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WEST BLOOMFIELD TOWNSHIP, Mich. — A bullhorn amplified Conner Westerby’s words as he stood on a public sidewalk and tried to gain the attention of a woman entering a clinic about 75 feet away.
Westerby, a 24-year-old Christian sporting a black ball cap with a white cross on it, urged the woman not to seek an abortion.
“Ma’am, God says that babies are a gift from him. Not an accident. Not a curse,” Westerby told her. “They’re a blessing from the Lord.”
Nearby, Shannon Filipiak, 48, an adoptive mother of a 5-year-old girl, waved a sign by the busy street.
“Babies are murdered here,” Filipiak’s sign declared, pointing to the website of a national group called End Abortion Now.
As Westerby, Filipiak and several other members of a Detroit-area Church of Christ picketed the clinic, passing motorists frequently honked their horns — some supporting the anti-abortion demonstrators, others flashing obscene gestures or cursing out their windows.
“Jesus said, ‘Remember when they hated you, they hated me first,’” Filipiak said of the upset drivers. “People hate us, and that’s OK. It doesn’t deter me.”
Since last year, the Metro Church of Christ in Sterling Heights, Mich., has encouraged a ministry of some members called “Metro for Life,” which seeks to reduce the number of abortions in Michigan.
A banner hung outside the church building features the faces of smiling babies and this message: “Abortion stops a beating heart.”
“It’s saving souls and saving babies,” Metro elder Doug Edwards said of the church’s effort, launched after members Westerby and Filipiak separately — and unknown to each other — approached the congregation’s leaders about becoming involved.
The Women’s Center of West Bloomfield did not respond to an emailed interview request from The Christian Chronicle. Reached by telephone, a woman identified as the center’s office manager said clinic officials “won’t talk to anybody” about the demonstrators.
“We aren’t out here to hate them or be rude. We have free resources for them. We have families that will adopt their baby.”
Nearly 30,000 abortions were performed in Michigan last year as the state’s abortion rate hit a quarter-century high, according to the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services.
“We’re out here today not to protest but to minister to these moms and dads here to murder their child,” Westerby told the Chronicle. “We’re out here to share the Gospel with them in hopes that God will soften their heart and that they will repent and have mercy on their baby today.
“We aren’t out here to hate them or be rude,” he added. “We have free resources for them. We have families that will adopt their baby. So we’re out here for the glory of God and to love our neighbors.”
Asked what motivates her to picket, Filipiak replied: “The truth. The truth of Christ. The truth of what’s really going on here. And I just can’t stay silent anymore.”
Filipiak said her daughter, Nicola, “knows that I’m going with my friend Conner to ask women not to hurt their babies. … I want to pass that legacy down that this is what we believe.”
Nationally, 61 percent of members of Churches of Christ believe abortion should be illegal in all or most cases, according to the Pew Research Center’s 2014 Religious Landscape Study. That’s the most recent data available.
But 36 percent of members surveyed disagree, Pew reported. The remaining 3 percent of respondents are unsure.
While the majority oppose abortion, the fellowship’s nearly 12,000 U.S. congregations are not known for activism on the issue — outside of how they vote.
Readers who responded to an online Chronicle survey were split on individual Christians or congregations picketing clinics and verbally urging women not to get abortions.
“By the time a woman is at the clinic, having someone chanting or singing is counterproductive,” said Carol Puckett, a member of the Brown Street Church of Christ in Waxahachie, Texas.
On the other hand, Jo Pennington, a member of the White Station Church of Christ in Memphis, Tenn., said: “It’s worth a try to intervene with godly wisdom. Some women don’t know they don’t have to be alone on next steps or that there really could be righteous solutions.”
“It just makes Christians look hateful. … It’s antithetical to the Christian message.”
But as Desarae Anderson sees it, Christians could find more effective means of reducing the abortion rate than by criminalizing it or confronting women at clinics.
“Many ‘abortion clinics’ are places women can go to get free healthcare,” said Anderson, a member of the Grace Hill Church in Collierville, Tenn. “Many are there for other reasons, and protesters can discourage women from getting medical attention they need.
“Plus,” she added, “it just makes Christians look hateful. No one who is not a Christian sees that and says, ‘Ah, the good news! What love! I’d like to be more like those people.’ It’s antithetical to the Christian message.”
Sherri Statler, president and CEO of Christian Homes and Family Services of Abilene, Texas, said her nonprofit — which is associated with Churches of Christ — takes a different approach from picketing.
The West Texas organization focuses on letting women know that alternatives to abortion exist, Statler said.
“At Christian Homes, we are passionate about two messages: ‘Sometimes adoption is what it means to be a good mother’ and ‘There are Christian couples anxious to love and adopt your baby, and they will love you for the selfless decision you make when you choose adoption,’” said Statler, an adoptive mother herself.
“We aggressively share those two messages,” she added in an email, “with people who are likely to interact with women with unplanned pregnancies, including pregnancy resource center staff and volunteers, hospital social workers, OB/GYNs and their staff, university health clinic staffs, WIC offices, etc.”
