Stephanie Phillips A former New Yorker by way of Alabama who now lives in Atlanta with her husband and their two young sons. She is a pediatric dentist by trade and contributing writer to The Wheelhouse Review and Mockingbird in addition to her own blog, Plans in Pencil. When not writing, fixing teeth, or raising the next generation of men, she enjoys running, cooking, reading, and watching way too much TV and Netflix.
Her name was Sally. Probably not. She was fidgety and because of that I doubt she gave me her real name. Her hands were very animated, voice riding up and down octaves, and head bobbing as she spoke. She seemed uncomfortable leaving any space unfilled, any moment unnarrated. Like she was hiding something.
She was, of course. It was why she was there; the reason why she had crossed the threshold of this crisis pregnancy center as a woman in her late fifties, clearly not pregnant herself. She had read about our peer counseling services; about how we provided support groups for women who had experienced abortion. She wasn’t sure she needed that. She said that she needed someone to talk to, so she thought she’d check it out. And there she was there—checking it out. That was how she talked: In choppy sentences, repeating herself, question marks and exclamation points punctuating each remark. I felt tired just watching her.
Over several weeks, I met with Sally alongside a fellow peer counselor who had experienced abortion, and I watched them identify and relate to each other as though I were an audience member at a very believable play. On my way to our sessions, I would pass a clinic that provided abortions. A small group of very committed individuals would always be standing outside, waving signs bearing pictures of aborted fetuses and Bible verses warning of damnation. They would snarl at the women who entered the building, hurling insults at them as the women walked past their signs. I was a pro-lifer repulsed by the thought of abortion, but I wanted to punch them. I didn’t. But I wanted to.
There were plenty of other women who came to our center instead of getting abortions, and over time, the condescending pity I felt for the women I met transformed into regret that they had someone as lost as I was at the time trying to guide them. I listened; I encouraged; yet as the women I met with transformed from concepts in my mind into actual human beings, I struggled to provide wise advice while facing a growing realization that I had so much to learn myself.
I remember growing up as an active member of the youth group at my church and hearing the frequent testimonies of older kids who had done it all—sex, drugs, rock ‘n’ roll—and not only lived to tell about it, but turned their lives around after being SAVED! and reoriented themselves on a more austere track. In these stories, it seemed as though Jesus was a footnote to self-actualization.
The gospel I was taught then was not good news as much as it was behavior modification. And I bought it, hook, line, and sinker, until my own behavior became less...modified. I bought it until I needed grace—until I needed mercy.
Sitting in front of these women, years later, I found it impossible to provide them with the time and service of a counseling session without coming to terms with their worth as a person. As it turns out, the truth is so inconvenient when trying to hang onto ill-founded preconceptions. As I heard these women’s stories, I began to see our commonality: broken people in need of help. Somehow I had landed on the “counselor” side of this relationship, but that designation didn’t make me any more put together than LeBron James’ nickname makes him royalty.
I don’t know what became of Sally or the other women I met at the pregnancy center. Although we all eventually went our separate ways I’d like to think that my growing understanding of grace somehow seeped into our relationship, because since then I’ve come to realize how vital that grace is. Since then I have been choosing at best, forced at worst, to view everyone through the same lens of mercy God uses to look at me. I’ve since come to identify more with the broken than the put-together, more with the counsel-seekers than the sign-holders, to the point that there are no “others” or “them”, only us: the ones who know we need to be saved from our own mistakes, not by steely resolve or a sterilized testimony, but by the saving power of grace meeting us right where we are.