A motley group of clergymen began meeting less than a year after the Roberts court overturned the Roe v. Wade decision of their 1973 predecessors. Here’s a partial transcript taken from FBI files:
John Smith: Truth is, I’m not good at knowing what to say when a woman comes into my office, bursts into tears, tells me she’s pregnant and can’t have the baby. I think probably I need to have a woman in there with me, talking.
Sam Abramowitz: Can you have someone from the congregation join you for those meetings?
John Smith: Thing is, I don’t always know, when she says she wants to talk to me, that’ll be the subject of the conversation – I don’t have anybody on call or nearby I can get to right away, when the conversation goes that way.
Ahmed Mustafah: Whoa, wait a minute here. I don’t think it’s a good idea to bring members of your congregation into what might turn out to be criminal activity.
Joe Cohen: I agree with Ahmed; what we need is some kind of training, so we can be better at talking with these women.
Doug Grayson: Do we need to do more than give referrals?
Stan McKellen: Yes! Don’t you guys consider this a part of pastoral counseling? I mean, these women are coming to us with a serious emotional problem, something that requires guidance and comfort, the same way they’d come to us for anything else, like if they found out their kids were using drugs or their partners unfaithful – whatever. Even though abortion is illegal again, the counseling part is the same as it always was. Think about what that guy in Wichita had to go through – probably still has to deal with even now – having George Tiller assassinated right there in his church! What would that feel like? PTSD for the whole congregation, right? Tiller was a deacon, for Lord’s sake! Hey, don’t look at me like that, you guys. I can’t help thinking about these things.
Sam Abramowitz: I hear he’s had a lot of community support, and some seminary students as back-up. You know, we only hear about the yahoos, but there are some good people out there in Wichita. Anyway, in terms of your question, yeah, that’s what I think – but really, we need to deal with a bunch of different elements here, which is why I still say we ought to talk to some of the old guys, the ones who were doing hard stuff in the early civil rights movement in the fifties and sixties, and the ones who did this before Roe. Some of them are still alive – and some are still active.
Charlie Washington: Right. And guys, don’t forget lots of us have been working in opposition to secular law in other ways – some of us went public, talked to the media about gay marriage and commitment ceremonies, about “illegal” immigrants taking sanctuary in the church. Like other times in history, including the clergy who defied slavery – or Hitler.
Ahmed Mustafah: Yeah, all six of ‘em.
Joe Cohen: Hey! Good one – you’re one more funny Semite, Ahmed. Ok, the most absolutely basic thing we need to know is, where’s it safe to send these women? We just can’t ever forget what we’re doing is against the law now. It’s like draft counseling was, or helping members of the Guard and the Army get out – isn’t it?
Bob Sanders: Ok, so, yes, we have to train ourselves, train each other, to actually be of comfort, to be supportive in the face of all the related issues, and to show them how making an abortion decision is actually within their religious tradition, is historically –
Ahmed Mustafah: I’m worried about how we deal with the more conservative (to say the least) of our colleagues – we need to talk about how that’s going to work. In my case, and you guys all know this, those people are after me all the time, and they raid my congregation, for young men especially –
Doug Grayson: You know, that’s starting to happen to me, too – the hellfire guys, one in particular, are openly critical of me. They put on a show every Sunday – and you know about those bozos on tv! I’m too reasonable, my wife says, too “low-key.” And I’m thinking, well, what am I supposed to do?
Charlie Washington: Don’t laugh, brothers, but I’m using hip-hop; I’m doing a rap sermon at one of my Sunday services, and the place rocks. Most of the parents and grandparents are grateful. You know me – I prefer gospel, I’m an oldtime-religion kind of guy, but I want those kids and they want that stuff, so I’m on it. Hey, I got me a DJ for the Sunday school – why not?
Sam Abramowitz: Hey yourself; I’m not laughing, Charlie. I’ve got a hot klezmer group coming to my shul every other Friday to play at the Oneg Shabbat and alternate weeks at the Sunday School; one of the musicians does stand-up. Just like you, I want the kids. I want them laughing!
