Minister and Clinic Escort: An Interview with Rev. Kathleen Green
This article contains a correction.
Rev. Kathleen Green is the minister of the Unitarian Society of Ridgewood, New Jersey. She serves on the boards of the Metro New York District of the Unitarian Universalist Association, and she leads the Unitarian Universalist Legislative Ministry of New Jersey, where she heads the New Jersey Reproductive Justice Task Force.* Rev. Green is a strong advocate for marriage equality, immigration reform, and gun violence prevention. She is also the treasurer of Ridgewood Interfaith Religious Leaders and a member of the Faith and Reproductive Justice Leadership Institute at the Center for American Progress.
Sally Steenland: I would like to focus on your work as a clinic escort in New Jersey. Can you paint a picture of what you do and say a few words about why a woman going to a reproductive health clinic would need an escort in the first place?
Kathleen Green: The picture is one in which volunteers arrive outside a clinic very early in the morning before the first patients arrive. The escorts are mostly women, some men, of varying ages and backgrounds and faith communities. When we arrive and gather together, we put on vests that identify us very clearly, to those who are working at the clinic and those who come to the clinic, as clinic volunteer escorts. We position ourselves on the sidewalk, which is right outside the front of the clinic. Women come from both sides of the sidewalk and from across the street, and so we are all along as a very obvious presence as escorts.
Women begin arriving shortly after we are in place, and our job is simply to help guide the patients—and their companions who come with them—to the front doors of the clinic. We are shielding them as best we can from protesters who have also arrived before the first patients are there. There are protestors harassing and intimidating women and their companions. So as we are guiding them to the doors, we are shielding them as best we can and distracting them from some of the horrible things that are being said to them.
Our main purpose is to make sure that any woman who wants to go into the clinic can do so safely and with support. The women that come to the clinic are not all but are mostly, I would say, women of color. Many are from low-income households, and they come with their companions, who are boyfriends or husbands. We’ve seen women come with their mothers and grandmothers, with sisters and friends. So we are seeing quite a diversity of people who are choosing to come there for health care services.
As for why it is so important that escorts be available, I should first tell you that when we approach a patient, we ask if they would like for us to walk with them because some are so intimidated by seeing large numbers of protestors. It’s a very frightening experience. So we offer to walk with them. And some women will say no, and some companions will say no. And oftentimes, we find that with the few who do say no, as they begin to get closer to the protestors, or as the protestors actually get closer and come up to them, they change their minds about having our help. We are always right there, ready to jump in and walk with them and try to do our best to make sure that they are able to get to the door safely.
There are protestors that are not aggressive; I want to make sure I put that out there. There are protestors who are silent and are simply there to stand with their signs of protest. There are protesters who are on the other side of the street who are there to pray, and then there are protestors who are quiet, but they literally chase after patients. They will chase them to the door, they will chase them once they are leaving the clinic back to their cars and, in chasing them, are shoving pamphlets and rosaries and fetus models into the patients’ faces. We have protestors who are filming patients, and then there are the very verbally aggressive protestors who stand on stepladders and, quite frankly, scream their ideology for hours on end. They will scream horrendous things at patients, at companions, at some who work at the clinic, as well as at the escorts themselves. So, clearly, there is a need for people to feel safe and to feel as though they can enter the clinic without as much intimidation and harassment as they are receiving. And we are just a small piece of being able to provide that sense of safety for them.
SS: As you know, there was a case that the Supreme Court heard in January about a state law in Massachusetts that required a 35-foot buffer zone around abortion clinics. That followed the murder of a receptionist in Brookline at a Planned Parenthood clinic. There was physical violence before that law passed.
But when the Supreme Court heard that case, a lot of the press coverage depicted the protestors as kindly grandma types who were nonthreatening and whose free speech was being stifled by this buffer zone. It sounds like your experience is different from that.
KG: Well, I know that Justice Antonin Scalia [had a lot to say about] sidewalk counselors, and, quite frankly, I am not sure how many sidewalks he has been traveling on and how many clinics he has stood in front of for any length of time. With very rare exceptions, that is not what I experience. It’s not what I have experienced week after week after week outside the clinics in New Jersey. There are some who work at the clinic and, certainly, escorts that are continually harassed.
We do not engage and we are not fazed because it is not about us. We know it is really about safe access to health care for the patients. I would say, bar none, the escorts there have no problem with people feeling passionate about their convictions and exercising their freedom of speech. But no one has the right to harass and intimidate. That is what the majority of the protestors at the clinics in New Jersey are doing, and it is hard to believe that in a state such as New Jersey—which, for all intents and purposes, appears to have easy access to health care for women and to abortion—that we would have this situation going on. But indeed we do.
