Tuesday, October 09, 2007

I have a friend in the King's Men

He recently participated in a protest at a one of the many pornography stores in my neighborhood. He mailed me the following account:

Thanks to everyone for your prayers and participation in our No More Porn Tour in Baltimore! We had a very successful night. Matt and I showed up early to scope things out, just as Mark Houck and Damian Wargo of the King's Men in Philadelphia were getting lost in Brooklyn (Maryland). I clumsily directed them to the right intersection and they showed up a few minutes later with signs and pamphlets for the event.

We crossed the street and established a post on the sidewalk in front of the porn shop, which is called Video Outlet. It's in a run-down shopping center, of course, at an intersection where you can often find a homeless man pacing the median, wrapped only in black garbage bags. Behind the place lie a big parking lot and a large warehouse-like building where every weekend people gather for a flea market. Next door to the sexually oriented business (SOB) is a pawn shop – no surprise – a rent-a-center, an empty storefront, and a beauty salon. It's not the part of town where you'd think, ahh, these people need to spend their ample discretionary income on adult DVDs. It's a part of town where, unless you live there, you have no compelling reason to go...but if you did, you could probably bet none of your friends would run into you.

Not far from the intersection lines of cute little homes form pleasant neighborhoods of young families and retirees and school teachers and accountants. The store has something to offer them as well, namely family videos in a small section at the front of the store. All the signage makes this clear – "Adult Videos, Family Videos, All Ratings" – lest you think it just a seedy smut shack. Yet, even in the family section, suggestive images adorn the walls and posters hung in strategic places promote soft-core sleaze. The back wall of this section, along with a black curtain and a stop sign that reads "YOU MUST BE 18 TO ENTER" is all that separates dubiously family-friendly from the admittedly hard-core (I ponder whether the implication that hard-core is not family-friendly was intended). On one end of the store, where a high counter spans the length of the building, the divide between genres is eliminated. The counter is high enough to keep non-adults from seeing what the proprietors deem only for adults, which apparently does not include the many "novelty" items, condoms, aphrodisiacs, and lingerie in plain view on the family side of the store.

We set up directly in front of the shop on a public sidewalk skirting the small front parking lot. Mark laid out an arsenal of signs and said, "Pick your weapon." We each grabbed a sign. Mark grabbed two. He handed us each a pile of pamphlets, The Top Ten Questions Asked About Pornography, which he and Molly Kelly had published. We began pacing the sidewalk and soon Mark T. joined us. Most of us were praying silently before Matt suggested a Rosary. Mark T., Matt, Damian and I prayed in chorus. It wasn't long before people were honking in support. I noticed several women slowing down to read the signs as they passed. Not a few gave us thumbs up, a nod, or a wave. Soon, a young man of about 25 came walking up the sidewalk, head down, ball cap pulled down to cover his eyes. At first, it looked like he was just going to cut through the parking lot, but then he quickly turned and entered the SOB. Mark shouted at him, "You deserve better". He pretended not to hear.

Within half an hour, our first heckler arrived on the scene. Waiting at a stop light behind six or seven cars, the man shouted through the open window of his Chevrolet, "I love porn!"

"Why?" Mark shouted back.

"I love porn!" he exclaimed again. The exchange continued like this for a little while with Mark adding a little argument in after each successive why, until after the light changed. As the man drove away, he answered Mark's final why, "Because it excites me." Mark shook his head.

A few miles away, at St. Phillip Neri, Lisa G. was leading others in prayer. There is no doubt these prayers strengthened us. Matt, Mark H., Damian, and I are friends, but there have been times of tension between us: a precedent that could have left room for the devil to enter into our midst. But there was no squabbling or infighting; no one seemed embarrassed or fearful. We all stood tall, as if invisibly girded. No one from the store engaged us in arguments. No one entering the store gave us trouble. The worst passers by did was yell "Porn is good!", or other such erudite mantras, and throw our pamphlets back at us.

At one point I was standing on the median when a young woman caught my attention from her car. I walked over and she asked "Where can I make a donation?" Familiar with the habit in Baltimore of dubious church groups and organizations gathering on medians to request donations, I contemplated whether she thought we were of the same ilk. I told her we weren't really there to take donations, but that she could give her donation to Mark or go on line to make a contribution. She had a few dollars in her hand, but seemed more interested in making an online contribution.