Jefferson Darnley: At the meeting house, we’ve got a film series the kids like; right after Roverturn we focused on pregnancy choices with a double feature – Dirty Dancing and Juno. It was a big success; they couldn’t stop talking. So we’re going to do it again, with Spitfire Grill and Ciderhouse Rules, or maybe Obvious Child.
Charlie Washington: Yep, that’s right – pay attention to what they enjoy, and then you know what to do next. Like, when even guys with gang tattoos show up, I know I’m heading in the right direction.
John Smith: What happened with that guy in Michigan – pastor called Benting or Bentley or something? The one who opened a tattoo parlor in his church a couple years ago? Did that stick? More important, did it work?
Bob Sanders: I don’t know, but when I read about him doing it, I loved that the set-up was right by the baptism tank. I thought right away, when I read that, this guy is bold! But, anyway, I want to change the subject – I need to bring up something that’s been bothering me about our group here: we’re still men only – I mean, I know in the sixties that was a fact of life for the Concerned Clergy network, but why don’t the women clergy come to our meetings now? What’s that about? What’re we doing wrong?
Doug Grayson: I think they’re meeting with nurse-midwives and other women doing healthcare; I think their primary identity around these issues is the woman thing, not the clergy thing. I could be off base here, but that’s what it looks like to me.
Ahmed Mustafah: I definitely need help with this, guys; I’ve got serious gender issues at my mosque – gender and generation gaps, getting wider all the time.
Stan McKellen: Ok. I’m going to call a couple women I know – one’s a Methodist, one’s Presbyterian. I wish we had some radical Episcopalians! Not one Episcopal priest comes to these meetings – even though, in some sense, they’re “more radical than thou” – than me, anyway. They’ve got social justice history in this country. But yeah – it’s weird to have us gay male clergy here but nobody from the girls’ team. More alliances! We need more alliances. Coalition! Networking! And [a chorus of voices joins him] Outreach! Underground outreach – a contradiction in terms!
Jefferson Darnley: What about Mormons? Do any of you know those guys? Are they still impenetrable, or corrupt like Scientologists? How about that radical priest at St Simone? We’ve never, correct me if I’m wrong here, had a Catholic priest come to our meetings. But that guy, the one old Sweeney ranted about in Chicago – probably that’s what finally killed Sweeney, undead for as long as he was – you know, the one in the feature story in the NY Times Magazine? Whether the Pope likes him or not, I sure do.
Bob Sanders: Somehow I doubt the opinion of a Quaker is going to carry much weight in that situation.
John Smith: Are you guys out of your minds? Why are you even talking about this? I mean, why not a vampire pastor? A zombie minister? They’d be about as likely – and more popular with the kids, too.
Charlie Washington: No, no, John! You’re not paying enough attention to the progressive wing of the RCC. You gotta start reading Conscience. Those people rock.
Ahmed Mustafah: Oh, thanks guys – thank you all. That’ll help a lot at my place; that’s just what I need out in front, a pack of infidels with priests’ collars.
Joe Cohen: Well Ahmed, since we’re all into breaking the law for God, there won’t be much going on “out in front,” so I don’t think you have to worry about that. Not right now, anyway. Not yet.
Judith Arcana writes poems, stories, essays and books — including Grace Paley’s Life Stories, a literary/political biography; Announcements from the Planetarium, a recent poetry collection; and, now, Hello. This is Jane, a fiction collection, linked stories seeded by Judith’s pre-Roe underground abortion work in Chicago. Visit juditharcana.com.
Gokul Prabhu is a graduate of Ashoka University, India, with a Postgraduate Diploma in English and creative writing. He works as an administrator and teaching assistant for the Writing and Communication facility at 9dot9 Education, and assists in academic planning for communication, writing and critical thinking courses across several higher-ed institutes in India. Prabhu’s creative and academic work fluctuates between themes of sexuality and silence, and he hopes to be a healthy mix of writer, educator and journalist in the future. He occasionally scribbles book reviews and interviews authors for Scroll.in, an award-winning Indian digital news publication.