What 10 Years of Sidewalk Counseling Taught Me

by Andrew King February 4, 2021

I will never forget the first time I stepped onto the sidewalk. I was a 22-year-old seminary student with no experience in pro-life ministry. In fact, I had very little “ministry” experience at all! I certainly was not accustomed to waking up at 6 AM on a Saturday. Nevertheless, I committed to serve with a new ministry in our church called “Speak for the Unborn.” That cold and early morning marked the first of what would become 10 years of standing in front of an abortion clinic in Kentucky every week, offering hope and help to moms and families in crisis. Though many experiences were formative, four truths stand out from my time on the sidewalk:

1) Abortion is Wicked

Like far too many, the only time I really thought about the sanctity of life was during an election season. That all changed the moment I stepped onto the sidewalk. Every week I watched wave after wave of moms, dads, grandparents, and friends walk through the open doors of an abortion clinic. These were not statistics; these were people —a lot of them. These were people who had believed the lie of abortion. These mothers were promised freedom, but in return received only a heavy burden on their consciences. I listened as abortion clinic staff and volunteers comforted these women with words of “empathy” and casual levity. Yet this simply masked the reality soon to follow: the God-forged bond between a mother and her son, between a father and his daughter, between a grandparent and their grandchild would be severed forever. I saw that beneath all the flowery rhetoric, abortion is simply a gruesome attempt of de-creation. Ever since Cain in Genesis 4, sinful humanity has sought to hide the bodies of their fellow image-bearers in the shadows. An abortion clinic is one place where I saw just how dark those shadows can be. 

2) People’s Situations are Complex

When you stand on the sidewalk for a while, you quickly come to see that crisis pregnancy is rarely an isolated issue. In calling for a woman to choose life, whether we know it or not, there are numerous subtexts to our message. In some cases, we are calling mothers to risk forfeiting their social or financial stability. I have seen boyfriends and parents threaten to abandon their girlfriend/daughter on the spot if she refused to go through with the abortion. I have heard single moms weep over the prospect of losing their job and not being able to provide for their other children if they carried this pregnancy to term. Another subtext involves trauma. I have walked alongside enough young women who were pregnant because of sexual assault and abuse to know it is no easy decision to “choose life.” Further, I have seen the interrelation of motherhood and racial tension in countless ways. All of these complexities reaffirmed that real life is messy. As Christians rightly advocate for the lives of the unborn, we must also remember that a crisis pregnancy is rarely a disconnected or isolated issue. Failing to reckon with these complexities makes our pro-life message appear out of touch at best and cruel and callous at worse.  

3) Our Tone Matters

The complexity of people’s situations led to another realization: our tone matters. Though gospel hope is the universal message we all need, the way we apply it to individuals should not be uniform. Jesus, for instance, addressed Pharisees differently than he did the crowds more broadly (compare Matt 9:36 and 12:34). Different circumstances should evoke different responses (cf. 1 Thess 5:14; Jude 22–23). Though I have encountered “activists” pursuing abortion, they were an exception to the norm. The vast majority of women I met on the sidewalk were not there to make a political statement about bodily autonomy. Far more often these women were simply scared of the uncertain pathway that lay before them. One of the most helpful phrases I learned to use after introducing myself was, “I would love to hear what brings you down here this morning.” This statement was disarming to many. They may have been expecting a fiery sermon from the religious protester. But rather than giving a monologue, I first wanted to give them a listening ear. Proverbs 18:13 reminds us that “The one who gives an answer before he listens—this is foolishness and disgrace for him” (CSB). By listening, I had the opportunity to win their trust. By showing myself genuinely interested in caring for them, I was often able to learn how I could more effectively serve. Much of this was communicated in my tone. Indeed, “sweetness of speech increases persuasiveness” (Prov 16:21).

4) The Local Church is Essential for Pro-life Ministry

There are fewer places that have felt lonelier than sidewalk counseling at an abortion clinic. You pour out your heart, pleading with moms and dads not to take their lives of their children, only to face repeated rejection. For those who do want help, the thought of caring for someone in crisis can be overwhelming. In all this, I came to see the pivotal role of the local church both in terms of caring for its members as well as caring for those who choose life.

Without pastors and fellow church members keeping watch over my soul, I don’t think I would have made it very far. Moreover, without a body of believers ready to welcome a mom or family in need, I would have had little basis to make a genuine offer of sustainable support. But the gospel makes that kind of community. I could call for a woman to choose hope over abortion because I knew there was an army of Spirit-empowered saints who would rally on a moment’s notice. In this, I saw that the local church is not peripheral to the fight for the sanctity of human life. Rather, the local church should both embody and motivate a pro-life ethic that leads her people, in love, to meet those in darkness.