There is certainly a lack of awareness on the part of many people just here in New Jersey as to what is actually going on every week on the sidewalks outside of the clinics here. Yes, there are a few protestors that are not aggressive and are there to show the conviction of their own beliefs. But it is unfortunate that those people are few and far between and that the majority are in no way doing counseling. And they are certainly not grandmas.
SS: We can contrast that with the buffer zones around polling places on Election Day. I think it is 120 feet. So you can set up signs for your candidate, hand out leaflets, but you cannot harass and intimidate voters right up to the door when they go to vote. There is an understanding of that safe zone for people when they go to vote. It sounds like for reproductive health care, there are not similar protections.
KG: Right, that is true. One of the other interesting things when we talk about them being grandmas is that what I have found most interesting—and, quite frankly, surprising—is that the majority of the protestors are men.
SS: Is that right?
KG: Yeah, especially the most aggressive. Those who stand on the stepladders and who are literally screaming, are, for the most part, middle-aged men.
SS: Wow, that’s probably not insignificant in some way. I want to ask about a buffer-zone law closer to you, in Englewood, a town near Ridgewood where you live. Englewood recently passed a buffer zone of eight feet for protestors at city health facilities that include abortion clinics. It was a unanimous vote. Can you talk about what led to the law being passed and any involvement you had in advocacy efforts around that?
KG: Yes. This came about after months of some very active reporting going on with regard to the activities of the protestors—constant reports of the activities protestors were engaging in, as well as film footage coming from the clinic. The clinic has cameras that capture some of what goes on outside directly at the door. So the film footage, the reports. It wound up that escorts were actually being pushed. And there were some little skirmishes as there was a rush for the doors because protestors, before the buffer zones, were allowed to get up right close to the doors and scream into the open door.
Englewood residents had to endure these screaming preachers and were not able to peacefully walk down that section of the sidewalk, which is in the downtown section of the town. And after enough noise was made about what was going on there, there was an ordinance put forth by the city council and a debate at the council meeting. But from the testimonies [that were given and shared], it was clear that the time had come for Englewood to put something in place to protect the women and the men who went to that clinic for their health care.
It was quite powerful to hear one of the council members talk about the tension that was in the room. We were there witnessing the hearing for this ordinance. There were protestors, as well as those who were there to testify in favor of the ordinance. To hear the councilman speak about the tension in that room and compar[e it to] … the tension that would be on the street for any patient just trying to get into a clinic, it was something that really moved many of the people at the hearing.
It was quite an experience to be there; we all donned our vests, all of the escorts that could come. We were involved in gathering people to attend the council meeting in support of the ordinance. We wore our vests, and we simply sat together. We selected one person from our group to speak on behalf of the escorts, and we wanted people from Englewood to speak about what this was like, what was going on in their town.
When the vote was taken and passed unanimously, nearly every escort and many others in the room were literally crying. We were so overjoyed and relieved that this had finally been done. And I can tell you, it has been in force for three weeks now and is definitely making a difference. Eight feet doesn’t sound like a lot, but it is making a difference in what is happening with the patients and how they are feeling about being able to enter the clinic.
SS: It sounds like a public safety issue, and it sounds like in Englewood, at least, when there was some public awareness raised, opinions changed.
KG: Yes, that is true. This is not a cure-all because there are still aggressive protestors who are filming escorts and often patients; they are still screaming, but at least they are not able to get up to the door. We have residents who still walk by and say to us, “Wow, I never knew this was going on!” So there are still people who are not aware, but once they become aware, they are more willing to speak out against it. We will work toward now, perhaps, an ordinance that will stop the filming of patients and escorts.
SS: You are doing this volunteer and advocacy work as a clergy person. I want to ask if there’s anything unique about the voice you bring. I know that much of your work is interfaith. Can you talk about that?
KG: I am a person of faith, and I am a person who supports a woman’s right to choose what is best for her and her family. I do not believe that pro-faith and pro-choice are [mutually] exclusive.
As a faith leader, I bring a voice of compassion and trust to the work of reproductive justice because, for me, faith is about trust. Regardless of the faith community that you come from, if you can look at faith as trust and reproductive justice as being about a woman’s right to choose to have children or to choose to not have children and to raise her children in a safe environment, you can see that it is deeply connected to faith or to trust[ing] women to make the decisions that they need to make.
I do work in the interfaith community and am involved in various interfaith groups. Right now, I am trying to bring awareness to the interfaith clergy groups in New Jersey of what is going on so that, together, we can work on these issues. Faith is something that belongs to all of us; it is not on one side of the aisle or the other. To be able to see that and then to come together to work for reproductive justice can be very powerful.
