Are you considering becoming engaged in sidewalk counseling, but hesitating because you have some unresolved questions or concerns? Perhaps there isn’t a group in your area doing sidewalk counseling that you could join, so you’re looking for a like-minded partner before you get started. Or perhaps there is an opportunity to join others in your area, but you would prefer to use a different approach.
If you fit into one of the above categories, this article was written for you. To be sure though, it is essential to distinguish between what sidewalk counseling is and is not. Sidewalk counseling is “reaching out” to mothers and fathers, who are contemplating or planning abortion, to offer them information that they have a need and right to know. It is conducted by way of conversation and literature. It is done with love and out of concern for unborn children who are in danger of being deprived of their God-given right to be born into the world and for their parents, especially mothers, who are in danger of being severely harmed in numerous ways. It’s not about trying to close down an abortion mill, it’s about saving a child from certain death and his/her parents from certain harm, one family at a time. Sidewalk counseling is not picketing, demonstrating, preaching, displaying signs or images, evangelizing passersby or the abortion center’s staff, guards or escorts. And although, for people of faith, prayer is essential and should always accompany sidewalk counseling, it in itself is not sidewalk counseling. (People of faith can be most effective if their demeanor is that of a prayerful contemplative while awaiting the next outreach opportunity. And it is natural for some people of faith to evangelize those who are contemplating or planning abortion.)
You may encounter certain circumstances at some locations that make it impossible to conduct sidewalk counseling. In that case you may decide to engage in one of the other aforementioned street activities. However, if counseling, even if only by means of handing out literature, is at all possible, you should avoid any action that has the potential of deterring those to whom you reach out from accepting what you have to offer.
Serious thought must be given to what may ultimately be conveyed by your words and attitude and any tools such as signs, images or displays you may be considering using. One must rigorously attempt to discern what will more likely produce positive results in the majority of cases while painfully realizing that what will be good for one may be harmful for another and vice versa.
The ultimate responsibility to discern what may work best in your particular environment is yours. The goal here is to guide you in reflecting very seriously and thoroughly (as though someone’s life is dependent upon your discernment) on your intentions and on the techniques you may be considering.
What about the use of signs?
Some people may feel that signs are absolutely necessary. Those who are not counselors may desire to use them because they feel that they personally have to do or say something.
When someone decides to go to the killing center to hold a sign or image, they are immediately successful as soon as they step in front of the building. They’re doing what they came to do. Sure, they would like to see turnarounds, but as far as their individual effort is concerned, they are fulfilling their role. The counselors, however, have to force themselves to feel that they are successful just by showing up and attempting to reach out to women/couples. And it is true that that is success, because each attempt to reach out is an act of mercy and true failure would have been to stay home. Still, counselors don’t feel the same level of fulfillment of purpose as the others may feel because they want to be successful in getting each person to at least accept the literature they offer even if they fail to engage them in conversation or see turnarounds.
There can be no certainty that signs will be read by those you are attempting to counsel. They may be completely ignored, thereby not producing any positive results while possibly having a negative impact. Whether or not they are read, their presence will preannounce your planned intervention and disapproval of abortion. This could result in your offer to counsel to be abruptly rejected.
Might it be possible that a sign that reads, “Abortion hurts women” would produce better results than one reading “Abortion kills children”? If that were true, wouldn’t that imply that the presence of any pro-child signs or images could be detrimental in cases where a sign reading “Abortion hurts women” would be beneficial? Would that be the result in the majority or the minority of cases? Would it simply be wiser to eliminate the risk and not have either type of sign?
What about the use of images?
You know the expression: a picture is worth a thousand words. So you must reflect heavily on what message a given image might convey.
You should also be aware that rather than having the so-called ability to convey a thousand words, a picture might actually convey a single (and possibly negatively perceived) message that comes across a thousand times louder, like a SHOUT.
Pictures of children, dead or alive, may suggest to the mother that you are present only to defend her child, not to protect her. So when you reach out to her with “we can help you” or something similar, your words may fall on deaf ears. You can’t expect her to open her mind and heart if your own appear to be closed.
Whatever words or images you use, if their message is perceived as “please let us help you”, they’re much more likely to produce positive results than “please don’t kill your baby”. It’s not only what you say or display that’s important, but how what you say or display is perceived.
As with the case of signs, images preannounce your planned intervention and disapproval of abortion, which could result in your offer to counsel to be abruptly rejected.
If you feel inclined to use images, you must give very serious thought as to what effect they will have before you commit to using them. If you think they would produce positive results, do you think that would be true in more than fifty percent of the cases? Do you think they could be so effective as to eliminate the need for sidewalk counseling? If you had to choose between sidewalk counseling without the presence of any images or using images without attempting to do any sidewalk counseling, what would be your choice?
