MONTCLAIR, N.J.-During the Democratic National Convention this year, Clenard Childress attended a pro-life protest that took a humorous turn. An African-American pastor from Montclair, N.J., Childress and the other protesters left their signs against a gate at Denver's Planned Parenthood while they prayed in the Martin Luther King Jr. Park across the street.
"And all of a sudden I hear Alan Keyes, who had been driving away, running down the street, yelling at the top of his voice, 'Thief! Thief!'" Childress remembered. Keyes rushed onto Planned Parenthood's grounds and wrestled two of their signs away from a security guard. The other protesters followed.
"There was a standoff now: security and us," said Childress. "Flip Benham steps out on the grounds, points his finger at security and says, 'We can do this two ways. Either you can go get the signs and give them back to us or we're going to get the signs.'"
The security guard backed down.
Why is a 55-year-old black clergyman protesting the convention that nominated the first black candidate for president? Childress said opposing Barack Obama is one of the most difficult decisions his pro-life principles have required him to make. While a recent poll found that 76 percent of black voters support Obama, other African-American pro-lifers have joined Childress in vocal opposition to Obama, including Day Gardner of the National Black Pro-Life Union, and Alveda King, pro-life activist and niece to Martin Luther King Jr.
African-American pastors-Levon Yuille, Kim Daniels, Gilbert Coleman, and John W. Stephenson-told The Washington Times they struggle to educate their African-American congregations on Obama's pro-abortion record. Johnny Hunter of Life Education and Resources Network, pro-life pastor Stephen Broden, and Jesse Lee Peterson of Brotherhood Organization of a New Destiny, have also publicly spoken against Obama.
Childress' decision is part of a life-long passion for social justice. Born and raised in Montclair, a town of about 38,000 half an hour from New York City, Childress was interested in civil rights and social justice from an early age. "I grew up with H. Rap Brown, Hughie Newton, the Panther Movement, and Louis Farrakhan," said Childress, who now pastors New Calvary Baptist Church in his hometown. "[Farrakhan] came to our school to speak and I was very much moved by his rhetoric." In the seventh grade, he joined black students who were bused to predominantly white schools. In high school, Childress protested the firing of an African-American teacher and rallied for more African-American teachers and black studies.
"I was questioning life and the justice system and really what life was all about, the significance of life and why we were here," said Childress. "It was very timely of God to grab me when He did." Childress' conversion to Christianity as a college student deepened his passion for social justice and also changed it: "I realized that true justice can only come by God implementing it and using man to bring it. We had to be in communion with God to bring about justice-true justice."
Childress has a map of the United States on his wall with a thumbtack for every place where he's participated in social activism. There are thumbtacks in 21 states from coast to coast. He joined pro-life causes in 1995 when a pro-life leader learned from a high-school student that Childress counseled against abortion. The woman asked him to be involved in what she called the "pro-life movement." "I didn't even know what she was talking about," Childress said.
He agreed, mostly to be nice, and attended a Life Education and Resources Network conference. He went only because it took place at a 700 Club campus, and he considers Pat Robertson a hero: "After all, who wants to sit up and talk about abortion all day?"
Then he heard a presentation about Margaret Sanger's project to introduce sterilization and abortion to the black community and discovered that abortion disproportionately affected the African-American community.
"I've never been as stunned hearing information before," Childress said. Today, hundreds of thousands of black babies are aborted each year. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, almost one in every two African-American pregnancies ends in abortion. According to the Allan Guttmacher Institute, African-American women are nearly five times more likely than non-Hispanic white women to have an abortion.
Learning this turned Childress into a pro-life activist, he said. In the past 13 years, he's collected plenty of colorful anecdotes along with becoming a pro-life leader. At an Ohio State University protest, counter-protesters rushed them from both directions so a girl holding a six-inch knife could run at the signs and deface them. "The knife refused to puncture the sign, which affected my group very much. They thought it was a miracle," Childress said.
In 2004, he counter-protested the National Organization for Women's March for Women's Lives and said he'd never forget the look on Whoopi Goldberg's face as she came around the corner and saw their 12-by-4-foot signs of aborted babies.
Childress said the NOW marchers attacked a young man who was videotaping them as they cursed and swore at the pro-lifers, and he feared violence all day. "I have never been cursed, spat at more in my entire life. It made up for anything that hadn't been done for the last 30 years or so." Other marchers-those whose employers made them march and a couple of girls his teenage daughter knew-left the NOW ranks to stand with the pro-lifers.
Now Childress is branching out from protests into politics. A box in the top floor of his church overflows with fliers that read, "Vote Your Values," and a sign reading, "Rev. Childress for Assembly, 34th District: Family Values, Integrity, Honest Leadership," hangs on the wall. Childress said he'd never given political office a thought until Assemblyman Peter Eagler hastily asked him to run as part of his team.
Then Eagler and the Democratic party leaders found out that although Childress was a Democrat, he was pro-life and opposed gay marriage. Eagler dropped out of the race (without telling Childress why), and Childress ran alone and lost.
A party boss said the Democratic tent just wasn't big enough for Childress. Saying he "doesn't run from party bosses," Childress ran as a Republican in 2007 and lost again. He plans to run a third time as an Independent. In a district that is 90 percent Democratic, he faces an uphill battle with a cheerful optimism: "I can't believe that we are so narrow-minded that we only vote party, not principle."
He said those principles require him to oppose Barack Obama. Childress looks for male African-American role models like Obama, who has a solid family life and a list of record-breaking achievements. "He did it as an African-American male. He's on uncharted ground," said Childress.
When Childress says he's grieved that Obama stands opposed to his -values, he looks genuinely grieved. His fluid speech slows, and he turns to Martin Luther King to explain his position: "He said there comes a time when one must do something not because it's politically correct, not because it's popular, not because it's safe, but because our conscience tells us it is right."
He has to judge Obama not by the color of his skin, but by the content of his character, said Childress. He pauses a moment before he carefully asks, "Why are you putting down your value system to support a man who stands against basically everything you've been taught?"
Childress said abortion, marriage, and school choice are the most important issues to him, and all three affect African-Americans more than other ethnic groups: Their abortion rate is higher, their marriage rate is lower, and black children in urban cities suffer the most from poor education. Obama is pro-abortion, supports gay civil unions, and is opposed to vouchers. Childress said most in his African-American church find it difficult not to support Barack Obama but agree: "That's what we would want, not necessarily what our values would ask for."
Meanwhile, Childress' passion for social justice grows: "The more I walk with the Lord, the more I see a need for mankind to be free from any injustice that would be an impediment to their life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. That is unquestionably, as Martin Luther King said, the American dream."