Men on motorcycles passed, one gave us a nod and a thumbs-up. Working men, sweaty from building houses or fixing air conditioners passed by and seemed to stare at us, incredulous. Some men refused to look at us while their wives in the passenger seats cheered us on. One woman shouted "Amen!" as she drove past.

I had to leave the scene to run an errand, which ended up being a wild goose chase, and when I returned our group had doubled. Jeff and Eric were wielding their signs and Tobias of the Warrior Brothers at Catholic University of America had finally battled his way through traffic and was pacing the median with a sign held high.

We continued to draw the attention of skeptics and haters. One woman, crossing the street from the beauty salon to Burger King wondered aloud, "Have you lost your minds?" "No." We told her.

Our ninth man was named Davon. He was apparently a passer-by who'd been recruited into the fight. He must've bought a King's Men t-shirt from Mark or it'd been given to him. He seemed full of energy, but left shortly after I'd returned. He reappeared in front of the pawn shop, giggling. A short while later he walked toward the porn shop and despite Matt and Mark's protestations, he entered. "He went in there with your shirt," Matt remarked plaintively. "He had a King's Men shirt over his shoulder," he muttered.

"It's ok," Mark said, "we just hope he can be strong." Mark mentioned that the guy didn't seem completely with it; he appeared not to fret the matter much. "Hopefully God will turn him around."

Matt's face showed a spark of hope. "Let's pray for him." He began an earnest prayer, and I couldn't help but think about how Matt or someone like him was probably praying for me in a like manner when I was in near occasion of sin or tempted by the conspiracy of the devil and the world, or my flesh.

I was standing on the median with Tobias when a man pulled up to the stop light. He shouted out to me, "Are you with a church?!"

"No," I shouted back, preparing to assure him that you don't have to be "with a church" to stand against porn.

Tobias asked what the man had said. "Are you guys doing this for a church?" the man repeated.

"No," Tobias said, "no particular church. I mean, we're all Catholic, but we're doing this for men and women, not a church." I couldn't have said it better.

It was around this time that Mark H. spent a good amount of time talking to someone who'd pulled into the parking lot, no doubt explaining the myriad dangers of pornography. I didn't see the person pull in, but it seemed to me like I saw them pass and there had been a passenger. Maybe the driver had dropped her off there at the SOB. Maybe she was the woman who worked behind the counter in the evenings who had divulged so much to Mark T. and I when we'd originally gone to check the place out (our reconnaissance mission.) Without much provocation, she told us the story of the owner, the manager, the company and its failure to provide a moving service when they'd moved the store from the now-empty, one-time Seven-Eleven across the street.

Toward the end of our demonstration, Tobias, Mark and I stood on the median chatting when the light turned red and the line of cars began to build. A car full of women was just within our earshot. The ladies looked curious, but careful not to make eye contact. Mark stepped out into the street and passed a pamphlet through the driver's open window. "We're doing this for you women, to protect you and honor you," he said.

"I like porn," said the female passenger, "is that bad? I watch it with my husband."

"Yeah," said Mark.

"Why?" She asked.

"You deserve better. You deserve to be looked at with love, not as an object. He should look at you and see you, not some fantasy from porn."

"But he likes it," she replied playfully. "It's why we have four kids."

Mark continued his protest, "Don't you want him to think of you when you're together?"

"The women are beautiful. It excites him and then he f***s me real good." She was clearly trying to upset Mark. The light changed and her friend began to drive away. I got the impression exchanges like these were routine for Mark. He smiled and told her she was beautiful and deserved to be loved. He reassured her that we were out there for her, for women and children who were being abused and degraded by pornography. Before our protest ended, Mark shouted one more time to a man entering the SOB, "Don't go in there! You deserve better!"

We ended our evening with a prayer circle, thanking God for what he had done and praying for his assistance in the lives of the people there, the customers and employees, the owners and managers. We crossed the street to leave, and from some distant parking lot, Davon was shouting, "Porn is bad! Porn is bad!"

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