Arriving in downtown, I lift my bike off the front of the bus and walk it past the pro-choice protesters behind metal barricades. One uses a bullhorn to lead chants and they're holding signs like "Keep your laws off my body" and "If you don't like abortion, don't have one."
They don't need me here. I cross to the rally where a huge covered stage with a black backdrop fills one corner of the block-sized square. A sea of umbrellas faces the stage where a live band plays upbeat rock and roll. Volunteers, mostly in pairs, surround the square, passing out literature in plastic bags. I take one to look at later. Now I can say, "I have one."
Directly across the street from the pro-choice crowd, a similar group holds signs and shouts back. I doubt either side can hear the other. This is where the Church of Euthanasia would unite them all: against them. In Boston, they would show up with a bullhorn, "God wants these women to have abortions! Abortion is a sacrament!" Plus a vertical banner that would dwarf all here, proclaiming: "Eat a queer fetus for Jesus." Everyone wanted them to just go away.
I too would like to unite the two sides, with something a bit more positive. I find a rack and lose the bike so I can work the crowd. I have a stack of bumper stickers to give away: "Vasectomy prevents Abortion."
For the next two hours, I meander around, holding the stickers in front of me and if someone reads it I offer, "Free bumper sticker."
Rally attendees seem to be either in high school or over 40. A dearth of young adults is evident.
I pass a pleasant looking man who holds a white plastic pipe with a large color photo of a mutilated baby, purported to be an aborted fetus, mounted on it. "Meet 'Baby Choice'" it reads. I nod a greeting as I make eye contact. He reads my sticker and slowly shakes his head.
I talk with a man who identifies himself as Catholic, says he has nine kids. "What do you think about vasectomy preventing abortions?"
"Statistically, in countries where birth control is available, abortion rates go up."
Maybe his statistics come from the American Life League. The opposite is true, but this fits his view that contraception devalues life, making abortions more acceptable. He says he doesn't think abortion should be against the law, although it's against God's law. I commend his tolerance and shake his hand, leaving him with, "Nice talking with you."
A young man passing out packets declines the sticker and tells me,"Natural family planning is 99% effective when used correctly, when you're in touch with your cycle. It's not that hard."
I resist using that old joke, "What do you call a couple who practices the rhythm method? Parents."
I arrive back at the man with the bloody baby photo. He says, "I'm sorry."
"It's not your fault," I assure him sincerely as I go by.
The next time my wanderings bring me around to him I stop to talk.
"A friend of mine is evangelical and he got a vasectomy, and..."
"He had it reversed," I butt in.
"And he had it reversed. I see his point."
"How many children we have is up to God?"
A woman joins our conversation and I continue to offer the stickers to passers-by while we talk.
Another woman approaches and tells me in a disapproving paternal tone, "Don't pass those out here. That's not what we're about. We're pro-life."
"Don't you want to prevent abortions?"
"Yes, but not like that." She goes on to explain how men are just using women when the possibility of new life is taken out of sex. "It cheapens it." Apparently people are supposed to wait until marriage to have sex. "The purpose of marriage is procreation," she states emphatically.
"So that's why they do it." I slap my forehead. "I knew there had to be a reason."
She seems to be trying to figure out how serious I am. "Do you think there are some people who shouldn't be parents?" I ask.
"Where are you going with this?"
"Well, I don't think everyone is suited for parenthood."
"And who's going to decide if they are?"
"The people themselves."
"Do you think those people are going to make the right choice?" She points across the street.
A preacher is on the stage accusing Planned Parenthood of eugenics, which is less inflammatory than genocide. I can't see him but he sounds like he's Black. "They're moving their headquarters from an area that's four percent African-American to an area that's 42 percent African-American." He decries the higher percent of abortions in the US being performed on Black women. I think about the irresponsible men getting them pregnant contrary to their wishes.
"There's a man behind every abortion," I say to a couple of volunteers and one woman replies, "Amen to that!"
A young woman with a "Volunteer" badge is standing alone, though almost all the others are at least couples. She's not passing out bags of literature or collecting donations, just standing there looking a little dazed, watching the two sides face off. I'd already said "Hi" and made eye contact a couple of times as I circled the crowd. I asked how she was doing. She wasn't sure. I tell her "I've had some mixed reactions, but most have been positive."
"Yeah, me too. I've even been spit at."
"No. That's rude. I'm sorry to hear that."
I wonder if that could be true because I've seen no maliciousness from anyone, except the rude shouts back and forth on the front lines.