You will hear opposing viewpoints from others especially with regard to graphic pictures of aborted children. Think about the message you are hoping to convey with an image. Can it truly be delivered? Is it compatible with what you hope to accomplish through conversation or literature? Is there even a slight chance that the image could do more harm than good? Could it deter some of those to whom you reach out from accepting your literature or allowing you to speak to them? Is it worth the risk?
Do you believe that a graphic picture of an aborted child truly conveys what abortion really is? Do you believe that a child who was aborted by means other than surgery is any less dead? Or do you believe that no matter what type of killing procedure is used – whether it mutilates the child or not; whether it is perceived as a brutal and barbaric act of violence or not – a life is exterminated; someone’s future is eliminated; a person is deprived of its very existence in the physical realm? Do you believe that that is the reality of abortion?
If your motivation for using images of aborted children is to personalize the child in the parents’ minds, compare these images with others that you have seen and determine for yourself which, if any, best accomplishes your goal. Also read What Abortion Really Is. What if the child had been killed by a lethal injection before its body was mutilated for removal from the womb? Should one be more devastated over the mutilation of the dead child’s body or over the death of the child itself?
What about the use of other displays?
Once you are engaged in a counseling session, fetal models and images of fetal development can be very helpful, but if noticed beforehand, they will preannounce your planned intervention and disapproval of abortion, which could result in your offer to counsel to be abruptly rejected.
Would being present without any signs, images or other displays be more or less beneficial than being present with them? Or is the benefit vs. detriment factor equal in both scenarios? This is important to discern, again being painfully aware that what will be good for one may be harmful for another. In the end we must put our own personal preferences aside (what we wish would be most beneficial) for the benefit of the majority of affected children and parents.
The mothers and fathers to whom you wish to reach out should be able to feel confident that you are sincerely there for them and their child, not to make a public statement about your position on abortion. If your real or perceived intent of being there is to make such a public statement, you may be very successful in doing so, but you may not spare many or any families the horrors of abortion. At least not those who are facing those dire consequences right there and then.
Nothing stated above is meant to imply that the use of signs, images or other displays do not produce positive results. They have and they will. The question is, are they a benefit in the majority of cases?
Neither is there any intent to belittle any of the other mentioned forms of street activity. They are indeed very important forms of pro-life activism. However, they can be easily and more effectively conducted on any street in the nation seven days a week. They need not be conducted at abortion centers to be effective. In fact they can be even more effective when locations are continually changed to reach even more people. There is much more missionary work available at places other than abortion centers. There are many more pro-abortion people available to evangelize (four out of five in my area of the county) on any street in the nation. If they are to be conducted at abortion centers, however, they should not be present during a time when someone is attempting to sidewalk counsel. They do not compliment sidewalk counseling, which should take precedence over all other activities outside abortion centers. Passersby may have a lot of life remaining ahead of them, but for the child that is being brought there to be slaughtered, it’s a matter of life and death right there and then and that child’s parents are facing dire consequences right there and then.
The only activity that complements sidewalk counseling is prayer. On days that abortions are being committed, a counselor that is person of faith should be in a continuous state of prayer.
When a prayer group accompanies the counselors, the participants should maintain a strict discipline of prayer. There should be no unnecessary discussion with the public, or with one another. It is essential that the women arriving for an abortion see a praying people, not a protesting people. Therefore no one should be carrying signs or pictures with the possible exception of a single holy image, such as Our Lady of Guadalupe, among the group.
The prayer group should be positioned some distance away from the counselors and the abortion center’s entrance and be together in one place as a unit where they will not be a distraction or threat to the anyone’s privacy when they are speaking with a counselor. They should be positioned at the side of the walkway to allow pedestrians to freely pass by. They should conduct themselves in a reverent prayerful manner praying in a low tone or silently.
This reflection was written on June 3, 2007. On that same day, pro-life leader Sue Lopez of San Diego, California read it and replied to me via e-mail with some comments and questions. On May 15, 2008 I received a very encouraging e-mail from her. She wrote about some changes she had made to her sidewalk counseling ministry based on this reflection. She reported on the very positive results those changes had effected. I encourage you to read the following excerpts of her comments:
Just wanted to let you know that we no longer use any signs or life displays (and haven’t for the past several months) in working at the mills, thanks to your suggestion…we have nothing except some holy pictures/statues in front of the prayer warriors. It has been amazingly successful and so many more people talk to the sidewalk counselors now, mostly probably because they are caught off guard…thank you so much for the suggestion, we are making good use of it…(feel free to share).
Update March 30, 2009 (comment from Terry):
I am a sidewalk counselor in San Diego and worked with Sue Lopez. When I first began to counsel I used images (nothing graphic) but the longer I was out there, I felt led by the Holy Spirit to use HIM and nothing else and Sue concurred with my decision. By the grace of the Holy Spirit more lives were saved. I still do not counsel with signs or fetal development pictures and have found both to get in the way of the Holy Spirit as He does not need them to save the unborn. I sidewalk counsel without signs, without pictures, without any pro-life clothing, etc.