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When Thousands of Christian 'Prayer Marchers' Descend on One Abortion Clinic

ByCallie Beusmanphotos byLydia Bittner-Baird

"There's another sheriff in town, and his name is Jesus."

The thousands of people who have gathered to march on A Preferred Women’s Health Center—North Carolina’s busiest abortion clinic—are adamant that they’re not protestors. They are here, I’m told several times over the course of the day, to peacefully pray outside the clinic: a seemingly interminable procession of them, clad in matching teal shirts, behind a lengthy barricade erected by the Charlotte police department that brings traffic in the area to a near-halt.

The zealously Christian organization behind the group, Love Life Charlotte (LLC), has mobilized over 100 separate congregations on the morning of Saturday, December 2—the culmination of a 40-week long campaign against abortion that's seen a total of 18,000 protesters descending on the clinic in the past two years. They’re expecting 8000 people today, though fewer actually show up. LLC puts the number at 4000, and local law enforcement says 1500, which is still, obviously, a lot.

"This is no protest. This is simply a public proclamation that there's another king in town, there's another sheriff in town, and his name is Jesus," says Flip Benham, a notorious anti-abortion activist associated with the fundamentalist group Operation Save America. "We introduced a whole lot of people, who had never been here before, right to the gates of hell"—here, he recites the clinic's address. "Because the gates of hell will never prevail against the church of Jesus Christ. They prevail against the Supreme Court, at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, in Congress, but cannot prevail against us."

Earlier that day, Flip was arrested for violating a noise ordinance outside the clinic—he had set up a sound system without a permit—and promptly released from custody. Back at the LLC stage area, he is jubilant and clutching a Bible. He has recently returned to North Carolina from Alabama, where he was campaigning for Roy Moore, the embattled Republican Senate candidate who is accused of sexually assaulting numerous underage girls. "Roy Moore is a great man!" he exclaims when asked about this, apparently seeing no contradiction between his hearty defense of the rights of "unborn children" and his refusal to believe Moore's alleged child victims. "He stands where God stands. He's been a great friend of ours."

"We are definitely trying to rescue these babies, and on top of that, we're trying to prevent the real answer to the woman's problem," says Ante Pavkovic, a pastor who protests outside A Preferred Women's Health Center (APWHC) every week with Operation Save America. He has been posted up by the entrance to the clinic's parking lot since before sunrise. "The problem is not the baby. The problem is they don't know God, they're lost in their sin, and they actually think that paying murderers to abuse and kill their children is a good thing to do. So we're here to tell them, 'No, that's not the good thing to do. The good thing to do is to give your life to Jesus, to love him and serve him and trust him and not murder your baby.'"

A protester outside the clinic, using two anti-abortion pamphlets as a makeshift bullhorn

The organizers with LLC are extremely conscious about striking a more moderate tone. Flip's twin sons, David and Jason, were instrumental in organizing the day's march; acting as a spokesperson for LLC, David insists the event's aim is to promote compassion and love. “Love Life is not here to protest anything. We are here to proclaim that we love Jesus and we love our neighbors as ourselves," he says. “It doesn’t matter who shows [up] against us. It doesn’t matter what people say against us and the stories that get spun."

By 10 AM, in a field up the road from the clinic, hundreds of teal-clad “prayer marchers” have convened by a stage, where a succession of Christian bands and religious leaders are taking turns praising Jesus and railing against abortion. Everyone carefully emphasizes the peaceful and loving nature of the day’s march: They are there to love their neighbors, they insist—an act that includes preventing their neighbors from terminating unwanted pregnancies. The impassioned speeches have reached a slightly deafening tenor; adults are swaying in ecstasy, their hands extended to the sky; children are rolling on the ground, playing with diminutive models of fetuses. I see one toddler enthusiastically masticating her fetus’ head, stretching it with her mouth like Saturn devouring his son in the Goya painting.

Pro-choice counter-protesters greet the LLC marchers, dressed as handmaids

The march itself is massive in scale. It stretches on for nearly a mile and takes half an hour to pass the clinic in its entirety. Along the route, church leaders have erected little tents, from which they shout words of encouragement, urging marchers to think of souls of the unborn. This is the third massive “prayer walk” LLC has staged in recent months—it's not even the first to attract thousands of marchers—and the scale of the group's actions keeps growing: “This whole year, things have been getting worse,” Angela Anders, a volunteer who organizes escorts for the clinic, told Rewire. LLC organizers are sanguine about the future of their movement, and say they’re already talking to anti-abortion groups in other states about exporting their tactics elsewhere.

On an average day, A Preferred Women’s Health Center can see up to 80 patients. On the day of the protest, less than 30 women made it through the clinic doors. "We did have some phone calls for reschedules and people who didn't feel comfortable driving down. That sucks, especially on Saturday, which a lot of people have off from work or from school. It's the most accessible day for patients," says Calla Hales, the director of APWHC. "It's horrible to know that some people drove hours to get here, only to be turned away by the thought and the fear of this protest."

A Love Life Charlotte attendee praises Jesus at the pre-prayer walk rally

Hales has worked in reproductive health for her entire life; her mother and stepfather opened the first APWHC location, in Raleigh, when she was eight. She recalls watching her family struggle through the height of anti-abortion extremism in the country. "It was terrible," she says. "Their friends were dying and being killed outside of their own clinics or, in some cases, their churches. It kind of died down for a while and got calm again—I guess trying to be that more palatable cause—and now it's ramping right back up. It just seems it's a different type of ramp-up this time."

"It used to be," she continues, "there was a small group of very angry and very righteous people... and now it looks like there's these large numbers of people who really just are driven by this group mentality of, This is wrong. There may be only a few people in there who have that violent streak, but it's almost cultish sometimes with how they're all in groupthink."

A few hours after the march concludes, LLC shares a jubilant post on its Facebook page: “Thank you Church! You have made your voice heard by showing up in a powerful way! The BEST is yet to come!”

Ante Pavkovic (left) and another protester outside of A Preferred Women's Health Center before sunrise
An anti-abortion protester weeps and prays over the fate of the unborn before the prayer walk
A clinic escort outside of A Preferred Women's Health Center prepares to help patients get inside safely

An attendee praises Jesus
Ahead of the prayer walk, a woman falls to her knees
The crowd prays together before the march
A seal of teal shirts
An LLC attendee raises his arms in praise
Clinic escorts outside A Preferred Women's Health Center
Protesters bearing graphic signs line the road to A Preferred Women's Health Center