobby decision that corporations could refuse to cover women’s contraception on religious grounds.
Apparently, corporations now had religious beliefs.
I scrolled through my twitter feed as people decried the unfair treatment of women’s health, and women in general.
Then in a rage I sent out this tweet and headed out the door.
I was on my way to coffee with my pastor friend Lawrence. We were going to celebrate all the churches that had decided to have booths at the Gay Pride Parade. And despite the Hobby Lobby ruling I was determined to remain positive about the weekend.
But as I waited at the red light I heard chanting at the intersection. When I looked my heart sank as I watched a hundred or so people marching up and down the sidewalk holding signs decrying Planned Parenthood and abortion. In the center of the group was a Catholic priest in a dark suit and white collar. Something in me snapped. It was one thing to watch people protest, but seeing a fellow minister rallying the troops sent me over the edge.
I pulled the car over to the side of the road and ran across the street with no idea what I was going to say to this priest. As I approached him I realized he was older than I expected. He still had dark brown hair but there were crow’s feet around his eyes, and his glasses were large and thick. I took a few deep breaths. Somehow his status as an old person seemed more intimidating than his priesthood.
As a pastor I felt like I had some grounds to argue with a priest, but as a thirty-year-old in a T-shirt and jeans I felt less than up to arguing with an older person.
“Hello Father?” I said still unsure of what I was going to say to him.
“Hello.” He smiled.
“I am a pastor and while I respect your right to protest,” I said rubbing the back of my neck and looking at the ground. “I would ask that you remove your collar. Because when you protest Planned Parenthood as a minister, you see,” I said pausing in disbelief that the words ‘remove your collar’ had just come out of my mouth, “well, it makes people think that all pastors feel like you do. And I have a hard enough time getting young people to come to church. I guess, I’m saying, your protest is really making Christianity look bad.”
He smiled condescendingly. “I am pro-life. Across the board.” His hand waved between us. “I wore my collar to the Iraq War protest. Because I don’t believe in killing civilians and I don’t believe in killing babies. Do you feel okay about me protesting war in my collar?” I was completely unprepared for this priest to be a war protester. But he clearly had me pegged. I had gone to a number of Iraq War protests and had recently received an email from a pastor asking me to wear my collar to a gay rights rally at the capital. I didn’t, mostly because I didn’t have a collar.
“Okay, but,” I said still angry at him but unsure how to continue, “I know women who have decided to have abortions and when they see you here with a sign, it’s like a drive-by shaming. I mean how is that loving?”
He smiled again. “When I visit the women I mentor in prison, they always tell me they wished someone would have tried to talk them out of it.” This priest was killing me. He was a war protester and he mentored women in prison.
I was suddenly regretting my decision to get out of my car. Two people with grey hair holding signs that said “Abortion is murder” and “Close Planned Parenthood” stopped by the priest and asked him if everything was alright. “Just a friendly conversation.” He nodded, reassuring them.
I looked down at the priests sign for the first time. It was in Spanish. The priest was reaching out to the Latino community. He was doing everything that I would do if I was in his shoes. It was hard to stay mad at him. But I had heard enough stories from women who had decided to terminate their pregnancy that I still firmly believed protesting Planned Parenthood was wrong.
“Let me tell you something son,” the way the priest said ‘son’ made my blood boil again. “Jesus said ‘Let the children come to me’ and Planned Parenthood is killing those children.” He said with finality holding up his sign in front of me.
“But-“ he cut me off. “Let the children come to me.” He said over me.
“I know, but I think that it’s more complicated-“
“Let the children come to me.” He repeated. It was clear he was done talking to me.
A car drove by and honked. I turned around and they were giving the priest a thumbs up. This is useless I thought. My heart sinking deeper than it had when I read the Hobby Lobby ruling.
Across the parking lot I could see three cops standing outside the Planned Parenthood.
“Thank you for taking to the time to talk to me Father.” I said to him. He had turned around and was holding his sign towards the street. Another car honked in approval.
“Sure, thank you.” He said over his shoulder.
I got back in my car and drove across the parking lot and walked up to the doors of Planned Parenthood. One of the cops put his hands up. He had clearly watched me drive from the protest. “No I’m not a protester. I just want to thank the people who work here.” I paused “And apologize for the protesters.” The officer kept his hand in front of my chest.
“Okay, I’ll ask.” He seemed unconvinced.
He disappeared through the tinted glass door and his head re-emerged a few minutes later. “Okay, they said you can come in.”
Six women of various ages and races were standing in the lobby. I looked at them and they looked back at me straight faced. I took a deep breath. “I just want to say that I’m sorry for the protesters. I’m a minister and I want you to know that those people out there don’t speak for all Christians. They don’t speak for me.” A few of the Planned Parenthood employees smiled. “I know several women who have had to make really difficult decisions. And I want to thank you for being so kind and compassionate with the women who come to this clinic.” That’s when I started crying.
I looked down at the floor feeling uncomfortable with my lack of composure. I had come in here hoping to encourage them, and now I probably seem like a crazy person.
“I asked the priest to take his collar off.” I said wiping away my tears. “I’m just sorry for those Christians outside protesting. Sometimes I wish I was a Buddhist. They just seem like nicer people.”
I looked up and a woman in a tweed blazer was standing right next to me. She smiled and in the voice my elementary school teacher used to use she said, “Thank you for coming in and sharing your heart with us.” Her hand leading me towards the door. I think she suspected I was mentally unstable. The police office nodded at me letting me know it was time to go.
I wiped the tears out of my eyes, got back in my car, and stared at the steering wheel wondering how I was going to get people to come to my church when the rest of Christianity seemed bent on destroying our reputation.
The harsh reality is, Christianity is a branding disaster. We have booths at the Gay Pride Parade and protesters outside Planned Parenthood. And as tempting as it is to just clean house and force everyone to get on brand, I have to remember this isn’t a new problem. Its been with us from the very beginning.
Christianity isn’t a corporation where you can hire and fire. Its a family. Its God’s family.
And when I get to those breaking points I have to take a deep breath and remember: Jesus had Judas, Paul had Apollos, I have this Priest outside Planned Parenthood, and he has me.