Asheville, NCSunday, March 13, 2005 1:17 AM
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Finding common ground on abortion
Blue Moon Group's ongoing dialogue commits to lessening hostility
It began as a conversation about a vigil marking a day important to everyone in the room, but for very different reasons. To some in the group it represented a day of liberation, a day when women gained an important measure of control over their lives. To others, it was a day for mourning, a day when the murder of unborn children was made legal.
But the friends gathered around a table at Trinity Presbyterian Church had no harsh words for each other. As they shared stories about a recent prayer vigil that marked the 32nd anniversary of the Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion, their voices reflected concern and affection. No trace of rancor or hostility could be detected.
After two years of meeting together once a month, they still disagree on the matter of abortion, but the members of this assembly are committed to finding common ground and to lessening the chance of violence in our community.
As the discussion moves on, it turns to the matter of how pregnant women seeking an abortion might best be provided with truthful information and real alternatives. Each of the eight or so people around the table participates, engaged by the possibilities.
Meet the Blue Moon Group. What follows is the transcript of a January meeting I attended. I learned of the Blue Moon Group when one of the members called me after I’d written a column despairing the polarization in our country over deeply emotional and seemingly irreconcilable issues that arise when public policy and matters of faith collide.
In the column I lamented that we seem unable to even engage in respectful dialogue, much less work together to achieve goals almost everyone can agree on. Bonnie Frontino called to tell me I was mistaken. Such a dialogue was taking place, right here in Asheville. With the group’s permission, she invited me to attend a meeting. Again, with their permission, I made a tape as they introduced themselves. I took a rough and unedited transcript for them to review to a second meeting in February. At that February meeting, I was unprepared for the conversation I was privileged to listen in on. I had not asked their permission to record or take notes, so I did neither. As a consequence, the summary I just gave of a remarkable conversation that began with observations about a prayer vigil is only a sketchy outline that in no way does it justice.
Because they seek to find common ground and to reduce the chance of violence in our community, and that requires communicating beyond their membership, the group has agreed to allow me to attend their meetings in coming months and to occasionally report on their continuing conversations.
The transcript below has been read by all the members of the group who were present and has been edited for clarification. Recording began as the members took turns reading the group’s “Purpose and Traditions,” which they do at the beginning of each meeting.
Jeff Hutchinson: We gather together in dialogue, realizing that while our views on abortion and religion may differ, we bring to the table a unified desire to find common ground and to lessen the chance of violence in our community.
Bonnie Frontino: We come in peace without intention to impose our views on abortion on one another, but with a commitment to understand those views, and to differentiate fact and fiction on the issue and to get to know one another as people and citizens of this community.
Lynn Von Unwerth: We participate in this dialogue recognizing the importance of this process. We participate in hopes of increasing communication among ourselves, which we anticipate will lead to greater mutual respect among all sides of the abortion issue, even beyond our immediate group.
Donnie Williams: We recognize that our discussions may involve controversial subjects and sensitive topics that mean much to each of us. Thus in our discussions we will not gossip, interrupt each other or try to dominate one another, but will consciously seek to listen carefully, speak respectfully and be open and honest in our expressions.
Dr. Lorraine Cummings: While the fact that we are meeting is not a secret, we agree to keep the details of what we discuss confidential among those of us in this room, unless we agree otherwise.
Monroe Gilmour: And we have agreed today, while Joy Franklin is here from the Asheville Citizen-Times, to let the details of our discussion be on tape for her review and then for review by us if she decides to use it.
Chuck Andrews: Following our discussion we agree to this: We leave here thankful for the opportunity to talk, appreciative of each person in this group and committed to continuing to build respect among all sides of the abortion issue in our community. We go in peace until we meet again.
Franklin: Jeff, could you tell me how you came to begin meeting?
