On Sunday morning, the Rev. Deanna Vandiver was leading a service at the First Unitarian Universalist Church of New Orleans, a graceful, Gothic-style brick building in the city's Freret neighborhood. The sanctuary, with 70 or 80 people, was nearly full, and included a group of teenagers who had just finished a week-long training in social justice.
The room was silent, as the congregation prayed for a young mother of two who had just lost her battle with cancer, for a social justice lawyer who had recently died, and for peace in Gaza.
That's when the shouting started.
At first, Vandiver told me Wednesday, she had no idea what was going on, as "we were in the deeply sacred collective space" of silent, communal prayer. She thought the noise might be coming from, oh, maybe a visiting Quaker, someone who didn't understand the congregation's tradition of silence during meditation.
Then she heard what they were shouting: "Abomination!" "You are going to hell!"
Anti-abortion protesters had invaded the sanctuary. Once worshipers realized what was going on, they raised their voices in song, breaking into "Circle 'Round for Freedom."
"They sang and they sang and they sang," said Vandiver, "until it became clear who was a member of the community and who was there to destroy it. Those who could not be respectfully present were gently moved toward the door." Here are some first-person accounts of the invasion, including Vandiver's blog post.
You are probably aware that the intense battle against abortion seems to have shifted off the streets and into conservative state houses around the country. Lawmakers have outdone themselves throwing up all kinds of politically motivated, medically unnecessary barriers to abortion. But the extreme behavior that characterized so much of the public struggle over abortion has never really gone away.
It was only five years ago that George Tiller, one of the few abortion doctors to perform late-term abortions, was murdered in the vestibule of his own church on a Sunday by a Christian fanatic. And it was only eight months ago that the man in charge of the group that invaded the Unitarian church in New Orleans, a fundamentalist Christian minister named Philip "Flip" Benham, was convicted of stalking a North Carolina abortion doctor, passing out "wanted" posters of the physician. He was sentenced to 18 months of probation and ordered to stop the harassment.
Benham's group, Operation Save America, has blockaded clinic entrances, violated the privacy of doctors and abortion clinic workers, and harassed women seeking abortions. And now they have invaded the sanctuary of a church, or as Benham described it on his website, "presented the truth of the Gospel in this synagogue of Satan."
But it wasn't just the sanctuary that was being violated. While the ruckus was unfolding inside, Vandiver told me, other Operation Save America protesters outside the church pressed grotesque photographs of aborted fetuses against the windows of the church's nursery. "They were yelling about how we were killing babies," she said. "It was no kinda nice, as we say here."
After the church service ended, a few abortion protesters hung around and harassed people over coffee, Vandiver said. "One of them told a girl that the reason one of her parents was sick was because he was a sinner and he was going to die and go to hell."
Operation Save America has descended on New Orleans this week for what it calls a "national event."
It has protested in front of an abortion clinic, which Benham called a "death camp." It has picketed and passed out literature in front of an abortion doctor's home "to warn the neighborhood that a serial killer is in their midst." The group held a press conference at a new Planned Parenthood clinic, and planned to parade what it claimed was the body of an aborted fetus in an open casket around Jackson Square.
"When OSA first came to the city in 1995," the group's website says, "there were eight freestanding abortion clinics. Today there is only one left…. New Orleans must become abortion-free in Jesus's name."
That is a wish shared by Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, who last month signed into law a bill that would place onerous requirements on abortions clinics in the state. The Roman Catholic Church has also tried to exert pressure. In February, New Orleans Archbishop Gregory Aymond called for a boycott of any business involved in building the city's new Planned Parenthood clinic.
Why invade a Unitarian service?
Perhaps because the Unitarian Universalist Church is among the most liberal of organized religions. Among its historic tenets, reaffirmed in 1987, is that women have the right to choose abortion and contraception. "We see this as a human rights issue," said Vandiver, "and we are not shy about that."
I tried in vain to find a condemnation of this action from conservative Christian groups, who are generally among the first to scream about real or imagined restrictions on their own religious freedom or expression.
I did, however, find a bizarre proclamation from New Orleans Democratic mayor Mitch Landrieu lauding Operation Save America for its "outstanding service to the city of New Orleans."