"Some of those women are pregnant," she points across the street. "Don't they think about the life that's growing inside them?"
"But they want to be pregnant. Y'know, we really should unite both sides. We all have respect for life. Almost all abortions are the result of unwanted pregnancies. Some are for medical reasons, but if men would use condoms and get vasectomies there would be very few abortions."
I'm presenting this cheerfully, but I think this event can't end soon enough for her.
I recognize a couple of brothers as they arrive, one a former student and the other still in high school. I give them stickers and they head over to the pro-choice rally.
A woman under an umbrella catches up with me and asks what I'm doing. I don't know if she identifies as pro-life or not, but I explain that I'd like to see both sides get together and prevent unwanted pregnancies.
"I've had two abortions," she tells me.
"You're not unusual."
"My ex-boyfriend and I had problems with condoms, because of the rubber plantations, it's not good for the people who work there."
As we part I say, "I hope your next boyfriend has a vasectomy."
A few times a passer-by realizes what the sticker says after they pass and then turn around and ask for one with a smile.
I exchange pleasantries with a woman in a baseball cap reading something like "Jesus is love". She's wearing a large placard, "Science proves creation" and giving away DVDs.
A solemn-faced man passes us and turns around with a grin, "I'll take one of those."
"Here you go."
"For my daughter's boyfriend!" he shouts back over his shoulder.
"Did you hear what he said?" I ask her.
"He said it's for his daughter's boyfriend."
She gets a hearty laugh out of that.
I talk with a young man standing with his girl friend, looking over at the pro-choice side disapprovingly until the train blocks our view. "I'm from the country and I'm sorry, but if someone gets in my face..." He looks down at his boot as it stamps the pavement. No government is going to tell him and his girlfriend they can't have an abortion. He's pro-choice but can't see himself standing with those Lefties, chanting, "Hey, hey, Right Wing, abortion rights are here to stay!"
The rally goes silent as a bell tolls ominously. I hold off on encounters as there's a prayer-like mood. Maybe each one represents thousands of abortions or something. The other side of the street continues their cacophony.
A man talking with bicycle police officers turns down my offer of a free sticker. "There's only one bumper sticker I've seen that I'd consider putting on, 'Wise men still seek Him.'" He remembers the female officer next to him and adds, "And women too."
"Yeah, gotta be inclusive," I kid him
"Wise people," She says. We agree with her.
Preachers take turns between tearful testimonials by women who had abortions. "If you ask a three-year-old if it's okay to kill a baby in its mother's womb they'll say 'No!' recoil in disgust. But ask them 10 years later after they've been to public school and they'll say it's okay. Where are we going as a society when the values we cherish are forgotten?"
A female Tri-Met officer working the barricades smiles and quietly tells me, "I think you've got the best thing going here."
A young man asks what group I'm with. "Respect for Life" I point to the url on the sticker.
"How do you identify your group?"
"We're anti-abortion and pro-choice. We want to unite our efforts to end unwanted pregnancies."
"I'm gay so I don't need a vasectomy."
"Ya never know, a weak moment..." His lip curls and he leans back. "Sorry to paint a horror picture for you."
I see the brothers again walking outside the square. They're depressed by the disparity of the two sides, which is about 10 to one. "They've got churches to draw from and we don't. You ought to go in and mingle, get a feel for the crowd. Just don't step on any toes." They aren't up for that.
A woman passes by without stopping, "Vasectomies let men sleep around."
"They don't prevent STDs," I call after her.
As the rally ends and people stream out to the sidewalks, I find myself standing between two volunteers holding donation milk jugs. I make the most of it and a few accept the stickers I offer.
I go over to the pro-choice side and they enthusiastically take the stickers. By the time I get to the other end of the group, they're chanting "Vasectomy prevents abortion!" I go back in front of the middle and hold up stickers. "Cue cards! Get your cue cards!" Some take a second one to share with friends.
They decide to use some of their remaining energy to have a little Walk for Choice, though it's not official. I join them for a few blocks and a man tells me he's not comfortable with "prevent abortion" in the sticker's phrase.
"But don't we want to prevent abortions?"
"Sure, but it should be there."
"The choice women really want is the choice to not need an abortion in the first place."
"True, ideally, but..."
Disagreement and agreement from both sides. I call that success. The rain picks up from the drizzle we've been enduring, but all the rain in Portland can't dampen the good feeling I have about this day's ministry. Time for a beer.