A boy

“Mommy, why are we praying?” said the eight-year-old as his mother and brother stood looking through the rail of the Planned Parenthood centre. “Shhh…,” said his mother, “not now.” The boy drops himself under a tree and sits in the dazzling sunshine as the adults around him drone in response the dulcet tones of robed men speaking through a handheld walkie-talkie. They’re saying: “Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for our sinners now and at the hour of our death, Amen”. Up ahead, near the entrance of the centre, the boy can see the three robed men speaking into the walkie-talkie as they ruminate over their rosary beads and hold outstretched palms towards the women walking into the Centre’s gates.

Why this is happening – why any of this is happening – is unknown both to me, and this boy.

I am studying Education Leadership at a university in Missouri – a US state in the middle of the Mid-West. As part of a class I am required to complete a “fish out of water” experience, spending time in an “unfamiliar or uncomfortable” setting. Out here almost everything is unfamiliar to a Brit like me. But uncomfortable? I didn’t know where I would find that. Unless I went for religion.

In Missouri the anti-abortion signs stand 50-feet tall along Interstate 70. They pronounce: “When God asks if you killed unborn children – what will you say?”. Outside centres that perform abortions it is common to see vigils – in snow, rain, 90 degree heat. Intrigued by their tenacity I long wondered: Does it work? Do people really turn away?

It was with those same questions that I found myself in a cathedral entrance waiting to take part in an anti-abortion rally. Having made it through mass we would now follow the priests in procession to a nearby abortion centre. A hundred and fifty other wholesome-looking white people swarmed together making up the line. I felt sick. But my mind chanted desperately: “Be curious, find the common ground.”

The common ground found was in the incredible power of walking in a group. As we walked the streets – protected by marked police cars – I thought of the thousands of people who have walked in order to overcome justice. Marches have overturned of racist legislation, brought down dictators, even brought down a wall. If I’d been comfortable with what we were fighting for, I might have found it inspirational.

We prayed for 30 minutes outside the fence of the abortion centre. Outside the fence. All I could think was: Why aren’t we inside the fence? Metaphorically, if not literally. Why aren’t we listening, questioning, talking? Repeating half-murmured Hail Marys in the key of slightly-embarrassed middle-class didn’t seem to be making any difference. For all we knew one of those women felt – in every last fibre of her body – that she didn’t want an abortion, but what did we expect her to do? Hurdle herself over the enormous fence between us, and fling herself into our judgement-laden arms full of posters proclaiming disgust? Open arms are not just a physical thing; they’re a mindset too.

I tried reasoning it out: People have the right to protest. Women have the right to abortion. People should be able to protest anywhere. Women should be able to have abortions in peace. There’s no easy solutions here.

Somewhere among the confusion, however, I again watched the 8-year-old sitting in the sun under the tree. Again, I wonder how he will grow up. And I’m suddenly overcome with a desperate desire to grab him by the shoulders and say: “What you asked about why we pray is a great and important question. Never take shhh for the answer. Always ask it over and over again. Ask it as loud as you need. And if the answer comes back that you are praying for the bad people then you ask why they are bad and you ask how you are going to help, and if the response is that the only way to help is to pray then you ask if the person being prayed for is listening, and if the response comes back that they are not, then you yell as loud as you can THEN WHY AREN’T WE TALKING TO THEM INSTEAD OF PRAYING?”

But I don’t do that. Because I’m not his mother, and I just want to pass my class assignment. So instead I watch as he grabs two dandelions and smashes them together. And I watch how happily he sits in the sun. And for the millionth time that hour I wonder what he is learning, and I wonder how he will grow up.