My tradition, Unitarian Universalism, teaches the importance of affirming and promoting the inherent worth and dignity of each of those women who come to the clinic. And reproductive justice does not isolate or pit important social issues against each other; it works to promote rights across a lot of areas, including the eradication of violence against women, comprehensive sex education, ending discrimination based on sexual orientation, economic justice, environmental justice, and on and on. This is something that faith leaders can rally around because it is about much more than abortion. So if I can work to bring some awareness, then I think we can make a big difference in New Jersey, and hopefully beyond that, working in interfaith groups.
SS: Making those moral connections and connecting the justice part of reproductive justice to other justice issues is very important in faith communities. I want to ask about a sermon you preached a few weeks ago, around the time when the Supreme Court was hearing arguments in the Hobby Lobby case, in which an arts and crafts store is refusing to provide certain kinds of contraception coverage under the Affordable Care Act. It is basically an issue of religious liberty for private corporations. Why did you preach on that? How did folks in the pews respond?
KG: I preached the Sunday before the case was going to be heard, on March 23. It was an issue that needed to be spoken about, and, if we cannot talk about it in our faith communities, then we are in trouble. It was important to me to bring awareness to something that perhaps people were not aware was going on.
Some people knew that the Affordable Care Act contains this mandate that guarantees access to contraception. … [I said], “Any of you receiving health insurance from your employer should be guaranteed, through the Affordable Care Act’s contraceptive coverage [mandate], to [be able to] follow your own personal convictions regarding family planning.” And of course, heads nod. We agree on that; I am preaching to the choir, here.
But then to bring up the fact that there are for-profit corporations—and there are more than just the two cases that are on the Supreme Court’s docket—that argue that the mandate threatens their religious liberty—I was not afraid to call that out as shameful. The issue is deeply disturbing to me as a faith leader because these for-profit corporations are not houses of worship. They are not religiously affiliated institutions, and if they were, they would be exempt or accommodated in the health care law. But they want to claim the rights and the privileges that belong to religious institutions. Because someone who started a corporation holds particular convictions does not make that corporation a house of worship or a religious institution.
SS: Last time I checked, Hobby Lobby was selling crepe paper and glue!
KG: And in fact, getting much of their inventory from China, which is a country they often like to talk about as being one that forces abortions. So we can see some contradictions right there.
Some of this was news to people. A number of people had only heard a little and weren’t really quite sure what this was about, and for those who had heard it, I wanted to drive another point home: that if the Supreme Court were to decide in favor of these for-profit businesses, we are all going to be in serious trouble. That proverbial slippery slope is going to become so enormously dangerous when you consider the precedent that will be set.
That was the point for everyone, then, that they really took to heart and realized just how important this is, what’s going on, and the way that religious liberty is being to discriminate and as a tool for inequality. They realized that we have stand up and use our voices as people of faith to say, “This is not acceptable, and we will not allow this to happen.”
SS: My last question for you just has to do with your participation as a leader in our Faith and Reproductive Justice Leadership Institute. Just a few seconds ago, you were very eloquent in talking about the connection between faith and reproductive justice; you connected it very beautifully. In terms of the public debate and the way these issues are framed, why do you think that connection is so important to articulate?
KG: The religious right has had a loud voice for a very long time and continues to have that voice. And that’s actually fine by me. I believe they should have a voice.
The problem is that people of faith who do not fall on that side of the aisle have been quiet for too long and have not raised their voices. You know, my values are birthed from my faith, and my faith is my trust in the goodness that can come from humanity as compassionate and reasonable beings. My trust in my faith lies in the strength and the power that human beings have to stay in the struggle and the power and strength that human beings have to work together to create social change. Social change is only going to be created when we use our voices and we, too, have a loud voice about the values of our faith. We have something to say, and we need to be heard.
The connection is undeniable, and the connection of faith to reproductive justice for me and, I think, for many people who would consider themselves to be progressive people of faith, is one of a deep commitment and trust that oppression, inequality, and injustice can be—and will be, if we are willing to stand up and speak out—overcome. That is the connection.
SS: That is absolutely right. I like very much what you said about how, in a democracy, we all have a voice. And so, as faith leaders who believe in reproductive justice and people of conscience, we have to talk louder, and that’s how change comes.
SS: Thank you so much, Kathleen, for your insights and experience. Thank you for the work you do.
KG: And thank you for the work you are doing as well, Sally. I am grateful.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Sally Steenland is Director of the Faith and Progressive Policy Initiative at the Center for American Progress. You can learn more about this project here.
*Correction, May 2, 2014: This article incorrectly stated Rev. Kathleen Green’s role on the boards of the District of the Unitarian Universalist Association and the Unitarian Universalist Legislative Ministry of New Jersey. She is a member on both boards.
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Director, Faith and Progressive Policy Initiative