Opening Words from the “Honoring Legacies of Justice: 40 Years of Roe v. Wade” public service, held in Oakland on Sunday evening, January 20th.
Working on a national abortion hotline is how I learned to pray.
Back around 2004, when I worked on the National Abortion Federation hotline, we receive hundreds of calls from women who did not have the financial resources to access the abortion-care they needed. Our job on that hotline, as my supervisor at the time put it, was to be real with the callers. Being real with the callers meant saying something like this:
“I hate to have to tell you this, but there is very little support out there. You need to raise as much money as you possibly can. Who can you ask for money? Even 10 or 20 dollars helps. Do you have any jewelry you can pawn? Anything else of value? Are there any odd jobs you could do quickly that could help you raise some cash? I’m so sorry, you deserve so much more but this is the reality. You need to scrap up as much as cash as you can. There are some abortion funds out there, but usually they can only help with $50 or $100. Oh and are you only 4 weeks along? This is going to sound strange, but usually the price for an abortion stays the same until you are around 10 or 12 weeks long. I hate to have to tell you this, but if you are only 4 weeks along, that means you have 6 weeks to raise more money. Because there is so little money out there, the abortion funds focus on women who are close to that 10-12 week mark. I’m so sorry. I wish I could tell you something different, but this is the reality we are in.”
After having this conversation with a couple hundred woman, you can imagine that a white, WASPY middle class girl like myself, a young woman who had been blessed with access to education and healthcare most of her life, started dealing with a deep sense of despair and powerlessness.
How could I keep going without turning into a cynical, bitter human? And I had it good in life!
It was around this time that I wrote what I now call my first prayer. And, gosh, I hate to admit this--- the prayer rhymed. I actually do not remember what the exact words were. But I posted it in my cubicle and I began to silently recite it to myself after calls. Talking to friends now who worked on that hotline with me, there is debate as to whether what I wrote was a prayer or a poem—at the time, we definitely called it a poem. My supervisor shared it with the other counselors and shared how I had developed this practice to help me deal with the inevitable challenges of working on the hotline.
This gathering here, this service, is like that poem/prayer. Call it what you will, but what matters most is the function a gathering like this can serve in sustaining us in our vital work for making justice, compassion, and safety a lived reality for ALL people.
Those phone calls, that small cubicle in a small office on Massachusetts Ave in Washington DC was a big part of why I decided to go into ministry.
And it was in that cubicle, on that phone, that I got schooled by the women who honored me with their stories. Life is not simple. It’s messy. It’s full of violence and violation, grief and desperation, as well as love, joy, laughter.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. also believed in the necessity of messiness, believed in the need for us to tolerate messiness, to embrace messiness.
An excerpt from his 1963 Letter from a Birmingham City Jail:
Over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro's great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen's Counciler or the Klu Klux Klanner but the white moderate, who is more devoted to "order" than to justice; who prefers the absence of tension to the presence of justice.“More devoted to order than to justice; who prefers an absence of tension to the presence of justice”
I don’t know about you, I have been part of too many groups and organizations where this has indeed been the case.
In a well-known book that you may have heard of, entitled “The Bible,” the number 40 is a significant one. In the Noah’s Ark story, how long did it rain for? (40 days and 40 nights)
And when Moses climbed up the mount to receive the ten commandments, how long was he up there? (40 days)
After fleeing Egypt, how long do the Israelites spend wandering in the desert before reaching the promised land? (40 years)
How long did Jesus spend fasting in the wilderness? (40 days)
My hope for the reproductive health and rights movements is that these past 40 years have been OUR time wandering in the desert.
I am so ridiculously grateful for the women and men and people who worked so tirelessly to legalize abortion. My life has been full of the blessings of legalized birth-control and abortion. I cannot really imagine what it was like before Roe. This is the gift that those who came before have bestowed up on us. In our strides toward freedom, Roe v. Wade is a huge landmark. The sweat and tears, the hard labor of making legalized abortion a reality—my friends, this is indeed worthy of deep honor and respect.
And, in that cubicle, on the phone in the small office on Massachusetts Ave in Washington DC, I also learned the brutal inadequacies of Roe v. Wade and of a prochoice movement so focused on keeping abortion legal that we may have rendered ourselves less effective countering our opponents’ disturbingly successful efforts at making abortion inaccessible (though still legal) for so many people. For 37 years, our representatives in congress have voted to renew, every single year, the Hyde Amendment, which denies abortion coverage for low-income women enrolled in government insurance programs like Medicaid.
Baptized by the pain, anger, sorrow, exhaustion, courage, and strength of those women and people on the other side of that phone line, I learned first-hand the gross inadequacies of a singular focus on defending Roe v. Wade. Women and their families needed so much more than abortion-care. People needed child-care, health-care. We need neighborhoods secure from gun-toting racists who will shoot a black boy wearing a hoody and carrying some skittles. We need communities free from toxins that poison our children and loved ones. And the idea of “privacy” enshrined in the Roe v. Wade decision? The idea that it’s “none of my business”? Well, I do not believe that will get us to that dreamed for reality that Dr. Martin Luther King called beloved community—a state of being where all people, all families, all communities have what they need to thrive and flourish, to have what they need to make the hard decisions and the easy ones.
These words, this critical reflection—it comes from a place of love, honor, and respect. The fact I can stand before you today and say these things is because of the people who have defended Roe so heroically. I will never be able to express my gratitude for those who have come before. I will never be able to appreciate what it took, the pain, sacrifice, and dedication that it required to get to where we are today.
And, one thing I know about us human beings is that we are messy and imperfect. Even with the best of intentions, we hurt people. We get scared, and act out of fear. Our grief, rage, and despair can overwhelm us. There is so much unnecessary pain, suffering, and poverty in this world. And we must keep on keeping on.
And so, we must write poems.
We must bear witness to the messiness of our living and refuse to oversimplify, to resist being seduced by tidiness and tyrannical order. We must learn to swim, play, and dance in the tensions of justice, in the messiness.
And that is why we gather today. To bear witness to the tensions and the messiness.
Witnessing does not just mean seeing with one’s own eyes in a legal sense; it also has the religious connotation of testifying to that which cannot be easily seen. Witnessing fundamentally transforms the ones who witness. As witnesses, we are taught and transformed by the truth-telling courage of the testifiers. Today, we will be blessed by the stories and testimonies of six people who have dedicated their lives, in different ways, to creating justice in this world, to making reproductive freedom a lived reality for all. Their stories are only part of a much great whole.
So now, I invite you into a space of witnessing. A place where we can hold and experience all the joy, sorrow, pain, and promise of our messy living. A time to be together and listen, a time to be surrounded and immersed in beauty, a time to let the ever unfurling truths
Rev. Darcy Baxter currently serves a Unitarian Universalist congregation in Hayward, CA, directing their family ministries program. A long-time reproductive justice activist, she is currently a member of the Center for American Progress' Faith and Reproductive Justice Leadership Institute and a Regional Organizer for the California Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice. To learn more, visit www.darcybaxter.com