The Personalist Project

Dr. Josef Seifert (himself an Austrian) once told us this joke:

In the heat of battle, an Austrian and a German are reporting back to their respective generals.

“Sir,” the German says, “The situation is serious, but not hopeless.”

“Sir,” the Austrian says, “The situation is hopeless, but not serious.”

I thought of that at Planned Parenthood the other day, where (being something of a second-rate prayer warrior, just subbing for a friend) I found myself without a single sign to wave or leaflet to hand out. 

Well, no problem: the idea was to be a prayerful presence, not a one-woman demonstration.  But during my weekly Forty Days for Life Hour, I’d been kept supplied, and kept company, by more dedicated, well-organized people than myself:

This time, though, it was just me and Bernie the “Escort,” who had recently been taken to court for assault on a pro-lifer.  Bernie moonlights as an assistant-suicide advocate of some kind, and he makes me a little nervous.

So with some hesitation, I decided to kneel down.  You can pray in your heart, standing up, or sitting on the sidewalk.   So why was I insisting on being ostentatious?

Well, here’s a difference I’ve noticed since the whole religious-freedom debacle began.  I found I wanted to kneel.  Not to show off, because by temperament, I strongly, STRONGLY prefer to be inconspicuous, but because, hey, kneeling is a natural posture for prayer. I’m kneeling to God, not to Bernie or the trees. Who says I have to be embarrassed? 

I thought of a Muslim teenager I’d seen at the library, blithely spreading her prayer mat on the rug because, hey, at the hour of prayer; that’s what you do.

I thought of all the women I see at Panera with their headscarves on.  That’s a religious statement, and if they feel self-conscious about it, it sure doesn’t show. 

I thought, too, of our pastor’s recent homily about how silly it is that we, who have the fullness of truth, act like we’re embarrassed about it.

And I remembered the giant, golden helium-balloon rosary released over Chicago the other day.

I figured it might be good to kneel, if only so people would know what I was doing there.  If a woman was ambivalent, she could ask for help, and if a UPS truck driver or the Happy Pizza guy wasn’t clear on what exactly goes on inside the clinic, it might make him think twice.

So I knelt down in the dirt.  Bernie informed me I’d have to occupy the dirt on the left side of the red line.  I moved over a couple of inches.  It was a beautiful day.  A loud bird started singing in the trees above, and he and Bernie whistled back and forth to each other. 

A tense-looking woman came out of the clinic and advised me pointedly, “Pray for the children who are already born, who don’t have enough to eat.”  “I do,” I said, thinking of my pro-life friends who adopt and foster children, work with Mother Teresa’s nuns in Detroit, volunteer at the free clinic in neighboring Ypsilanti, and recently organized a fundraiser for children in Kenya, Pakistan and Sri Lanka.

A man and a boy, maybe ten years old, passed by, hand in hand. 

“Good morning,” I said.

The man glanced down at me for a split second and muttered an answer—I was making him feel embarrassed--- but the boy pulled sharply backwards to stare at me as his father tried to keep him moving.  I heard him asking insistent questions as he was gently dragged away, but I couldn’t hear the answers.

Then the other day I was running into Kroger to pick up some dish detergent (oh, and look, some manager’s-special roasting chicken, and maybe a little superglue, and my kids’ very favorite brand of overpriced strawberry yogurt) when I spied a pleasant-looking, elderly man at the entrance, asking passers-by if they were registered to vote. 

He asked me if I was.

“Oh, yes, definitely,” I answered.

I asked him which organization he was representing.  He said he was just encouraging people to vote.  I asked again.  He said something else evasive.  I asked again, and he murmured, “Well, it’s a Democratic organization, but if we tell people that, we can’t be here,” and then, oddly, reassured me that I could still vote libertarian if I wanted to.

I asked him (politely) if his organization’s name was a secret, and he bent towards me and lowered his voice.  It was “Organize America,” it turned out. 

I remarked that I could never vote for Obama because he was so pro-abortion, and he reassured me that people can disagree.  I said, yes, but as a woman, I wanted to make sure people knew how many of us are against abortion and how it leads to all kinds of exploitation of women.  He began to look uncomfortable and said he understood that people from different faith traditions had different views.

I said it wasn’t a matter of faith, but of science: we’re talking about killing a human baby, the same species as its mother.  I asked him if he disagreed with the science.

He said he just didn’t think it was right for the government to tell a woman what to do with her own body.

At that point my big, strapping (and doubtless hungry) nineteen-year-old son (pictured below, center, with a couple of little brothers)

walked up, wondering what was taking me so long.  Pointing to him, my Exhibit A, I said we weren’t talking about a woman’s body.  My son wasn't ever part of my body.  My body didn’t have two hearts, four arms and four legs for nine months and then revert to normal. 

I have these conversations more and more these days.  This is not a defense of being pompous or pushy.  It’s more like an invitation to take a second look at being visibly religious, at kneeling before God or standing up for His law in public.  I love the balloon-rosary idea, because it reminds me: We can have fun with this.  We’re not here to hide.

Now, what was that about the Austrian and the German? 

Well, they’re both right. Yes, the battle between good and evil is dead serious.  It’s not a joke.  But God is on our side, so it’s not hopeless.

And yet, it is pretty hopeless, humanly speaking--but it doesn’t have to make us unremittingly serious: it doesn’t have to rob us of our peace, or our sense of humor.  We don’t have to live in fear.  We could use more golden helium balloons, and more self-confidence about taking our message to the clinics, the local supermarket, or the skies above the city.

Comments (4)

Max Torres

#1, Jun 20, 2012 4:25pm

Very well said.  I remember Bernie.  He hassled me as I was trying to turn around, and barked out a bunch of impossible instructions about where to drive my car.  When he ordered me to leave, I told him I'd be happy to if only he'd let me.  I wished him God's blessings, and he retorted "which one, Yaweh?"  "The one who made you and me; the one who cries at what goes on in the clinic," I said.  I didn't hear a retort.  Maybe someday these people's hearts will be liberated to see what they're doing.  Until that day, we live as free people, unafraid and unashamed to witness what we believe and know to be true.  We are not like gold coins to be liked by everyone who rubs against us.

Rhett Segall

#2, Jun 21, 2012 11:28am

Delightfully and poignantly presented, Devra. Frequently when I think of my son, Matthew, (adopted) I pray for his biological Mom and Dad in thanksgiving.

I too am very reserved in expressing my faith in God. I do not think this comes from an inappropriate hesitation but from that kind of modesty so necessary for the protection and nurturing of that which is most intimate to us. This topic has often been explored by The Personalis Project.

Of course there are times when what we hold most dear must not be muffled but must be shouted from the housetops!

Thanks for sharing!

Katie van Schaijik

#3, Jun 21, 2012 11:57am

I love hearing about your concrete efforts, Devra, and how your are beginning to live out of a changed perspective.  I feel myself, too, being prompted to be bolder. I think it's partly because I feel the opposition becoming more aggressive, and taking advantage of Christian courtesy and retiscence.  

I hadn't heard of that helium balloon rosary.  What a brilliant idea!

Devra Torres

#4, Jun 21, 2012 7:37pm

This is interesting, because it shows the grain of truth in the idea that faith is a personal, private matter.  The conclusion that therefore we must not stand up for the tenets of our Faith in the public square is unwarranted.  But it's true: we don't go around confiding our intimate experiences of God's communication with us (even if they were amenable to being put into words) to just anyone.  That's different, though, from standing up for teachings about how to live, and how to order our life in common--and of course standing up against attempts to coerce us to do evil.

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