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Notebook Lifestyle

Sidewalk witness

Scene outside the Jackson clinic(Hannah Henderson)

Lifestyle

Sidewalk witness

A young pro-lifer finds her voice outside Mississippi’s only abortion center

JACKSON, Miss.—The Jackson Women’s Health Organization stretches across a corner of prime real estate in a fashionable neighborhood in Mississippi’s capital city. Painted a loud-and-proud pink, the stucco structure could easily pass for anything but what it really is—the only remaining abortion center in the state.

But it is an abortion center, and just after sunrise on weekday mornings stoic-faced employees drive through the gate. A security guard sits down in a plastic lawn chair at the edge of the entrance. Volunteers wearing neon pink vests emblazoned with the words “pro-choice clinic escort” chat in the parking lot. Nearby, a trio of Christians pray and pace the sidewalk.

When a silver Ford F-350 rolls up and deposits the first appointment of the day, the pro-life counselors call out: “That’s a beautiful baby. Hey, ma’am, please don’t do this. Will you please just take this brochure? It has our contact information on it.”

Hannah Henderson

Statham prays while Dorinda speaks to a client arriving at the clinic. (Hannah Henderson)

The youngest voice belongs to 21-year-old Sarah Statham, a petite blonde who works part time in a medical billing office in the suburbs. Today, though, she’s outside the abortion center, carrying a worn ESV Bible and a backpack filled with tracts. She’s hoping to save babies’ lives: “They say that this is the darkest place in Mississippi. It’s a fantastic place to come and share the gospel and give hope to people, to stand up for those who cannot stand up for themselves, to be a voice for the voiceless.”

Statham’s part-time schedule means she’s able to participate when other sidewalk counselors can’t: “I’m available, so why not come and be a part of something like this?”

“Something like this”—pro-life work—is a call to which Statham and other millennials are responding. Doug Lane has seen Mississippi’s abortion centers dwindle in number from eight to one during his three decades on the sidewalks. He says lots of new folks are showing up: “Most of them are young—30 years old or younger—and they’re very evangelistic-minded.”

That enthusiasm on the pro-life side has been matched by renewed energy on the pro-abortion side, especially since the election of Donald Trump. Pro-abortion escorts are on-site to walk women from their cars to the center’s main door. As they walk, they pass by hand-painted signs atop wrought-iron fence posts. The signs read, “May the fetus you claim to save grow up to be a gay abortion provider” and “Mind your own uterus.”

As pro-life sidewalk counselors call out through the black screening that interlaces the fence, encouraging pregnant women to protect their babies, the escorts try to drown them out with boom boxes. “They don’t want the ladies to hear us,” explains Statham. “They try to put up as much resistance as they can.”

Until last year the city of Jackson tried to keep pro-life protesters away, but the nonprofit Pro-Life Mississippi sued and won in federal court. A consent decree required police officers to take part in mandatory training in First Amendment rights. It also required the police department to return materials seized and bonds posted because of improper arrests.

Despite that history, Statham’s easygoing nature has enabled her to build relationships with abortion center employees. She’s on a first-name basis with security guards and also reaches out to escorts, including Dorinda, a middle-aged woman with a shock of platinum-blond hair and black biker boots who’s given to demonstrating her hula hoop abilities while holding a sign proclaiming a lack of regret over her own abortion. Statham says she and Dorinda have had conversations about the gospel and even about the Ark Encounter, the life-size ark museum in Williamstown, Ky.: “I actually bought her a book and brought it back to her from there, and she was appreciative.”

Hannah Henderson

Statham prays outside the center. (Hannah Henderson)

The flow of women making their way toward the pink building continues throughout the morning: a woman in a black hoodie, a long-haired teen with her mom, a young couple. When a small sedan pulls up, it’s easy to peer inside and see that the back seat is filled with toddler toys.

According to Statham, the spiritual warfare at the site is palpable: “When you leave this place, you’re exhausted. Even if you’re just standing around, there’s just a lot going on. It’s an oppressive environment.”

She admits getting discouraged “when people just walk in and you feel like they’re not receiving anything you have to say.” But she’s comforted by this Biblical truth: “It’s not us, but it’s Christ who saves. He opens the eyes of the blind, so you just do what you know to do. He doesn’t need eloquent words. He needs human weakness, and He works through that.”