Nonagenarian Abortion Protester Maintains Lonely Vigil
By Tom Hallman Jr

Your Excellencies,

This article reminds me of all my faithful sidewalk counselors friends, especially Francis Popper, who is nearly the age of the author’s subject and still puts himself in harms way outside of an abortion clinic at least twice a week. As he says, ‘it isn’t all sugar and honey.”
Jim Fritz

PORTLAND, Ore. -- When he slips from bed long before sunrise, Marion Hite's body reminds him of his long journey: bad ticker, teary eyes and ears that, despite hearing aids so sensitive they occasionally squeal, don't hear so well. He's nearly 99 and doesn't expect to see 100. Yet this old-timer considers himself a warrior whose only goal for 25 years has been to march -- well, walk slowly -- into the enemy's stronghold.

He has no use for the exercise class or the coffee-and-conversation sessions held at the senior-citizens complex where he rents a studio apartment. What gets him up long before anyone else in the building is the fight. He skips breakfast, getting sustenance from a prayer asking for the strength he needs to wage a solitary battle played out each day -- rain or snow, heat or cold -- on a Portland street corner.

After dressing, Hite sits at a table cluttered with a Bible, prayer books, religious tracts and several disaster prophecies warning of demons, fire falling from the sky and lost souls condemned to eternal flames. To his right, next to a paper outlining Satan's latest plans in easy-to-read type, are two large sacks of bite-size candy bars that Hite will snack on when he returns home.

There's nothing in his apartment to distract him from doing what he calls "God's work." A cross and images of Jesus, the Virgin Mary and the pope hang on the walls. A shelf holds several religious statues, including one of a saint whose name he no longer remembers. "At my age, you tend to forget," he says. "Let me tell you, it isn't all sugar and honey."

He clutches a battered prayer book and leaves his apartment at 5:45 a.m. He waits outside for a friend who drives him to his post in front of the Lovejoy Surgicenter.

Hite protests against abortions carried out inside the nondescript building. In years past, protesters filled the street, and Surgicenter employees often called police. Hite has been convicted of criminal trespass and cited for contempt, and he says he once spent a month in jail.

Kayla, the Surgicenter director, doesn't want to give her full name because, she says, protesters have been known to show up at employees' homes. She remembers the protests in front of the center as mean-spirited, with Hite joining others as they shouted names and accusations at arriving women.

"It was very loud and violent protesting," Kayla says. "The protests were sweeping the country, and in Portland this group showed up and made it hard for the women to come inside. They'd block the door and use bullhorns. They shouted at the women. The noise level was so loud that it violated city codes. It was a form of intimidation."

Over time, the number of protesters dwindled.

"We used to have 30 people out there," Kayla says.

Now there's only one.

The streets are dark and empty when Hite hoists himself out of the car up the hill from the Surgicenter. He collects his tools from a home on the same block. Then he slowly makes his way down the hill. He looks like a man trying to beat the crowd for a good spot at the parade. He carries a lawn chair in his right hand and a large sign in his left.

Although the Surgicenter doesn't open until 8 a.m., Hite believes if lights are on, they could be doing something. So he insists on being in place before 6:30 a.m.

Hite comes prepared for all kinds of weather. He wears blue pants, white tennis shoes, a baseball-style cap and a blue windbreaker. He has a second jacket in case it gets cold, and a blue-and-white umbrella he can use to ward off the rain or the sun.

He settles into the chair and hoists the sign on his shoulder. He slips the butt of the wooden pole into a black baby shoe that rests next to his thigh. He adjusts the sign, which has the same message on both sides so people approaching the center from either direction can read it: "Please let your baby live. We will help you; give him or her to us." Below is an 800 number for an adoption service.

Kayla, the Surgicenter director, points out that the center also offers adoption services.

When the sun rises, Hite reads his 79-page prayer book. As he does every morning, he starts at the beginning. After turning a few well-worn pages, he sets the book in his lap and stares at the Surgicenter's front door. The door is locked, the lobby dark, and two newspapers sit out front.

"There used to be all kinds of trouble out here," he says. "The police always treated me good enough, and I didn't mind jail. I know those people in there'd like to get rid of me. But I'm part of the game."

Hite, a retired trucker who never married and has no children, doesn't remember who first brought him to this corner, doesn't even remember what made him raise his voice that first day.

"My memory's real bad," he admits. "When you get to be 98, see if you can remember."

He knows, however, why he stays.

"They're killing babies," he says. "The Lord said what we do to the least of his brethren we do to him. Those babies are human beings created by God, and one of the commandments is that we should not kill. And we are killing those babies."

Hite believes that over the years he's made a difference, but he can point to only one instance for sure. He says a woman came up to him one day and said she'd decided to continue her pregnancy after approaching the center and seeing his sign. She told Hite that, as a result, she had a 9-year-old daughter.

Hite checks his watch. The Surgicenter opens soon.

He sees a woman in blue scrubs walking up the street toward the front door. She glances at Hite but says nothing. "They've talked to me over the years," he says. "I've told them I wouldn't work in there for a million dollars."

Ten minutes later, a woman and a man hurry by Hite and walk into the Surgicenter without a glance at him. He checks his watch and settles back in his lawn chair.

"Don't know how much longer I'll be doing this," he says. "Don't think I've too much more time to go. Guess I'll quit when my heart stops."

Oct. 4, 2004

Tom Hallman Jr. is a staff writer for The Oregonian. He has also written a book called Sam: the boy behind the mask. It grew out a story of his that won him a Pulitzer Prize for feature writing. It is a true story about a Portland boy, his family and his dream to be seen not as a monster, but as a normal boy. The book takes you on a journey that deals with faith, love, courage and strength. It takes you into the medical world where you meet a surgeon who believes when everyone around her doubts. It is a story that appeals to adults and children. There are some powerful lessons to be learned in this book.


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