Volunteering as a Clinic Escort

I volunteer at a clinic as an escort.  This is an account of my first month, July 2022. 

Right now, the anti-abortion protesters only show up on Saturdays so that’s the only time the clinics ask escorts to be present.  The patients visiting the clinic could be there for any reason any day.  Some of them come in looking distressed and some are confident and will scream back at the anti-abortionist protestors or the “antis”.

There are a couple of rules outside of the clinic.  The antis cannot go into the buffer zone with signs.  The buffer zone is a painted line on the road and sidewalk.  A few of them push that limit so it’s up to the escorts to remind them.  They are allowed to have two people enter the buffer zone if they are offering “counseling” and while we can have any number of us in the zone, we also limit it to two because it tends to keep the antis calm.  One escort opens the door (it’s locked and you must push a button for the security to open it) and one escort walks beside the patient (if possible, between them and the antis).  Most of the time we are watching and waiting.  And a few times, things got agitated and escorts recorded the events on cell phones.  These pics and videos are sent to one of the volunteer coordinators and then are filed into a report of some kind (I don’t know exactly because I’m new to all of this).  Sometimes, this is given to the police although the person I asked about it wasn’t sure that there is any action after that.  The clinic volunteers rarely call the police to the clinic but usually the antis are police friendly, so they comply, but nothing much happens except they stay outside of the buffer zone more carefully.  

 “Praying and counseling” are loose terms inside the buffer zone.  But outside of the zone, anything goes, the protestors will yell that they can help or about hell or the devil being a liar, repenting of sins, strange theological interpretations, and they yell at clinicians they recognize about how God didn’t call them to be a doctor to kill babies.  They do also try to engage in conversation with escorts, but we typically do not respond and just turn our bodies away to ignore them.  They go from Christian mom voice (think Michelle Duggar) to screaming quickly.  It’s a little unsettling.  On my way to my car, they yelled that Jesus was waiting for me to return and that Jesus loves me.  It was surreal and creepy.  They also yell about how we will all be judged for our actions and that there is no avoiding God’s judgment when we die.  This has happened (and I expect will always happen) on the way to my car each week I volunteered.  It feels awful to be yelled at like that, even when I don’t believe it’s true.

If you are into people watching, this is the place to see the crazy and strange religious stuff.  It’s “Christian” and it’s weird.  There are a lot of “regulars” protesting and a regular playlist of Christian music that plays on repeat…  so icky.  It’s sort of catholic and sort of evangelical, which is expected but a weird blend to see it all play out.  It seems that it’s mostly individuals that show up and not organized groups.  A couple of the people there seem to be dealing with some mental health issues.  

There were anti-abortion people there this week (July 9th) that were unknown to us.  They were a group of young adults, and they prayed the stations of the cross while they were there but didn’t really interact with anyone else.  One was pregnant and looked uncomfortable.  The others were known to the clinic escorts but were new to me.  One, that the clinic escorts call “Ausi hat” named for his hat, also dons a large cross and flings holy water around, argues with the other antis.  He doesn’t agree with anything after Vatican II, he thinks women should dress modestly, and he is pro Trump.  The lady we call Regret (she has a sign and talks about regretting her abortion) was there as well as the older lady with the Christian mom voice.  Another woman, whom I was told usually sings was there but did not sing during my shift.  The three women stand in the street and seem surprised when cars honk at them to move.  The Christian mom voice lady yelled at the driver that she should just go around them.  A priest comes to pray with the antis too.  One of the men yelling about financial help is a pastor somewhere, we call him ZZ Top because of his long blond beard.  A couple was there with a sign saying they would adopt your baby.  I found out from someone who had been a clinic escort for a while that there is a Pittsburgh or a PA antiabortion Facebook page.  A lot of the people, we see are frequent commentors on the page.  

The antis don’t have a leader.  Those who have been clinic escorts for a while think that there has been sort of a power vacuum because one of the loudest men has died.  It seems that some of the antis are looking to take on that role.  “Regret” has been more aggressive each week I’ve interacted with her.  She will try to engage with clinic escorts about her story or listening to a heartbeat.  She uses her “regret my abortion” sign to block people from leaving their cars or the sidewalk or entering the clinic.  In addition to taking pictures, we are trying to capture video too.  A couple of men are really loud in their “preaching” but thankfully have not interacted as physically as “Regret” has. 

