(Reprinted from the November 2011 issue of Sidewalk Counseling News, published by Pro-Life Action Ministries)
by Debra Braun, Education Director
The first-ever National Sidewalk Counseling Symposium conducted by Pro-Life Action Ministries in August 2011 was very successful, with excellent presentations and a strong sense of fellowship among the 70 sidewalk counseling leaders who came from all over the country (and Canada). Although this first symposium was designed for those who organize sidewalk counseling in their communities, much of what was presented benefits all sidewalk counselors. Therefore, we have made available to you a three-DVD set of the symposium presentations.
Among these talks was a dynamic presentation by Fr. Frank Pavone, National Director of Priests for Life, outlining the spiritual foundations of sidewalk counseling. He started off by mentioning post-abortion programs such as Rachel’s Vineyard (affiliated with Priests for Life), which help mothers, fathers, grandparents and others affected by abortion to experience healing and reconciliation with God. “But what about us as sidewalk counselors?” asked Fr. Pavone. “We may not have had an abortion, but we are losing children that we’re setting out to save.” What happens when the women that we’ve approached, offered literature to or shown a sign end up having the abortion? “We have to know how to grieve that child because that’s a loss for us,” Fr. Pavone advised. “That’s a burden on our souls and if we don’t grieve that child, we may be carrying around unhealthy burdens that make our life more difficult than it needs to be.”
Much of the rest of Fr. Pavone’s talk focused on some of the differences in the worldviews of sidewalk counselors and the prevailing culture. “When we do sidewalk counseling, we are acting in a particular worldview that is shaped by the Gospel of Jesus Christ but we are doing it in the midst of, in the context of, a culture in which so many people have a completely opposite worldview,” he said.
Our sense of solidarity is one of those differences. Even though we don’t know the names of the people we encounter at the abortion centers nor have we seen their faces before, they are not strangers to us, Fr. Pavone said. “We have a worldview that says, ‘Yes, we have a reason to be here because these people and the babies are our brothers and sisters.’ . . . Solidarity, not isolation and individualism.” Therefore, when we recognize the despair, the fear and the confusion that leads a couple to kill their own child, our presence at the abortion center becomes an act not of harassment, but of help. “We don’t become the enemy there, we become the friend. Solidarity,” Fr. Pavone reiterated.
But people who don’t understand our work question why we’re getting involved and tell us to mind our own business, Fr. Pavone said. This is because the culture of death tells us that we have responsibility for one another only when we choose to have such responsibility, and we can retract that choice basically anytime we want. In our worldview, “we have responsibility for one another before we choose,” said Fr. Pavone. “God, who made us, has entrusted us to the care of one another. So God’s choice comes before ours and He has made it our business what happens to somebody else. . . . We haven’t chosen this battle; it has chosen us. Our choice is simply an act of fidelity to an order that God has already established.”
Another key difference in worldviews that we proclaim when we sidewalk counsel is that there is a common morality; there is a right and wrong that we can all come to understand and embrace. The other worldview, according to Fr. Pavone, is “total relativism,” that “your morality is yours and mine is mine.” But we believe that we’re all under the same moral law. We are not arrogant when we tell people not to kill their children because we didn’t invent the idea of “Thou shalt not kill.” We are going out to the abortion centers “precisely because we are sinners,” said Fr. Pavone. We must repent because we have failed to do enough, to say enough to stop abortion. “Repentance bears fruit in action, and the people who are repenting then do something,” he said.
Fr. Pavone then referred to the first chapter of Isaiah in which, surprisingly, God says that He will not listen to the prayers of His people. Why? Because our hands are full of innocent blood due to our tolerating the killing happening in our midst. Referring then to Deuteronomy 21, Fr. Pavone added, “There is a clear teaching God lays out throughout Scripture that when innocent blood falls on the ground, all the people living in the land are implicated, all the people living in the land have to answer for the blood.”
If it makes sense to feed the poor and to help people affected by natural disasters because they are our brothers and sisters in the one human family, even if we don’t know their names and have never seen their faces before, Fr. Pavone said, then “how does it not make sense that we go intervene and try to stop a baby from being killed by abortion? How does it not make sense that we look at that mom and dad as our sister, our brother and intervene for them? We, the people for whom God has intervened (in saving us), must intervene!”
Besides sidewalk counseling being an act of repentance and an act of intervention, it is also an act of proclamation to the parents and community, said Fr. Pavone. This proclamation consists of four words: God is with us. “What’s the Gospel all about? God saying to us, ‘I am with you (not just spiritually, but physically). Here. Now. And forever.’” In turn, Fr. Pavone said, sidewalk counselors go out to “those places of killing and of death and of despair and of isolation” and say to the baby and parents, “I am with you.” We’re not there to say, “I am against you.”
“We bring hope into despair,” said Fr. Pavone. “We do not stand before the world to point fingers of condemnation. We stand before the world and we stand on those sidewalks to extend hands of mercy, hands of strength, reaching down into the despair of these people and saying, ‘Take our hands, let us lift you up from this place of shame and despair to give you the strength to do what you know is right.’”
Fr. Pavone continued his presentation by urging us to listen to the Holy Spirit, Who is first telling us to be there on the sidewalks because our presence saves many babies. Although we should be trained, do the best we know while sidewalk counseling and share that knowledge with others who come to the sidewalk, we should also allow God to be sovereign, Fr. Pavone said. We should not get agitated over the fact that we don’t have complete control over what goes on outside the abortion centers, he added.
“Never think that God doesn’t have completely surprising and unexpected ways to save babies, completely beyond not only anything that you plan, but completely beyond anything that you can understand,” he reminded us. “Let God be sovereign out there. Let Him be sovereign in your heart and let Him give you every day the joy that nobody else can give us and that nothing can take away. . . . because this is a movement that does not just work for victory; we work from victory. Victory is our starting point because Jesus Christ is risen and when we’re standing out there on the sidewalk, we’re not trying to overcome the kingdom of death. We’re standing there proclaiming that it has been overcome! And I thank God that you continue to do it!” Fr. Pavone concluded.
Listen to Fr. Frank Pavone’s entire 36-minute talk.
Fr. Pavone speaking on Spiritual Foundations of Sidewalk Counseling at the 2011 National Sidewalk Counseling Symposium.