Hutchinson: Obviously we’ve all known that abortion is a very polarizing issue in our culture in general. Those of us in this group, I don’t think anyone here is, uh, kind of wishy-washy on the issue. If you are in this group, you are either strongly, from your heart, with conviction, pro-life or strongly from the heart with conviction pro-choice. We’d all observed both in a general way in our culture and then with some specific experiences some of us have had some of that polarization, and felt that generally and personally. I think we all desired for some way to move forward together as a community. Speaking personally here, there weren’t many times in my life when I’d actually even had detailed conversations with people who were pro-choice, let alone the level of dialogue we’ve been able to have in this group. So for me it has been an excellent learning process. I think the one obvious thing that we’re all very, very glad about is that without knowing folks on the other side of this divide personally, we’d each have the temptation to dehumanize people; if one’s heart is particularly tempted to evil and you go further, you demonize. And I think each one of us, without question, would say that we feel a personal respect from everybody in the group toward us personally. And we all have that respect for each other. That’s some of the basic background. I’ll say a word about why we call ourselves the “Blue Moon” group. Our first meeting just happened to be at Blue Moon Bakery in downtown Asheville. And one of the members of the group just made the comment one time that she never thought she’d have an opportunity for a dialogue like this, and only once in a blue moon does something like that come along. So for want of a better name, we’re the “Blue Moon Group.”
Franklin: Could each of you say a little about yourself and about what being part of this group means to you?
Hutchinson: My name is Jeff Hutchinson. I am senior pastor at Trinity Presbyterian Church. We’re a member of the Presbyterian Church in America, which is a denomination that is founded on the authority of Scripture and is an evangelical denomination that looks to Christ alone for salvation. As a denomination and also my personal belief, and the church officially - because we believe the Bible teaches that life begins at conception - we are bound by conviction and by faith. We believe that life begins at conception. That’s what the Lord teaches through his word, so we want to be consistent with that ethic. But we also believe, obviously, that every human being (well, this is why we believe that life begins in the womb), that every human being is created in the image of God and is worthy of respect. And so to depersonalize, still worse to go further and demonize, a fellow human being is incredibly inconsistent with Christ’s teachings, his ethic and what the authority of the word teaches.
Frontino: My name is Bonnie Frontino. I am a nurse midwife at Femcare. The impetus for getting involved in this group is my neighborhood was picketed with signs of pictures of me, and I did feel threatened, personally threatened by this. There were things made available about my whereabouts, too. Being very concerned with my safety and the safety of my neighbors, that’s when we started looking into ways that we could get together with some other people in the community to try to find a way to reduce the threat of violence.
Von Unwerth: My name is Lynn Von Unwerth. I am the nurse practitioner at Planned Parenthood. Basically, I got involved with it for the same reason that Bonnie did. I had received threatening things in the mail and had on and off for several years. I think at the time we all got together, (Eric) Rudolph was still at large, and we’re all concerned about the whole violence issue; that has been my biggest impetus for joining the group. I have been involved in the abortion issue for 26 or 27 years. I am well aware that nobody is going to change anybody else’s mind. Period. I mean, it just isn’t going to happen. The issue is not so much as changing their minds because it really is a moot point. Everybody has their own beliefs and I’m not going to change anybody’s mind about anything, but that we could understand each other well enough to make sure that none of us got hurt, whether that was a pro-life person being accosted by a pro-choice person while they were picketing or vice-versa. Or something happening to Lorrie or something happening to (me). So that was the point of getting together for me.
Williams: My name is Donnie Williams. I’m an associate pastor at Trinity Presbyterian Church. I have been here in Asheville about three and a half years. In addition to what others have just said, one of the reasons I was brought in is, I had had some opportunities for mutual contact with some of the folks who had protested and been making lists of names that were somewhat threatening. And so, I counted it a privilege to be able to enter into discussions to see how any of us, myself included, could help. And it’s been wonderful. I think I speak for all of us when I say we’ve come to break molds for each other. We all had various molds broken in our time together. And just on a, not really trivial side, but there are other benefits in coming and being part of this group. (In) my family, we now have a cat. I think I got some homemade jam along the way and plants and someone (Bonnie) brings cookies pretty regularly and they are good cookies. But I’ve been around the (prolife/abortion) issue for quite a while. I have a younger sister who is adopted. So this issue has just been on my radar and in my heart for some time.
Cummings: I am Dr. Lorraine Cummings. I am the owner of Femcare. I actually made the call to Jeff that fall of 2002, when Bonnie, who I employ, and Monroe, who is an escort, did have things occur that were personally threatening to them. I called Jeff, not knowing what would come of it, and I have been amazed at the outcome. It has been the best decision I ever made to make that phone call. We just wanted at that time to focus on the violence that we saw possibly escalating in our community. And that was really the reason the call was made at that time. But it has grown from there.
