Interviewer's note: study after study confirm many women choose abortion because they feel they don't have the resources to care for a child. Sidewalk counselors work to connect these women to resources in their communities. This work transforms—and literally saves—lives.
People who aren’t involved in the pro-life movement (and even some within it) tend to believe that those who stand outside abortion clinics are there to shame and terrify vulnerable abortion-minded women. Interestingly, in this interview Serena discusses these very type of ultra-aggressive protestors and how they make her goals—to reassure women and get them resources—much more difficult. Still, she's tenacious.
I'm an atheist. I don't share Serena's beliefs about God or Jesus. But I can’t help but note how Serena's faith encourages and emboldens her to love and support other people in difficult circumstances. It's admirable work. (You can also read an interview with a secular sidewalk counselor here.)
How did you get started sidewalk counseling? What draws you to the sidewalk compared to other types of pro-life work?
I got started sidewalk counseling after seeing Unplanned. I had gone to the movie not even knowing what it was about and it was like watching my life unfold before my eyes.
I was raped at 13 years old by an uncle and taken for an abortion at Ulrich Klopfer's clinic. For 30 years I did not talk about my abortion because it was something I wanted to forget happened. It was by far worse than my rape. I didn't know what abortion was when I went to that clinic but once I learned, it almost destroyed my life. I nearly lost everything. My marriage was almost over, and I was using drugs and alcohol to numb my pain.
One night after drinking heavily, I texted some friends to come get me. I knew I had too much to drink and I didn't want to end up in jail. But no one would come get me. I had burned all my bridges. I sat in my car and cried and prayed for help. That night God met me in my car and lavished me in a love that I had never felt before. I made it home and my husband welcomed me back. That began my healing process from my rape. But I never talked about the abortion.
When I saw Unplanned, I felt moved to tell the rest of my story, though I wasn't sure how exactly. I called our local Right To Life and asked if they ever minister to women before they go to abortion clinics. They explained they were going to start training people to sidewalk counsel in response to Whole Women's Health opening nearby. I signed right up and began going to the clinic.
It's so important to have peaceful people at the clinic. On the day of my abortion, no one was there. I will never know if it would have made a difference in my story, but I want to make sure that people know that they can make a difference for someone else.
What does your work entail? Describe an average day of sidewalk counseling.
Going to the clinic requires me to be ready to love others well. We really want to be a peaceful presence that is lead by the Holy Spirit on how to reach women. We want to love not only the mothers, fathers, and other family members but also the escorts and staff. We want to give the support so many of them are looking for—in the moment, during the pregnancy, and after the baby is born.
What are the most difficult aspects of this work, and how do you handle those?
Escorts block us with their umbrellas and play music so the women can't hear us. We also have to deal with another group who come out with mics to "preach." They shame the women who then run right into the clinic. There have been times when we will get the attention of a father in the car and it looks like he is going to come over and talk, but the other group will call him a coward and he instead looks down and won't come over. They are also known to put ladders up and yell at escorts. It's awful.
During my own abortion, I remember the clinic telling our family that there would be people outside who hated us, so make sure to walk in quickly. Groups like these who shame women confirm the clinic workers' warnings. I've worked with many post-abortive women, and something I often hear is "the protesters were yelling at me and I just wanted to get away." In contrast, I had a woman share her story of two peaceful sidewalk counselors praying. She broke away from her parents and went to them for help. She said she could sense their love and knew they were safe.
Do you hand out literature? If so, what is it about?
We hand out mom bags which include local resources, a free ultrasound coupon, and info about what abortion is (and that it's not her only choice). I personally try to put a hand written note, a bracelet, and some type of lotion or something to make her feel loved. If she returns a second day we also include abortion pill reversal information. We also try to let her know about a website (Her Michiana) that can help with many of her needs as well as resources for the dad.
Do you have religious beliefs? If so, how do those influence your work? How do you handle religious differences between you and the people you meet?
I'm a Jesus follower and that helps me love others well. When I'm at the clinic or talking to an abortion-minded woman, I talk about Jesus in a way meant to bring hope, not shame. I want her to know she is so loved. Sometimes you can tell that someone is not really interested and you can feel push back. At that point I will not talk about him, but hope they will know his love by my actions.
How do you respond to people who say they are at the clinic for reasons other than abortion?
We have people who walk by the clinic all the time; it's always a teaching moment to educate others on what abortion is. Some people just don't know and we have the opportunity to have a conversation (not a debate, but a conversation). People seem more open to talking if we approach them in a non-confrontational way.
What are some of the most common circumstances women describe that brought them to the clinic?
I talk to women daily and they have shared so many reasons they come to the clinics. Some feel like they are not supported by family or the boyfriend, some think they can't afford a baby, some are scared of Covid. Some have been told something is wrong with their baby and abortion will show "compassion." In the case of my rape at 13 my family was told abortion would fix my trauma. It was all a lie.
Do you interact with clinic staff? If so, what has that been like?
I make a point of interacting with clinic staff because the Jesus I serve can reach anyone. I speak truth in love to them and pray for them. I try to reach them were they're at.
I did befriend one of the escorts. Our first encounter did not go well. I shared my story with him and he cussed me out and flipped me off. The next week the escort was drinking a Snapple and made a face like it was terrible. I laughed and said "That bad?" and he laughed too, talked about how they changed the recipe. After that we started talking more, and he has since shared his story with me. He helps knit hats for premature babies! He has misplaced compassion that he doesn't even understand.
Other escorts don't always like that he talks to me but he does it anyway. I'm going to keep showing him love and compassion. I believe it's just a matter of time before he leaves.
Many people believe that sidewalk counselors primarily try to shame and intimidate women. How do you respond to that idea?
Trained sidewalk counselors are not there to shame women at all. Sadly, there are people who go to the clinics to shame women and it's hurtful and counterproductive. The women don't realize we are different groups; they lump us together. I try really hard to separate myself from anyone who is not being peaceful. If a woman is taken there against her will I hope she looks for the people praying, not shouting. There are people who will help and love you well.
What advice would you give someone interested in sidewalk counseling?
Go to the training. Make sure that you conduct yourself in a way that is loving; don't say anything that will hurt a woman for the rest of her life. Offer her hope. Be the hope. Love her, love him, and love the baby well. They are all God's kids.
If you come across a woman who is in a crisis, meet her with love. Listen, discern, and respond. Figure out what is driving her to abortion and how to meet that need.
If you are part of a church, allow people to come in and talk about abortion. When the church doesn't talk about abortion it sends a message that we are okay with it. Women in the church have gone from the pew to the abortion clinic because they believe people will gossip instead of help them. [See the Pastor Pledge from The Equal Rights Institute.] If you are a pastor who doesn't know how to talk about it, invite me to speak. You can also make sure your local pregnancy centers are supported.
Read more interviews:
- Interview with a secular sidewalk counselor, 6/15/2020
- How Gabriela became a sidewalk counselor outside the clinic where she had her abortion, 3/16/2020
- In-depth interview with a millennial sidewalk counselor, 1/31/2018
- So I met some sidewalk counselors [interview of a sidewalk counseling veteran], 2/14/2014
Sidewalk counseling training resources:
- Sidewalk Counseling Masterclass from Equal Rights Institute
- Free training materials from Rehumanize International
- A training program from Sidewalk Advocates for Life