Cross-Cultural Conversation

Along with being an active ally and advocate for the full inclusion for people of all sexual identities in the life of the Church, I am a relatively inactive, but strongly convicted believer in reproductive rights. I have grown up blessed with a family and educational system which teaches birth control methods, safety, and prevention. My church supports responsible sex education, birth control for family planning and disease prevention, and safe and legal access to abortion.

For the last two days, there have been demonstrators walking around with tshirts that say on the front “Do No Harm, –John Wesley” and on the back an anti-choice message which, to me, implies that the organization behind the shirts places more value on the sanctity of zygotes than on the sanctity fully alive, fully spiritual, fully human and worthy life of the woman.

I did not expect the visceral reaction that I have to these shirts. I feel sick to my stomach each time I see one, enough so that I find myself purposely changing my path through a room to avoid being near them. The root of this feeling, I think, is that they are using one of my favorite Wesleyan concepts and applying it in a way that discounts MY agency, MY ability to make informed choices, MY ability to pray for guidance in a tough situation.

I am in a privileged position, I have to admit. I am legally allowed to marry my partner, I have access through excellent health insurance to practically free birth control, and I live in a city with not only abortion providers, but also a supportive partner and spiritual resource people who could counsel me through a crisis pregnancy choice without attempting to sway me toward “Life”.

So when I saw a mother-daughter team of protesters sitting in the shade with a sign informing me how many abortions will have been performed around the world during this General Conference, not wearing the offensive shirts, I figured I needed to know what was going on in their minds.

I approached them first with a question about whether the organization they were with supported the use of birth control. I figured that would be a safe start, because surely any person with a professionally printed sign would know their talking points…right?

Well, it turns out they’re not with a specific organization that they know of. They got on a bus with a bunch of other people from their community and were handed a sign. But that by no means meant that they weren’t going to engage me in conversation. Oh no…

When I finally extricated myself from the conversation an hour and a half later, I was left with a baffled combination of thoughts and feelings. Our conversation was mostly civil, although I made the 13-year-old girl cry at one point (which was only fair—I cried at what I saw as injustice and violence when I was that age. Heck, I was bawling at last night’s demonstration!*). Near the end, I feel I was redeemed when she and I were able to bond over a love of JRR Tolkien and the Princess Bride.

Since there is no way to summarize the winding turns that the conversation took, please find bullet points below of the things I learned about the worldview of these women and how different it is from mine.

  • All three of us believe in God, although the mom of the pair is probably pretty sure I can’t really be a Christian because I haven’t had a moment when I believed that I was so far separated from God that I would be irredeemable.
  • They believe that the Bible is true, but that some of it is metaphor (like Jesus’ parables) and most of it is literal. For example:
    • the earth is about 6000 years old (unsurprising for me, but surprising since I think they’re UMC’ers)
    • the creation story in Genesis is literal, and the explanation for the “waters separated by the air” part is that all that water all fell down during Noah’s Flood. (also, this somehow is related to the reduced lifespan since old testament times)
    • when I mentioned that Jesus’ disciples left their families to follow Christ, they insisted that that was not the case (I didn’t pick up on their defense of this because I was too confused)
  • There was also an implied learned distrust of Catholicism, including:
    • distrust of the “tradition” part of the Wesleyan Quadrilateral, because it’s so strongly tied with Catholic tradition
    • insistence that Saint Patrick was only “claimed” by the Catholic Church, and was not himself Catholic
    • not celebrating Christmas or Easter because they are “Catholic Masses”
  • We had many points of connection, too:
    • they appreciated that I can articulate which biblical Mary I feel most connected to
    • we agree that the books are better than the movies
    • the mom and I agree that waiting until our mid-twenties to get married is a good plan
    • we talked about weather and driving in the snow
    • the daughter likes rain 🙂
  • One quote which I hope I responded to well:
    • Question—“Since you don’t have sex before you’re married, how would you know if you’re gay?”
    • Answer—“Well, were you in love with your husband before you got married?”

Overall, I am glad I approached them. I was surprised and baffled by much of the conversation, but I feel like I will be better prepared to start that kind of conversation next time. And, by God, I need to learn to quote the Bible like these Southerners.


*I am fairly confident there is photographic evidence…I heard Paul Jeffrey taking photos in front of me while I was a sniveling mess.

PS, if someone has a photo of the tshirts or the sign in question, I would love to include one in this post. Please post a link in comments!


6 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Katie on April 27, 2012 at 1:00 pm

    I have a similar negative reaction to the mere idea of those shirts! And I think it’s because for me, “do no harm” means doing no harm to, as you put it, “fully alive, fully spiritual, fully human” women. My friend Becca Clark wrote a great blog post about this here:

    To say “do no harm” and then blatantly ignore the tangible physical, spiritual, and emotional harm done to women through coerced pregnancy is evidence that women are not really considered people. I don’t think that any of the folks wearing those shirts would actually consciously say that outright. But to claim that in every instance, no matter what, it is ethically mandate that women suffer tangible harms in order to avoid harms to zygotes or early stage fetuses, is in fact to say that women are not fully human and that it is not morally imperative to do no harm to US.


    • Thank you for that link! I totally agree with everything in that post! I am going to have to go find Becca sometime soon and talk with her in person a bit.


  2. Posted by Pat simpson on April 27, 2012 at 8:00 pm

    That was a brave conversation, and well worth an hour and a half! There should be more of them.


  3. I LOVE your writing Mary! I agree with your mom, I hope you have more – and I will be sitting back home saying, “what? really?” as you share. Thanks for keeping us up on what’s going on at GC – – and I want to see a picture of the wall!


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