Back in Michigan, Metro for Life leaders stressed that the ministry involves more than showing up at abortion clinics.
The Metro church wants to bring people to Christ and help them find salvation as well as resources for their babies, Edwards said.
Westerby and Filipiak organize educational presentations at the church and invite fellow members and area congregations to attend. They maintain a bulletin board at the Metro building sharing the ministry’s latest news. They shower women who decide to have babies with money and gifts.
Often, rather than an in-person shower, a young mother who chooses not to have an abortion will prefer an Amazon shower, Westerby said.
“This is where you purchase things through Amazon, and it is sent to the church to collect the gifts and then deliver them to the mom,” he said. “I have a list of names of people from Metro who want to be included in this. … The wish list can be anywhere from 40 to 120 items. No matter how long the list is, it doesn’t seem to take longer than a week for it all to be purchased.”
The West Bloomfield clinic occupies the back half of a nondescript building anchored by a smoothie shop called Beyond Juicery + Eatery. Next door is a Chipotle Mexican Grill.
Most of the people entering the clinic on a recent Saturday ignored the demonstrators, but a few stopped and talked to them.
“You realize having a baby is a lifelong commitment, right? Money, financially, right?”
A 30-something man driving a sports car and wearing a New York Yankees cap voiced displeasure with the group as he left Beyond Juicery. He accused the demonstrators of harassing a woman at the clinic.
“You realize having a baby is a lifelong commitment, right?” asked the man, who declined to share his name with the Chronicle. “Money, financially, right?”
In a friendly dialogue with the man, Westerby explained the group’s desire to “be a voice for the voiceless,” citing Proverbs 31:8.
“She has a voice,” the man replied, referring to the woman.
“No, no, it’s for the babies,” Westerby said. “The babies have no voice.”
Westerby, who is single, served four years on a U.S. Navy submarine before returning home to Michigan.
Now a furniture maker, he said he sees picketing not as political but as an opportunity to preach the Gospel.
“Abortion is just a symptom,” he said. “The problem is a stone wicked heart. Paul says in Romans 1 that the Gospel is the power for salvation to all who believe. In Romans 10, he says that ‘believing comes from hearing, and hearing from preaching.’
“So our No. 1 goal is the Gospel. A fruit of preaching the Gospel is that hearts are changed and babies are saved.”
“Our No. 1 goal is the Gospel. A fruit of preaching the Gospel is that hearts are changed and babies are saved.”
Likewise, Filipiak said her perspective changed when she realized that the abortion issue is “a heart thing.”
“It has to be Gospel-driven, which should be obvious to all,” she said. “But it took me a long time to understand that.”
Metro for Life aligns with End Abortion Now’s stance that abortion is a gospel issue, not merely a political one.
That national group’s website contends that abortion “is an inherently religious issue because all of life is religion. This is about teaching all nations to obey all that Christ has commanded. It is impossible to accurately define the issues of life and justice apart from this truth.”
Laura Sawyer, a 64-year-old Metro member holding a “We stand with pre-born women” sign, said she always opposed abortion but never picketed until now.
“It hit me really hard when Shannon and Conner stood up in front of the congregation and said we were going to be doing this outreach,” Sawyer said. “I thought, ‘Why haven’t we been doing something like this sooner?’ We have to stand up and not be afraid.”
Another demonstrator, Peter Morphy, preaches for the Detroit-area Royal Oak Church of Christ.
Before the COVID-19 pandemic began, Morphy said, he preached a sermon against abortion. But then he thought, “I’m tired of doing lessons on abortion — where all we do is talk about the Scriptures — and we don’t really do a whole lot about it.”
However, the lack of response can be discouraging.
“Some days I feel like Satan sent all his minions out. There are days when people say they’re going to shoot us.”
“Some days I feel like Satan sent all his minions out. There are days when people say they’re going to shoot us,” Westerby said. “And then some days people are actually willing to talk.”
Westerby has received mentoring from Justin Phillips and Andrew Belanger, evangelical missionaries who spend most days outside a Flint, Mich., clinic begging women not to end their pregnancies.
Phillips and Belanger work with a ministry known as ONElife for Life. It has helped hundreds of women find a better path than abortion, Westerby said, and serves as a model for Metro for Life.
On this blue-sky weekend, as the West Bloomfield clinic’s doctor got into his car about midday, Westerby aimed the bullhorn at him.
“How many children did you butcher today?” Westerby asked. “One day you will be judged for every child you murdered.”
If those words sound harsh, Westerby believes the context is important.
“Knowing that his job is to rip children apart in the womb, that God hates the hands that shed innocent blood (Proverbs 6:16-17) and that the consequence of sacrificing children is death (Leviticus 20), what I said makes perfect sense and is faithful to what the Bible said,” Westerby said later in an email.
The doctor drove away without acknowledging him.
Before going home, the church members gathered in a circle and prayed for the unborn.
BOBBY ROSS JR. is Editor-in-Chief of The Christian Chronicle. Reach him at [email protected].
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