I have served as a center executive director and client services director for 13 years in a small college town pregnancy resource center. Client outreach is my hearts' work, and I have returned to that role recently. A center like ours has the rural center blessings and challenges as well as an obvious mission field to the university students. Although not located on campus, we are less than one block from the college and work from half a double house among student housing, residential dwellings, and commercial storefronts.
There is a balance required to be a good neighbor, a positive presence in the community, and a low-key resource for clients to feel safe and know their privacy is protected. Our local campus is quite liberal with an active and far-reaching feminist women's center. Throughout the years, much opposition has been voiced from this group about our center's presence and life-affirming views. We have been protested over services we do not offer. Recently, rumors have surfaced of us showing graphic abortion videos to a "plant" (one who is sent to the center posing as a client in need). We carefully deny these allegations as they arise and accept the opportunity to show ourselves genuinely concerned and accepting of others by expressing just what it is we do at the center. So-called negative press is better than no press at all.
It is anticipated that more of these brands of attacks on centers will take place in this exceedingly pro-abortion climate. Our centers need to be ready to respond in a Christ-like way. In our own town, to combat the negative press coming our way, each of us serving here has committed to upholding the same personal integrity outside of the center as we do inside. In a small town, you become a walking and talking billboard for your business, church, and para-church ministry.
Language is very important. We must learn to convey our mission and ourselves clearly. We teach a post-modern primer and learn ways in which we can speak into this worldview with a Christian worldview that makes sense and is intellectually stimulating. College towns have coffee houses; ours has a marketplace ministry café. This is a great environment to frequent.
Christ was all about relationships; therefore, we must be also. Loving our community has been a long-term plan to win hearts and support on campus. When a community partnership aligned with the office of student affairs to bring the town and college together, we made sure we were a part of the program.
We attend a connection program each summer that orients 2,000 or more freshman students with the town services and businesses. The benefit to this event is two-fold; we meet about one-fourth of the freshman body, and we sweat (it's August under a canopy) alongside of the town's mayor, ministers, restaurateurs, business owners, and on-campus group leaders.
A similar orientation takes place in the business district of our town weeks later for non-freshman students and locals. Make sure your center is part of these events. It is normal to shy away from these potentially confrontational gatherings, but we've got what these students need. Most of these events are held on Sunday. God is okay with that. Go and be known.
It's vital to know who you are. What pregnancy centers offer is a matter of public health. A Health and Wellness Fair held in the student union building finds us, with information table and display, alongside of bodyworks professionals, ambulance, police, crisis centers, and abortion and birth control providers. This can be daunting for center directors and volunteers due to the anticipation of challenges by other exhibitors and students. We must take a stand and respectfully labor to build relationships with those hungry and needy of life truths and life choices. Always be truthful and prepared not to be personally offended. It is not about us.
Giveaways are a tough one for pregnancy centers. The same student who will take away a condom rose from another exhibitor will be hard-pressed to come to your table. Giveaways can get expensive for centers that aren't selling anything. Food works. College students are hungry. Good chocolate, oranges, and microwave popcorn bags all work well. We solicit donations of coffee items, biscotti, hand-made jewelry, and hip accessories well in advance. Using locally crafted items and vendor wares builds center relations as well. Believe it or not, the items that attract college freshman women to our displays are baby feet pins and Life Before Birth calendars. We have to go after the guys, handing them brochures on risky sexual behaviors with good pens or chocolate attached.
It is easy to become set apart from a town filled with bars, piercing and tattoo artists, and others that we, as believers, may not relate to. Love, respect, and a plateau of common ground need to be diligently sought. I'm not suggesting you give a tattoo gift card to a college student. Perhaps buying a cappuccino for the body artist benched next to you, however, will begin a dialogue. Students will talk to you if they see you noshing with the local ink artist. Let your love and acceptance of people be genuine. The Holy Spirit will handle the rest.
Work hard to understand the needs and attitudes of this unique and wonderful population. Giving them what you think they should have is a wasted effort. Learn what they think and how they feel. Student and client surveys in and out of the center are a good way to learn about your college campus. Then pray about how your center might meet those needs.
After years of prayer and slow-moving relation building with professors, students, and staff, we are just beginning to enlist student participation for an on-campus group and a space to display our literature and available services. In subsequent issues, we'll take this walk with those of you striving to serve a similar field white with harvest.
God will surely bless our endeavors to reach the abortion-vulnerable women and men of our college campuses. Peace and Joy as you serve.
Marcia Warmkessel lives near Virginville, Pennsylvania, (We are NOT kidding!) and can be reached at email@example.com .
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, Marcia Warmkessel