In all honesty, I was not keen on the idea of my wife, Ashley, taking my two teenage daughters and their friend to pray in front of the Planned Parenthood clinic located at 12th and Locust Streets in downtown Philadelphia.
I am a native Philadelphian, born and raised inside the city limits. I have seen firsthand both the exhilarating diversity of opinion that exists in our metropolis and the unfortunate misconduct and delinquency that plague the city. Ashley grew up on the beaches of San Diego and has more experience with surfboards than with ruffians. But it was Holy Thursday, and she convinced me that praying in front of the clinic was a good thing to do for the sake of standing up for life and as an act of service before our family began observing the Triduum that evening at Mass.
As it turns out, my concerns were well founded. About twenty minutes into praying the rosary, Ashley and the girls were aggressively approached by a man who we later learned was State Representative Brian Sims. He began yelling at them, telling them that they should be ashamed for threatening young girls who were coming to Planned Parenthood for “basic clinical care.” He accused the girls of being “white racists” who wanted to tell women of color what they can and can’t do with their own bodies. At one point, Mr. Sims started walking directly toward the three teenagers, and Ashley felt compelled to step in front of him, deliberately forming a buffer between him and the girls. She asked him repeatedly to speak only to her as the adult, tried to introduce herself, and said over and over again that they were just there to pray peacefully for the women and babies in the building.
Meanwhile, my daughter’s friend mentioned several times that she was not, in fact, white, something that should have been blatantly obvious. After a few more finger points and scolding remarks, Mr. Sims left. Ashley checked in with the girls, apologized that they had to endure such mistreatment, and told them she was proud of them for standing up and doing the right thing even under challenging circumstances. The older girls told Ashley that they had heard much worse things yelled at them when they attended the March for Life in Washington, D.C., in January, so they weren’t completely unprepared for the harassment.
About ten minutes later, Mr. Sims reappeared. This time, he filmed Ashley and the girls with his phone. He proceeded to point the lens directly at the three teen girls and attempted to “dox” them by offering a $100 donation to Planned Parenthood if anyone could provide their identities. Ashley attempted once more to engage in peaceful dialogue with Mr. Sims, but when it became clear that he was interested only in his own raging diatribe, she and the girls walked away, our daughter’s friend once again trying to point out to Mr. Sims that she is “far from white.”
When Ashley and the girls told me what had happened to them, I was angry at Mr. Sims (so incredibly angry at Mr. Sims). I reproached myself for not accompanying the girls to the clinic and not being present to protect them. Ashley and I talked about the incident with the girls, and together we prayed for the man who had so blatantly mistreated them and attempted to intimidate them. I reaffirmed Ashley’s earlier words to the girls, telling them I was proud of them for doing the right thing. I apologized for not being there with them when it happened. As a family, we prayerfully entered into the Easter Triduum and put the ugly incident firmly behind us.
About three weeks later, we were at dinner downtown with some family friends when the father of our daughter’s friend called to say that Live Action had found the video Mr. Sims made of accosting and doxxing the girls, as well as a second video he made of himself harassing and shaming an older woman who was quietly praying alone outside the same Planned Parenthood clinic. This was when we learned that the man who attacked Ashley and the girls was an elected state representative. By the time we finished our appetizers, the video had been viewed 3,000 times.
After we arrived home that evening, we learned the video was flying around Twitter and had been viewed more than 500,000 times. Friends who had seen the video on social media were contacting us, asking if Ashley and the girls were the ones on film.
It was clear that the relative anonymity of our family was gone. The only question was how to appropriately respond in a way that recognized the issues at hand—the slaughter of more than 15,000 innocent children every year in abortion facilities in Philadelphia alone, the blatant and aggressive intimidation tactics of an adult male toward three teenage girls, and the inexcusable attack by a public servant—whose salary is funded by taxpayers’ dollars—on the First-Amendment rights of my family to peacefully exercise our faith through free speech.
We decided that our best course of action was to launch a fundraiser in support of the Pro-Life Union of Philadelphia, which supports various pro-life ministries in Philadelphia and its five surrounding counties. These ministries include the Sidewalk Servants (an organization that mobilizes praying volunteers to stand outside abortion clinics during operating hours), crisis pregnancy centers, and several homes where pregnant women and their children can live rent-free until they are able to support themselves. We are so glad to say that, in only eight days, our GoFundMe campaign has raised nearly $130,000. We hoped that some tangible good would come out of our personal trial, and $130,000 will do a tremendous amount of good for the mothers and babies of my beloved city.
We also knew that it was our responsibility as parents to hold Mr. Sims accountable for his actions. He needs to apologize explicitly, genuinely, and publicly for his aggressive and inappropriate behavior toward my teenage daughters and their friend. As an aside, these three brave girls were most decidedly not intimidated by Mr. Sims’s antics. After the girls walked away, Mr. Sims began berating a kind young man who had been praying with them. All three girls told my wife that they should go back and stand in solidarity with this gentle comrade. They didn’t want him to have to face such reprehensible bullying alone. They were not afraid.
And what of my role as a husband and father, as an American, and especially as a practicing Catholic? It is, of course, my primary responsibility to protect and provide for my family in matters both material and spiritual. It is my task to cast a grand vision for my family, teaching them, showing them, encouraging them to love God and serve His Church by embracing her gospel truth and doctrines, and then declaring them and acting on them in the public square.
It’s not enough to teach our children that life is sacred from the moment of conception until natural death. As Catholics, we must declare the truths of our faith in the public square. We must embrace the unique rights we have to do this in America, especially here in Philadelphia, where the Constitution was drafted. We must teach our children that to publicly proclaim God’s plan is not only their right, but their duty. Inside the loving embrace of the family, the faithful need to raise a new generation of Christians who stand up for life and boldly proclaim their faith both inside and outside the home . . . and who understand that no one, not even an elected official, has the right to stand in their way.