In the mid-1990’s, as a staff person for the National Coalition of Abortion Providers, I met a young, affable man named Guy Condon. Guy was the Executive Director of Care Net, a chain of anti-abortion “crisis pregnancy centers” that were located in all parts of the country.
Yes, Guy was the enemy.
And, about a year later, his wife reserved for me a space in the front pew at their church for his funeral service.
Guy and I met as part of a national effort called “Common Ground,” a well-funded organization that brought together adversaries on controversial topics in the hopes of reaching a mutual understanding or, in rare cases, agreement, on certain issues. In my case, I was asked to join a group of three pro-choicers and three pro-lifers around a table to talk once a month. As you can imagine, the meetings were very tense at first, as the years and years of hatred made it difficult to trust the process or to not think you were being set up. Still, I basically trust people so I jumped right in. From the beginning, I shocked everyone (including my “side”) by candidly addressing the tough issues on abortion (as I do in this blog on a regular basis). Guy reacted well to my approach and he followed suit.
We continued our conversations over the phone, on line, in separately arranged lunches. He admitted to me that he was very concerned that some of the other crisis pregnancy centers were luring women into their facilities under false pretenses or giving them incorrect information. He invited me to visit his centers, which I did, and, unless they were very clever, I got the clear sense that these folks really just wanted to help women in their time of need. And the help that they offered extended after the women decided to have a child in the form of job counseling, computer training, day care at reduced fees, etc. Sure, they couldn’t take care of the kid from cradle to grave, but at least they were trying to help.
Meanwhile, I talked to Guy about our clinics, about why women came to us, their decision making process, what motivated our doctors to provide abortions. Eventually, after months of conversations, he told me that he wanted to write an article for “Christianity Today” about our relationship and asked my permission, which I readily gave. I didn’t even ask him what he was going to write, I trusted him that much. Still, he volunteered that he wanted to convey how I had made him understand more about the abortion process and the women who were in that difficult situation.
Two days later, Guy Condon was killed in a car accident, leaving behind three beautiful girls and his wife.
When I heard the news, I was stunned. I was equally shocked when I got a call from Guy’s assistant who invited me to his funeral. I struggled for a day, knowing that if I went I would be surely going into some kind of “lion’s den” of pro-life leaders. And what would my pro-choice colleagues think when they heard I had attended the funeral? Surely, I could not explain to all of them that we had been friends. Ultimately, however, I decided our friendship came first, not the politics of abortion, so that Saturday morning, I drove out to Manassas to the funeral.
As I entered the church and looked around, it felt like I had entered the National Right to Life Annual Meeting. I quickly noticed Joe Scheidler, one of the founders of the protest movement, and Father Frank Pavone, the head of Priests for Life. I didn’t know what to do or where to go, how to act, whether or not to make eye contact. Ultimately, however, someone rescued me and escorted me through the crowd to the front pew. I was dizzy, I felt all of those eyes on me and I started to wonder if I had done the right thing.
After the ceremony, a reception line formed and I got in line, trying to think of what I would say to his wife. When I got up to her and extended my hand, I stumbled. “Hi, my name is Pat Richards and I knew Guy…” Before I could explain my relationship with Guy, his wife hugged me and said “Oh, Pat, he talked about you all the time!” I started to cry. I am almost in tears at this very moment thinking of her gracious welcome. Then, I shook the hands of his three children and one of them said “My Daddy said you were very funny.” I totally lost it.
I made it to the punch and cookies table and was surrounded by the pro-life movement. They were all thanking me for coming, but I didn’t know them and couldn’t trust them. But I trusted Guy and that’s why I was there. I practically ran outside to my car and broke down.