by Rev. Dale Azevedo, Sr. Minister          –          February 1, 2019

I know, it’s a stupid title. Everyone who has ever bullied or been bullied knows that it works. That’s why it remains such a problem in our society. But as obvious as this title is, I have been starkly reminded of its reality this week. As some of you may know, I spent Tuesday evening at the Rhode Island State House this week. I had been asked by the RI Coalition for Reproductive Freedom (RICRF) to testify before the House Judiciary Committee as part of a panel of religious leaders. It was a surreal experience.

6 1/2 Long Hours

Much of my evening last Tuesday was spent being harassed, intimidated and yelled at. I was called a murderer, derided as not a true believer, and told that if I knew Jesus I would know better. One woman wearing a misrepresentation of an “8 week old” fetus blown up on her shirt approached Elizabeth and me and screamed “THEY ARE BABIES!” in our face, before walking away. Another woman, after lecturing me for 15-20 minutes hollered at me down the hall as I peacefully walked away that she would “pray for [my] soul and for the souls of all those I am leading astray.” (Between you and me, I actually encourage those prayers as I appreciate anyone who will lift me up in prayer.)

However, the most challenging part of the evening was a repeated act of silent intimidation. A woman with her mouth taped over (apparently representing the silent fetuses in utero) approached Elizabeth and me while we sat quietly alone in a hallway not far from the proceedings. Every few moments she, along with a few others who were holding pro-life signs stepped closer to us encroaching on our personal space. Eventually they surrounded us .They then stood there, within inches of our faces us trying to intimidate and provoke us. After 10 minutes of not garnering a reaction they left only to return a half hour later. This time, I noticed a cohort of theirs discreetly filming the event from a distance on a cell phone while pretending to be in conversation with someone else. This entire experience was a staged event intended to provoke a confrontation that they could then publicize on social media. Fortunately, Elizabeth and I had my iPad out and just sat quietly as we watched the proceedings on a live stream. I cannot lie; it was deeply intimidating and took every ounce of self-control to not react.

As if this wasn’t enough, these experiences were interspersed with moments of me being mistaken as a Roman Catholic Priest (I was wearing my clergy collar). Multiple lay persons approached me asking me to help them fill out their forms properly so they wouldn’t mistakenly support the wrong bills. “Which items do I check off, Father, to indicate support for pro-life?” I calmly shared with them that I was not a Roman Catholic and that I supported a pro-choice stance, but if they wanted to support pro-life stance they should check off items 3 through 5. I filled out more pro-life forms for people than I ever thought I would. Meanwhile other catholic lay-persons approached me asking for a blessing before they would testify. After receiving from them their first name, I held their hands and we prayed together as I asked that God’s love and grace would flow through them that evening as they spoke and that the Holy Spirit would be present with them and everyone else in the room. It was powerful, AND as I said, absolutely surreal!!

In the midst of this very painful night, I want to mention one beautiful blessing. During a quiet moment by myself, I was approached by a young teen who was set to testify on behalf of the RICRF. She approached knowing that I was also representing the coalition and wanted to talk about church and faith. She described herself as “spiritual” but was not a Christian and her family didn’t attend church. We spoke for some time about church, faith, and God. It was beautiful to talk with someone who was early in their faith journey and truly interested in learning about God and what it means to belong to a faith community. Thank you, God, for that precious moment.

The Aftermath

As trying as that evening at the State House was, I want to write more about my experience after. I say that bullying works, because it has on me. No, all the intimidation I experienced Tuesday didn’t prevent me from witnessing to my faith and my convictions that evening, but it has manifest itself in other ways. I am hesitant to go back to the State House and relive that experience when the Senate takes up the measure. But I will go. I have had no interest in writing a blog this week (writer’s block) and there is an undercurrent of anxiety that reverberates through me every time I think about preaching this Sunday. What is sad is this week is Disability Awareness Sunday and there isn’t a more benign message to share with my congregation than “God loves you, regardless of how able or able-bodied you are!” Yet, I am more anxious to get up and preach than I have been since the early days of my ministry. The harassment and bullying didn’t deter me immediately, but it is taking all the power of my faith to remain strong through this week. Despite the fact that I know my congregation loves me, my family loves me, and God loves me, I feel vulnerable and unsafe. I am hesitant to “put myself out there” and speak the truth in love, for I know it will not always be met with love in return.

Now, I am NOT writing this blog for people to share comments of love and support. I know that some people will read this and love me, and will likely post supportive messages. Others will read this and love me, but disagree with my stance on choice, and may or may not respond. Still others will read this who don’t love me, and will either respond with hurtful words or not respond at all. I am not writing this to get ANY response for myself. I will be fine because Christ has promised me that. (Amen.)

Why am I writing this?

One of the greatest take-aways I have from seminary was comments one of my professors made about public sharing of personal testimony. “Before you ever preach on something personal,” she said, “know why you are doing it! Are you sharing because it is the best illustration you can share, or is it only your narcissistic need for praise and approval?” I have tried to take these words to heart throughout my ministry. I am writing this story for two reasons.

I am writing this story for all those who have been bullied, intimidated, and silenced in your lives. I want you to know you are not alone. That sticks and stone may break your bones but words sure as hell hurt. I want to acknowledge your pain, as I acknowledge my own. I want you to know that you stand in solidarity with countless others who know what you have been through, or at least, have been through experiences of their own that help them relate to you and your experiences. I want to honor your hurt, so that I can also honor your strength. It takes tremendous strength to endure harassment and intimidation and carry on. I want to encourage you to hold onto that strength and nurture it in yourself and others, so that you can continue to hold to your faith and convictions when others persecute or revile you. I want to remind you that you are a beautiful child of God and loved very deeply by others, but also by the One that matters most. Hang in there.

I am also writing this story for myself. I need to name my experiences, to honor them, and nurture that Spirit of God that burns within me to remain strong, not lose my voice, and continue to speak the truth in love. By sharing this experience I am undermining its power over me. It will not silence me nor prevent me from preaching in faith this Sunday, nor discourage me from returning to the State House when the Senate invites me. By clearly identifying what I am going through, I am better able to understand it and deal with it. I will recover. I will not be silenced.

Thank You

In closing I should definitely thank those who were there at the State House to support me, offer their own testimony, and just be a calming presence. Many of you stayed there much longer than I did. I honor your courage and thank you for your support and testimony. I am blessed to have had you present. You hang in there, too.

See you at the State House!