||Mareza with her baby Joseph prepares to wipe away tears of joy as she speaks at the Crisis Pregnancy Outreach and Sidewalk Counselor Training Conference. At left is Virginia Zignego of Pro-Life Wisconsin. (Catholic Herald photos/Mary C. Uhler)
MADISON -- Perhaps the highlight of the day was the tearful introduction of Mareza and her baby, Joseph.
Virginia Zignego, communications/outreach director of Pro-Life Wisconsin, introduced the mother and her baby. Both Zignego and Mareza were crying, but they were tears of joy
Considered an abortion
It was one year ago that the pregnant Mareza walked towards a Milwaukee abortion clinic. She saw Dan, a sidewalk counselor. “He handed me a pamphlet called Watch Me Grow,” recalled Mareza.
“He said, ‘God bless all three of you.’ I left,” said Mareza, who obviously did not have an abortion.
Two months later, she told Dan, “You saved my son.” The sidewalk counselor ended up being a godfather to Joseph.
Mareza told her story to over 170 persons attending the Crisis Pregnancy Outreach and Sidewalk Counselor Training Conference held at the Bishop O’Connor Center in Madison on February 25.
The conference was co-sponsored by Pro-Life Wisconsin, Vigil for Life, the Diocese of Madison, and the Wisconsin State Council of the Knights of Columbus.
Mareza and her son epitomized the purpose of the conference: to save lives.
Mareza told those attending the conference, “Thank you to each and every one of you. It means you care. I am in debt to Dan forever. Thank you for standing out there.”
For those considering joining the ranks of sidewalk counselors, JT Eschbach from Chicago led a workshop on sidewalk counselor training. He has done it himself for over eight years.
Bringing a message of hope
Eschbach described standing outside an abortion clinic as “the gates of hell,” saying, “There is so much pain.”
However, instead of misery, he said sidewalk counselors “bring a message of hope.”
While people talk about being “pro-choice,” Eschbach said many of those coming to an abortion clinic think they have no choice. He said sidewalk counselors want to make sure women and couples — not just the baby — get the care and knowledge they need to make a choice for life.
“Lives will be saved,” Eschbach asserted, noting that this includes the lives of babies, women, men, and even the workers at the abortion clinics.
“There is value to being there (outside the abortion clinic), to be a witness. We’re like Mary and John at the cross,” he said.
Eschbach said there are the obvious “saves” and “turn-aways,” the cases when a woman chooses not to have an abortion.
But sometimes the results are not obvious. “You don’t know what good you’re doing,” he said. Nevertheless, “we have to have faith and confidence that we’re doing amazing work.”
Touching hearts gently
Eschbach said that sidewalk counseling is not picketing or protesting. There is a place for that, but it should be kept separate from sidewalk counseling.
“The key goal is to touch someone’s heart,” he said.
He urged sidewalk counselors not to argue or get involved in a controversy. He advised against yelling, anger, or condemning people.
Instead, sidewalk counselors should gently approach those coming to the abortion clinic. “Be kind and helpful,” Eschbach suggested. “Smile, be polite, be confident, and show compassion.”
He suggested having literature ready to hand out on fetal development as well as resources for pregnant women in the area. “Let them know we’re here to help them. Say, ‘I’m here to help. I’ll be praying for you.’”
Those who pray at abortion clinics — called “prayer partners” — are asked to maintain some distance from the sidewalk counselors. “Prayer is essential,” said Eschbach, but only one person at a time should approach those arriving at a clinic.
He advised people thinking about being sidewalk counselors to go to an abortion clinic and observe to “get a feel for it.”
He also suggested visiting local crisis pregnancy centers, so that you can speak intelligently about the services and know exactly how to give directions to get there.
Know rights, laws
Eschbach also said sidewalk counselors need to know their rights. “You have a constitutional right to be a sidewalk counselor,” he said, citing the First Amendment.
But people should be aware of the laws. “Don’t get in people’s way, never touch someone, and never enter a clinic for any reason. Respect the laws that are in place.”
The conference also included sessions on exposing Planned Parenthood, answering the tough questions, post-abortion counseling, how to lobby your legislator, medical decision-making, and men and abortion.