“Ministry” is a word owned by religion generally, Christianity specifically. Look it up in your dictionary of choice and you’ll see ministry (of the non-government sort) defined as a function of religion – not of plain old civility, goodwill, humanitarianism, nor any other “-isms”, “-ologies” or “-osophies.” Ministry is by definition outreach or action in some way associated with, motivated by, or stemming from religion.
Having lived and breathed evangelical Christianity from childhood until my mid-twenties, I understood ministry as the New Testament directive to emulate Jesus by following His example of service, sacrifice, and caring for others. Since breaking up with Jesus almost 15 years ago and relegating the whole question of God’s existence as SEP (somebody else’s problem), I inexorably shifted from identifying as a “prolifer” to becoming an unabashed advocate of reproductive freedom and abortion access. I then took up escorting for a women’s clinic some 5 years ago, originally motivated to do so as a way to walk-the-talk on my pro-choice philosophy.
From my first shift experiencing protesters shouting at, threatening, humiliating, and shaming patients walking the interminably long walk from the end of the block to the doors of the clinic, I discovered that rather than feeling some detached self-satisfaction about living-my-principles, I instead felt an instant, fierce and personal protectiveness towards the patients and their partners, friends, family, and others coming into the clinic. I mean, I didn’t even know these people – the patients and their companions – but you would have thought they were my own BFFs or sisters or brothers being harassed and humiliated on that sidewalk. Five years later I feel just as fiercely protective and vigilant about each and every one of them who walks down that sidewalk treated to such indignity and abuse by protesters who claim to be “ministering.”
Charley is a protester at the clinic with whom I have an exceptional relationship. “Exceptional” as in he’s the exception to my otherwise standing policy of not conversing or interacting with protesters. As any clinic escort knows – engaging with clinic protesters generally is at best an exercise in futility, and at worst a distraction from the primary purpose of serving the patients for whom we’re there in the first place. The singular reason for my interacting with Charley at all is his openness to genuinely hearing my criticisms of his behavior and his willingness to modify some of his actions and tactics accordingly.
Now it may seem a distinction without a difference when, for example, I’ve convinced Charley to use his inside voice to try to engage the patients instead of his usual shouting-such-to-be-heard-over-a-death-metal-concert volume. However to a patient – such a difference in a protester’s manner can mean the difference between their walk into the clinic being a highly emotionally/psychologically upsetting experience and a merely irritating one. And while some might say the only real “victory” on the sidewalks of our clinics would be for the protesters to be banished entirely (and I wouldn’t disagree), short of that I’ve learned to look for ways of achieving small degrees of meaningful victory for patients in that gray-scale between the all and nothing.
Which brings me back to ministry. In a conversation with Charley early on, I put it like this: “Ideology and politics are what got me out here on the sidewalk in the first place, but what keeps me coming back is that this is my way of ministering to women, it’s my way of manifesting God’s love in the world.” Now some might question the honesty of a now-agnostic/atheist co-opting the inside-baseball vernacular of my former faith-community in communicating with protesters, and a more thorough exploration of the ethics and honesty in doing so is worthy of its own post another day.
My short answer is that I’m done with evangelicals getting away with the claim of exclusive ownership of love, compassion and taking care of one’s fellow humans, or that it’s only through Jesus that such motivation and emotion are even possible. These notions originated neither from Jesus, nor God, nor unicorns nor any other mythological entity – they are, beautifully, human-originated emotions, choices and behaviors. And if I need use evangelicals’ own language – the native language of my own experience – as the framework for meaningful dialogue between me and a protester, I feel no ethical dilemma; hey it’s my language too.
As it turns out, sharing my ministry assertions with Charley are what opened some genuine channels of communication between him and me. It seems no escorts or abortion-associated folks had ever pulled the “yeah – well I’m a Christian too” card on him before, and it took a whole lot of the God’s-totally-on-my-side wind out of his sails. It also seemed to really click for him that I am at least as passionate and ministry-minded in escorting women into a clinic for their abortions as he thinks he is trying to talk them out of going through with it. Turning some Christian lingo back on Charley provided a bridge for him to hear and respond to my criticisms, and for him to recognize that Jesus wasn’t necessarily best served, say, by shouting at patients and to change his behavior accordingly.
One of the glorious aspects of not-the-Queen’s English is the malleability of words and their meanings through co-opting, repetition, new contexts and simple meme-ery, as well as deliberate taking-back or taking-over of words when we find fault with associated history, connotations, flavor or another group’s claimed ownership of a word. Ministry is such a word for me. It may have started out as a word signifying an action or expression of one’s faith, but I assert that ministry irrespective of faith is exactly the right word for what motivates legions of us within the abortion/reproductive healthcare realm to do what we do every day.
Ministry – it’s not just for the religiously-motivated anymore.
I am Dr. Tiller.