I can remember driving through Narragansett in the backseat of my parents’ car and seeing a strange van passing by with peculiar images draped across the sides. Even though I don’t remember the specific conversations, I’m sure I asked my parents about the images, and they delicately explained them to my young ears.
Twenty years later, after a rediscovery of my Catholic faith, I found myself motivated to pray on the sidewalk outside Planned Parenthood for the first time. There was that van again! This time, the images weren’t just on the van, but also on posters that were stationed up and down the sidewalk. And there was the driver of that van from so many years ago: Joe.
For the next 10 years I would spend most of my Friday mornings with Joe. This is what I can tell you about him.
Joe stood at the parking lot entrance of Planned Parenthood equipped with a Gospel tract and a pamphlet that said across the front in big letters, “Another Way Out.”
He attempted to hand that literature to every single car that pulled into that parking lot on every single Tuesday and Friday morning (surgical abortion days at Planned Parenthood). On the other days of the week, he could be found doing the same thing at the abortion mill in Cranston.
Joe had signs. Lots of signs. Signs that showed precisely what abortion looks like. I once held one up for a Planned Parenthood escort to see and he couldn’t bear to look at it.
At 90 years old he arrived on the sidewalk at 4 a.m., in the blistering cold or scorching heat, he arrived alone and placed those signs across the length of the street using bungee cords and plastic rods to hold them upright. For years, a Planned Parenthood security guard would place his own contraption of black garbage bags in front of Joe’s signs in order to block them from view. Joe never protested. He never got angry. I think he knew that the black garbage bags covering the aborted babies served as the perfect metaphor for the horror of abortion.
People kicked his signs. Punched them. Broke them over their knees. Spit on them. Dragged them away. Stole them. Screamed at them. Many pro-lifers even asked Joe to take them down. “That’s the reality,” he would reply. “That’s the truth. People need to see the truth.”
Joe was a part of a generation that was reluctant to believe the horrors of abortion. Like Saint John the Baptist, Joe received a call from God to proclaim the truth, a prophet in the wilderness calling people to repentance and pointing them towards the Savior.
One day a man stopped on the sidewalk to tell us that the signs made him drive right past the abortion mill on the day of his child’s scheduled execution. “Those signs saved my child,” he told us.
Joe saved a lot of lives. If I had to guess, I would say many hundreds, if not a couple thousand Rhode Island babies were spared from the fate of abortion because of Joe’s 50 years on the sidewalk.
A few years ago, Mother of Life Center highlighted a woman at one of their events who changed her mind inside Planned Parenthood and chose life for her baby. She explained in her speech that a kind, older gentleman handed her a pamphlet that read across the front, “Another Way Out.”
Joe used to get arrested a lot. He told me stories of Operation Rescue when the pro-lifers would chain themselves together to block the entrances of the killing centers. He was firm in his convictions. When the abortionist would drive into the parking lot he would yell to us, “The killer is here,” and yet he was the most gentle and approachable among us. He was the only one of us who the Planned Parenthood escorts would speak to. He possessed a Christ-like balance of meekness and boldness that few people attain in this life.
Joe loved God.
He left the Catholic Church many years ago. I don’t know why. I never asked him. But there were many people praying for many years for his return, and I would be remiss if I did not recount one final story about Joe.
Joe returned to the Catholic Church three months before he died.
He suffered a stroke in December and spent some time in Saint Elizabeth’s in East Greenwich. A friend asked Joe if he would like to see a priest and receive the sacraments. Joe said yes. The priest was very deliberate that he was not interested in engaging in an empty ritual. He was specific in the questions he asked Joe. Joe expressed remorse for leaving the Church and a desire to reenter. He was overjoyed after Confession and Anointing to receive Our Lord in Holy Communion after so many years. When that same priest visited Joe at his home in Narragansett, he was watching the Divine Mercy Chaplet on EWTN.
He stood in the presence of the recitation of countless Hail Mary’s on the sidewalk, many of them intended for him to come back to the Church, and at the hour of his death, he did.
Joe passed away earlier this spring after suffering a stroke in December.
Let us all offer a prayer to protect the unborn in his memory.