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Pavement prayers

Aggies commit Saturdays to sidewalk counseling

Published: Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Updated: Wednesday, July 25, 2012 19:07

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The Battalion

Sidewalk counselors recite the rosary April 2 outside Planned Parenthood in Bryan during the 40 Days for Life campaign.

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The Battalion

Katie Higdon, director of communication for Brazos Valley Coalition for Life, talks to a woman getting out of her car in the parking lot of the Bryan Planned Parenthood.

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The Battalion

Later in the day, a woman holds up a sign letting passersby know why the counselors are there.

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The Battalion

The sidewalk counselors include A&M students, but the 40 Days for Life campaign draws Brazos Valley residents of all ages.

As I drive down semi-dark, empty streets toward an inconspicuous building on 29th Street in Bryan, there are already a few people lined up, just off the sidewalk, careful not to obstruct the walkway. Their heads somberly bowed. They face a tall fence of metal bars and a screen that inhibits those outside from looking in and those inside from looking out. I seek out Katie Higdon, director of communication for Brazos Valley Coalition for Life and class of 2010.

"There's already one girl inside," she says.

It is 7:03 a.m. and the sidewalk counselors are already praying in front of Planned Parenthood. This is a medical abortion Saturday at this location.

One organization stands out to Aggies: the Brazos Valley Coalition for Life. According to ABC News, this organization has entered the national awareness by making the Bryan location one of the most protested Planned Parenthood offices in the nation. Gloria Feldt, former president of Planned Parenthood, labeled Bryan-College Station a bastion of anti-choice sentiment.

Regardless of one's stance on the issue of abortion, this organization's rise from a single Aggie concerned with an issue to a large, effective grassroots organization that sponsors the internationally observed 40 Days for Life campaign is remarkable. All this began in Bryan in 1998. Thirteen years later, I stand on the sidewalk with counselors in the middle of the campaign.

Neither of us knew what to expect on arrival. Higdon informed me Planned Parenthood had a volunteer who escorted women from their cars to the front door. According to Higdon, this was to keep the women from interacting with the sidewalk counselors.

Carl Paustian is a first-year biotechnology graduate student at Texas A&M. Paustian stands in front of the Planned Parenthood clinic in Bryan with his head bowed in prayer for the first woman who arrived promptly at 7 a.m. that morning for her appointment. Over the next few hours, I witness Paustian leave his prayerful stance and spring into action the moment a new patient arrived at the clinic. He never shouts, only raises his voice enough to be audible over the sporadic traffic and the fence. Most of the morning, Paustian's pleas, suggestions and statements of "we love you and are praying for you" go unacknowledged or unanswered.

"Coalition for Life is not there to judge the men and women going to Planned Parenthood. I, and so many of the other volunteers, are there on the sidewalk because we care about the health and safety of women in our community," Paustian said. "We are out there to offer a loving hand to women who might want help and [don't] know of the many options that exist here in Bryan-College Station."

Occasionally, a patient or supporter will lash out at him. One woman bellows obscene language and makes crude hand gestures.

"I've been cursed out before, threats of physical action, but it's expected," Paustian said. "I know it's a controversial place to be and I know the people lashing out like this are doing it because they're hiding from the truth. Somewhere in the back of their mind, they know something they're doing is wrong. By my presence there, I'm calling you out and saying this is wrong, and you're getting mad because I am doing it."

Paustian points out his actions are not protesting but reaching out, to women and men alike. Reaching out to men is equally as hard.

"Reaching out is emotionally difficult. The thing that is most difficult for me is seeing these other men bring a [woman] there for an abortion," Paustian said. "The most difficult part for me is seeing how we as men are failing and the general disdain men going in there have. This is the quick fix; this is what's best for them. That's the tragedy, in my opinion."

Paustian notes he has never had a conversation with a man, but he continues to try to reach out and engage them.

Several women counselors hang back and wait for Paustian to make a connection, or to relieve him when he needs a break. One, a veteran counselor, is professionally dressed and wears a necklace with a silver fetus on it. Erin Burow, a Bryan native, has been active in the coalition since the beginning. For 12 years, she has been on the sidewalk nearly every Saturday, except for a short sabbatical she said she took to recharge emotionally. Burow said she became involved with the pro-life movement at a young age with influence from her parents. She is able to impart innumerable facts, stories and pro-life names to anyone interested in the issue. She is confident and willing to share the highs and lows of this experience.

She shared a story about a woman who the coalition counseled and who ended up giving birth to twins. Burow said success stories such as that are highs, but there are also lows.

"It's a spiritual battle. It's constant. There's not a day that I relish coming out here," Burow said.

Burow is a midwife. She assists pregnant women before, during and after the birth of their child. Standing on the sidewalk, praying and counseling are very personal to her.

Burow said she has had things thrown at her in the past by motorists. However, she is not concerned for her safety outside Planned Parenthood. She said she would come even if she had concerns.

"Knowing I did something," Burow said. "If I'm not involved, I don't think I could live with myself knowing what I know. If I'm silent, I'm guilty. It's purely a conscience issue."

Choreographing this occasion, greeting newcomers, praying and introducing me to volunteers is Higdon.

"Our mission is to peacefully and prayerfully end abortion in the Brazos Valley," Higdon said.

"We're nearing 1,000 clients in the past 18 months. We are not a licensed medical clinic. We don't pretend to be. We try to make them feel like they are not alone, because they are not. We try to get them the resources they need. We're a support and a guide for them to take the next step."

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