An all-women Brazilian drumming group. A married pair of Baptist co-pastors. An imam participating over Skype. A rabbi and a Hindu priest offering blessings. These were just some of the folks involved in a January ceremony to bless the opening of Washington, D.C.’s newest abortion clinic. Owned by Planned Parenthood Metro-Washington (PPMW), the Carol Whitehill Moses Center is located in a predominantly Black and low-income neighborhood in Northeast D.C. As evidenced by a slew of negative headlines from anti-abortion media,* the concept of blessing a clinic that provides abortions is a controversial one.  

Rev. Dr. Dennis Wiley presides over the blessing of Planned Parenthood's Carol Whitehill Moses Center on January 10, 2017 in Washington, D.C. Photo: Helen Parshall

Organized by the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice (RCRC) and PPMW, the multifaith group of clergy met this summer to design the ceremony honoring the new facility. Dr. Willie Parker, an abortion provider, devout Christian and reproductive rights activist, told Colorlines that the purpose of the ritual was to “recapture the moral voice and to push back on the religious opposition to abortion.” 

Among local participants in the January 10 action were the Rev. Drs. Dennis and Christine Wiley, the married co-pastors of D.C.’s Covenant Baptist Church. The pair has been leading the predominantly Black, “radically inclusive” congregation for more than three decades. “One of the things we’ve taught over the years is that Jesus never met people at a point of judgment. He met people at a point of need,” says Christine, who worked as a nurse before abortion was legalized and encountered patients who needed hysterectomies or even died after attempting to self-abort. “Women, as a disenfranchised group of people, need to be able to have control over their own bodies.”

The majority of those leading the clinic blessing were people of color, a fact that Christine says is significant. “Often, religious people of color are [perceived as] pretty conservative. It is assumed that they all will say, ‘This is something that [only] progressive White people would do.’ But it is not true that people of color are monolithic in their theology.”

Dr. Willie Parker participates in a water ritual during the blessing. Photo: Helen Parshall

Predictably, the Wileys faced backlash against their participation in the blessing. They received a flood of disapproving calls and emails from strangers, and on Sunday, January 22, seven men and one woman, all White, picketed Covenant and blocked the entryway into the sanctuary. According to images and video captured by the church and shared with Colorlines, two men even barged into the church, demanded to speak to Dennis and then told congregants gathered that they would be going to hell. 

Protestors gathered outside Covenant Baptist Church in SW Washington, D.C. on January 22, 2017. Photo: Courtesy of the Rev. Drs. Dennis and Christine Wiley

 

 

While there was no violence during the 35-minute confrontation, Christine calls it “really quite disturbing.” She says she asked the D.C. police to move the protestors across the street but, citing a lack of authority, they refused. (The city allows groups of up to 25 people to block a sidewalk without a permit.) “When you try to do things the way that God would have you do them, you’re going to get pushback,” she says.

On January 26, a day before the annual anti-abortion March for Life, another group of about 60 protesters came to the clinic and announced their intention to “re-bless” the space. The staff did not engage with the protestors, but clinic escorts worked to get patients through the crowd. The protesters eventually left. 

Despite the pushback, RCRC plans to organize more clinic ceremonies across the country. “We will continue do these blessings with compassion and love in ways that are completely consistent with RCRC’s 40-year history of engaging in peaceful presence and public witness,” says co-director Lisa Weiner-Mahfuz. The Wileys, while planning to retire this coming fall, remain committed to the legacy of social justice in their ministry, especially in the current political climate. “The Christian faith is really a radical faith that tells us to love in the midst of the hate,” says Christine.

*We don’t lead readers to anti-abortion sites. To establish anti-abortion media response, we Googled “abortion clinic blessing and D.C.”