On 7/23 one of the anti-abortionists “preached” and filmed it.  Another took over the loudspeaker but wasn’t filmed.  It must be some sort of honor or display of faith for them to preach to us heathens at the clinic.  The preaching was mostly about God’s judgement and how it’s not too late to ask for forgiveness.  Apparently, the antis don’t want the rest of us to end up in hell, but they certainly are sure we are going there.  If these were the only representatives I saw of the Christian God, I would not believe God is about love.  It was judgmental, and gross.  The sermons are definitely for those of us volunteering as clinic escorts and maybe a social media audience.

Other escorts have started to figure out that I’m a pastor from my email signature.  I’m learning that some of the escorts have had bad experiences with church.  Some do seem glad that I’m a pastor and assume that I will be a calming presence (I’m trying to be that).  

One of the clinic escorts asked about suggestions for finding a way back to God.  I told him wanting a connection is a good first step and just to be open to experiencing God.  I wish I had some better answers.  We talked a little about spiritual practices or mindfulness.  He was a little interested in attending church but said it felt too soon.  

Another clinic escort shared that when she was little, she was shown aborted babies at CCD by a nun before she even understood where babies came from.  She remembers not understanding what it all meant but that she knew begin pro-life was important.  She has left the church; her sister still goes to church.  She takes her kids to a Presbyterian church’s music camps and generally has a good opinion of that church and the messages she notices in the building (LGBTQ+ affirming, pro-choice).  A couple others mentioned that they were raised Presbyterian, but their churches didn’t really talk about controversial issues much like what I experienced in my home church.  

A university student told a story about needing STI test and decided to go to the crisis pregnancy center out of curiosity.  The name is strategically ambiguous, these clinics are anti-abortion clinics.  As expected, the waiting room was full of baby toys, pro-birth/anti-abortion messaging, and of course Christian messaging.   Her curiosity was satisfied but she felt judged and won’t go there again for any services.  There are a few antis that have signs (or they just shout at the clinic staff) about help for getting jobs that don’t provide abortions.  The website leads to apply for jobs at pregnancy centers like the one the student described.  

On 7/16 an uber driver returns after 20 minutes to return the phone of the “little girl” she drove in.  When I approached the car, she asked if I remembered the little girl.  I did.  The driver really wanted to hand it back to her but of course that wasn’t allowed.  I let her inside to give it to the receptionist and describe the little girl, so they knew exactly who to give it to.  This uber driver was the picture of kindness.  Some heroes don’t wear capes.  

I signed up for several weeks in a row so I could get an understanding of what happens and how best to respond (or not to respond).  I’ve learned that not everyone trying to give something to someone inside the clinic is as altruistic as the uber driver.  Some of the antis are clever and will try whatever they can to gain entry or access to patients. 

There is always a lot to process on the way home.  While I feel like this work is incredibly necessary to make sure patients can safely enter the clinic, it’s not easy.  It takes me a while to shake off the things that the antis yell.  I need to figure out a better plan for self-care after some of these Saturdays.  I don’t want to be so angry or so sad that I can’t continue this work.  Part of taking care of myself is also reminding myself about why I signed up for this in the first place.  While I’m there, I try to focus on my role and who I want to be in the community of clinic escorts.  I want to be a calm presence.  I want to be a pastor who cares about people and their access to healthcare.  I want to be a pastor who can hear criticism of the church or Christians and not be defensive.  It is important for me to hear those truths and reform my own heart accordingly.  We need more love in this world, for those who need the clinic, for those who work or volunteer there, and even more love for those who are screaming against it.   Loving God, hear our prayers.

Here is an article from The New Yorker by E. Tammy Kim that gives an overview of what is happening in surrounding states and how that is effecting the clinics, staff, and the people who need them.  She visited the clinic where I volunteer and mentioned it in her article.

One of the clinic escorts made these buttons to look like the vests we wear while volunteering.

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