Gilmour: My name is Monroe Gilmour and I am a volunteer escort at Femcare and a community organizer on racial discrimination and bigotry. ... I didn’t have picketing in my neighborhood, but my neighbors and I did receive the mailing that they are talking about, and felt that same threat. And so when Lorrie told us about this meeting that we were going to go to, I went with great nervousness and trepidation that there were going to be these stiff guys in three-piece suits, you know, and here comes Donnie with his Pittsburgh Steelers hat, and Jeff, and they immediately put us at ease. I think their openness despite their very solid convictions about abortion, that their openness has really been an example, I think for all of us. The group has expanded, in fact there are more than just (those) here today involved with the group. It just has really been an enlightening experience. I find myself wanting to shout this out to the world, and yet it is scary because we are not quite sure how to do that in an effective way. I have just found in all my community organizing activities, if we could just get some of the other institutions that I am working with to be so simple and willing to talk and not call names and to get beyond that, it would be a lot easier work for me, so I really have enjoyed this group.
Andrews: My name is Chuck Andrews and I am a ruling elder at Trinity Presbyterian Church and have been over the years involved in pro-life ministry. In fact, years ago, when Operation Rescue was active in Asheville, I was arrested a couple of times, and really haven’t wavered from my desire to see an end to abortion. And yet in my personal theology, what Scripture teaches me is that some of the tactics that have been used in the interest of ending abortion are contradictory to what Scripture teaches. And they’re wrong. And so when I had an opportunity to be part of this dialogue, it was very uplifting to me. I am behind the idea, and really come to value the friendship of people whose views on abortion are diametrically opposed to my own.
Wingfield: I’m Ann Wingfield. I am a member here at Trinity Presbyterian Church. I had gotten wind of this meeting; it had gone on for a couple of months. I heard about it from Jeff. I’m a nurse, and I told him I had encountered Dr. Cummings in a nurse/physician relationship and I have great respect for her position and capabilities and her relationship with her patients and that kind of thing despite the fact that we’re very opposed on our views on abortion. I’m very pro-life, myself. I still have great respect for her, and Jeff invited me to this group.
Franklin: How have your relationships with one another evolved over time, and what kinds of things did you do to gain one another’s trust?
Hutchinson: Well, we’ve been meeting for over two years now and I don’t think a single meeting has moved the momentum of relationship-building backward. Every single meeting we have deepened our friendship with each other. For me, personally again, not that I am necessarily sheltered, but you can only talk to so many people in your life, and I just had never had deep conversations, let alone friendships, with people who believe strongly that the unborn child is not yet a child. Let me say this, too ... not having those personal experiences, pro-life folks can sometimes paint with very broad brushes, and take the worst elements of the pro-choice movement and assume that that represents every pro-choice person. I think that the other side has sometimes done the same thing. I’d heard and read news reports about abortion doctors who really are targeting minorities and poor single women and that sort of thing and really in it for the money; that’s been my impression reading some stories. So the value of actually having some face-to-face conversations with Bonnie and Lynn and Lorrie and Monroe, and just seeing them as real people ... again, every meeting has been a deepening of our friendship. But I’ll say this, too. Donnie mentioned it earlier, but they’ve just been kind. These friends have been kind, and generous, in giving me free food, we’ve had time together in each other’s homes at different points, and uh, free plants. And that means a lot. It just means a lot to be treated with respect. My heart can be pretty hard sometimes, but it’s pretty hard to not give respect back when it’s shown toward you. They have been kind to me. For the record though, I do think they are wrong about abortion.
Von Unwerth: I’d like to say the same thing. I have to say that I’ve been working, like I said before, with abortion clinics and family planning clinics since 1976. Up until this encounter, this is my first meeting with pro-life folks that I consider very, very dear friends of mine. And I enjoy their company, and it’s really been a huge benefit to my life, especially after all those years of being afraid and ... all kinds of things that were not fun experiences. To have this kind of friendship and respect, and we laugh and I don’t remember that there has been any time in this group that there have been any mean words said, where anybody has had any animosity to each other, from the very beginning. I don’t ever remember any of that. I think is phenomenal, given what we’re talking about.
Frontino: To kind of summarize it, if somebody shows up at my house again threatening me, I know a whole lot of people in this room that would help me.
