Fifteen months after the city of Oakland, California, passed a law making it illegal to approach a woman entering an abortion clinic without her consent, Walter Hoye went to jail for standing on a public sidewalk outside an abortion clinic with a sign saying, “God loves you and your baby. Let us help you.”
In this excerpt from Black and Pro-Life in America, we learn about Walter’s first visit to Family Planning Specialists in Oakland, and how his life would never be the same.
Walter Hoye had never heard of Family Planning Specialists (FPS) in Oakland before he was invited to join the sidewalk counselors at 200 Webster Street. “I was focused on my church, on my congregation and the next conference,” he explained. Abortion and its impact on the black community had become issue No. 1 at Progressive Missionary Baptist Church, but Walter had not yet visited an abortion clinic.
Energized by a Walk for Life and intrigued by the possibilities involved in sidewalk counseling, Walter decided to give it a try. With Christiana Downer and Sister Elga Kendall, two women in their 80s from his church, he went to FPS for the first time on Tuesday, March 14, 2006. That very day, FPS called the police. No one was cited or arrested, and Walter and his friends decided to return every Tuesday morning.
During Walter’s time slot at FPS, from 8:00 a.m. to 10:00 a.m., he would stand on the public sidewalk near the clinic loading zone and watch for the telltale signs of a woman on her way to an abortion. The pathway to the front door of the clinic, eight steps in length, was on private property and off-limits to Walter. But it was no barrier to the spiritual power of prayer and heartfelt concern that he could exercise from the sidewalk. Walter figured that if by those means he could save just one life each Tuesday, he could save 52 lives each year.
Most clients would walk right past Walter, acting as though they didn’t see him and his sign, which said, “God loves you and your baby. Let us help you.” But once in a while a woman would stop and listen to his soft, comforting voice saying, “Good morning. May I talk to you about alternatives to the clinic?” Sometimes his truthful and hopeful words would change a woman’s mind about having an abortion.
Walter’s sign was a gift from Mary Arnold. It was a copy of one Mary used with some success during one of her vigils outside an abortion clinic in Auckland, New Zealand. A Pacific Islander inside the clinic saw the sign through the window and went outside to talk to Mary. She said that her boyfriend and her boyfriend’s father were at home praying for her and that the message on the sign meant a lot to her. She asked Mary for help, and Mary assisted her through the pregnancy. They stayed in touch after the birth of the baby, and Mary has a photograph of the child, which is dear to her heart.
He Answered Yes
Walter loved the sign and the story behind it, he said. The succinct message summed up everything he would say to a woman in a crisis pregnancy if she would give him the chance. It contained the answers to the three questions women would most often ask him: “Does God love me?” “Does God love me and my baby?” “Are you willing to help me?” Every time a woman asked Walter one of these questions, he answered yes.
During Walter’s visits to FPS he noticed that most of the women seeking abortion were black. Gradually, the number of black clients increased. One Tuesday morning, Walter counted 27 women approaching the clinic, and 25 of them were black. Yet the clinic could not perform 27 abortions in a two-hour period, he said. Some of these women, he discovered, came “not because they had an appointment, but because they knew there was a black man out there, a preacher out there, who was helping the women.” Word had spread about Walter’s two-hour weekly vigil at the Webster Street clinic.
The needs women brought to Walter went beyond those related to pregnancy. “If they were hungry, if they needed a place to stay . . . we were literally helping the women,” he said. Some women simply needed someone to talk to. “Sometimes we would just go have coffee, lunch, and just talk.”
Young men also began coming to Walter, seeking answers and looking for help. Sometimes a pregnant mother dragged along the father of her unborn child, hoping he would listen to Walter. “She wanted him, her boyfriend, to hear me talk about it,” he said, referring to the life of the baby and alternatives to abortion.
As members of the local black community, Walter and his companions from Progressive Missionary Baptist Church became the most effective sidewalk counselors outside FPS — so effective that the clinic turned to Barbara Hoke for help.
Antis and Deathscorts
Barbara Hoke calls all of them “antis” — pro-life demonstrators, protestors, and sidewalk counselors. When the “antis” began squeezing FPS financially, the clinic asked her to recruit escorts for their clients.
For their part, the “antis” referred to the escorts as “deathscorts,” and when the first ones arrived at FPS two months after black folks began sidewalk counseling there, the reason for them was obvious — to counter the Walter Hoye effect.
Walter and his companions kept their Tuesday-morning appointment at FPS like clockwork. Christiana Downer and Sister Elga Kendall went to their usual curbside spots and handed out literature. Walter, in his early 50s, moved back and forth in his own area, closer to the white loading zone. “I would say to the women, ‘Good morning. May I talk to you about an alternative to the clinic?’ so they would know I wasn’t crazy,” Walter said. If a client chose to listen, she would walk closer to him.
The first sign that FPS was worried about Walter Hoye was the increase in visits by the police. They started to come at regular intervals. As had been the case before, the police would leave without making any arrests. There were federal and state laws governing activities outside abortion clinics, some of them strongly worded and court tested, but what Walter was doing remained in compliance with those laws. He was holding a sign and offering an alternative to abortion on a public sidewalk. There was no law against that. Officers would arrive, briefly talk to Walter, and then quickly leave. Those police visits were a blessing in disguise, Walter said. “They were actually helping me be a better sidewalk counselor,” he explained. “I obeyed everything they told me to do. Women were still stopping.”
When the first escorts arrived at FPS, they were cold and hard toward Walter, as if he were a dangerous enemy. But their treatment didn’t bother him. He was as open and friendly with them as he was with anyone else, and it wasn’t long before they began talking to him when no clients were around. The conversations were unavoidable since the escorts shadowed Walter’s every move by standing or walking right next to him. The topics ranged from the trivial to the more serious and personal. Walter was training to run a marathon, which one escort found interesting. Another escort wanted to talk about her gravely ill mother, and Walter listened to her concerns with kindness and sympathy.
Sharing the Love
Walter looked upon these conversations as opportunities to share the love of God with the volunteers. One escort, one of the few black volunteers, stopped coming to the clinic. “She saw what I was seeing,” Walter said. “She knew what was going on, and she got to the point where she never came back. She just couldn’t do it anymore.” Her departure became another problem for the clinic.
After a while, the escorts stopped talking to Walter, and he and his companions concluded that the clinic had ordered the escorts to stay away from him. “They would come out and say, ‘We can’t talk to you anymore, Walter. We can’t talk to you,’ ” he said. The escorts then waited in their cars or in the lobby for clients to arrive.
In April the escorts began more aggressive tactics. As they stood next to Walter or walked alongside him, they blocked his sign or his face with blank whiteboards. “In some cases, I was literally surrounded and followed by four white women wherever I went,” he said. The spectacle slowed traffic on Webster Street as drivers rubbernecked to see what the fuss was about.
Sidewalk counselor Mary Arnold recalled how the circus caused clients to approach her with questions about what was going on. It was an open invitation for her to reach out. It worked for a while, but the constant harassment by the escorts ultimately caused Mary Arnold to give up, leaving Walter there with his two elderly companions.
By November 2006 there was public talk about crafting a bubble law for abortion clinics in Oakland. The clamor for action against Walter Hoye had reached city hall, where abortion providers had powerful allies who proved willing to go to extremes to stop him. “They were afraid that if one black pastor was out there, more would come,” he said. “They couldn’t let one black pastor get away with counseling black women about alternatives to abortion.”