Williams: I just wanted to reiterate what has been said already about the sharing of each other’s time and lives. We’ve opened our eyes to each other’s extended families, outside of our group. They’ve been wonderful. Also, if the pro-life/pro-choice debate is indicative of polarization ... that’s one thing I have noticed in my brief time in Asheville, that it’s indicative of the bigger picture of a sort of a rift. Sometimes this is by default, and in one sense, healthy. But a rift between say ... the religious community and the nonreligious community, or the Christian community and the non-Christian community, and that has been a source of curiosity, frustration at times. I am grateful for this one opportunity for us to sort of bridge some of that rift, in our own way.
Cummings: It’s kind of hard for me to verbalize it, but what I have found most valuable is the ability to be able to explain myself to other people. Because I think it has been hard for people to understand how I can perform abortions and how can I live with myself. And I have had to really think about this in my own life. It has made me examine my own beliefs and I just feel like we’ve come from different worldviews. I am focused on the woman who is in front of me and the hard decision that she is making. I feel like she is who I want to support. That’s the person who means the most to me. The potential life that she carries is extremely valuable, but I am making the judgment that I am focusing on one life versus the other. I think pro-life groups focus more on the fetus because there is no one to speak for that potential life. And I do understand that better now, but still my convictions remain the same, that I still have to focus on the people whom I can help — the woman sitting in front of me. It has been good to examine my own beliefs, but it’s also good to understand where other people are coming from. Being honest in expressing our beliefs in this group has built trust among us.
Williams: Just to reiterate: I got off the question, but one thing that has helped me to build trust, too, is generally the blowing of stereotypes, but even hearing … stories from some of you, what led you all from general OB practice into this and seeing these torn-up families and hard life situations. That was very eye-opening for me. It just revealed some of the general concern for people, specifically for women in certain situations.
Gilmour: You asked how we built trust among ourselves. I think back, I think it must have been our second or third meeting, and Jeff turned to me and said, “Could I talk to you about something after the meeting?” And it turned out that he had a situation in his church where someone was being threatened with ethnic intimidation. We went from that meeting to the family’s house. I work with victims of hate crimes and discrimination. That situation became a whole new issue to work on. I’d forgotten, no not forgotten, I hadn’t thought about it, but the fact that he would ask me to come and help him on that problem, that developed a real sense of trust. We had a very powerful meeting with that family, and eventually got the person convicted of ethnic intimidation and communicating a threat against the 15-year-old biracial girl in his congregation. And that was a very powerful experience, I think, for both of us.
Andrews: I think one of the things that has built my trust is, it’s a process. As Jeff said, we have been meeting now for over two years and I think when people are willing to let their guard down a little bit and just speak their mind freely, trusting that the other person is willing to believe the best for them, just basically trusting that the other person is not going to intentionally take the comment out of context or intentionally twist their words, but really, trusting that they do understand, that builds great trust. I think that that’s a process that began rather quickly in this group, and we’ve seen it grow.
Wingfield: I don’t know that what I am going to say answers your question appropriately. I feel like my family has kind of lived on the edge. Too many kids, and then (we) home-schooled them and different things like that that people I thought were in our camp attacked us for. And so I thought, “How could it be for you guys?” To have people you knew weren’t in your camp be so attacking. I had people who were in my camp that were attacking, so I know what that feels like to get attacked and attacked. So I think I just wanted to offer my friendship.
Von Unwerth: This goes along with what Ann said. Bonnie and I did a workshop at Appalachian State in Boone and it was on abortion, and we did it for the NOW group there. Ann’s son, Isaac, stopped by intentionally to see us while we were doing that speech and talked to us afterward, and said he wanted to say “Hi.” It was so meaningful for us, especially because he is really pro-life, and he came by to see us because we’re friends with his mother.
Williams: I was just thinking of a really concrete example of, again, blowing stereotypes. There was a woman who had been coming to Femcare who, from everyone involved in this group’s perspective (who) was tending to her thought that she probably really didn’t want to go through with this decision. She kept backing out of it ... three times, four times. We had talked a little bit about that. A couple of us, Ann, and then myself, we had the privilege of talking to her because Dr. Cummings had referred her to us to talk her through (this decision). She (Lorrie) just kind of had a — more than a hunch — that this woman did not want to go through with this and it would be very fruitful to talk to one of us. And we had the privilege to talk to her, and to the best of my knowledge, she did not go through with the abortion (turns to Lorrie, who confirms that he is correct). She did not.
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