BRYAN — In a lodge at Messiah’s Ranch, a Christian retreat a few miles outside of town, about 20 teenagers sat cross-legged in a circle, talking about what it means to be a good listener.
The air conditioning struggled to keep up on the muggy, 95-degree day, but that did not dull the energy in the room as Laurie Stevens, a speech and debate coach, asked the group whom they sometimes found it difficult to listen to.
“Obama,” deadpanned one girl, setting off a round of giggles.
Stevens waited for another response.
“My parents, when they tell me something I don’t want to do,” another girl offered.
Nodding, Stevens remained expectant.
“Pro-choice people,” another voice from the group said, capturing the reason they were all there.
After a few more examples, Stevens summed up.
“When you don't value what's being said or the position that's being held, it's hard to listen,” she said.
The room around them has all the decorative touches expected of a rustic retreat, only next to the wildlife trophies, there are laminated posters depicting fetal development at each month in the womb. On a large folding table were more posterboards, decorated with anti-abortion slogans and symbols, which sat alongside craft supplies and a scattering of soda and candy.
This is, after all, summer camp.
In its third year, Reveal summer camp is organized by Texas Right to Life, a statewide anti-abortion advocacy organization based in Houston. For $240, high school students can attend a two-week overnight camp that along with the plentiful icebreakers and 'smores, teaches them how to become activists. So far, a spokeswoman said, the only reason the organization turned down a student is because of age, and typically a spot is offered to every student who applies.
The site is on the outskirts of Bryan, an incubator of anti-abortion activism that has produced the now-international 40 Days for Life prayer vigil campaign and Abby Johnson, the former Planned Parenthood worker who now holds rock-star status within the anti-abortion movement. The camp’s proximity to Texas A&M University, where the group Pro-Life Aggies enjoys a thriving membership, ensures a steady supply of college-age counselors.
The camp has skits, swimming and a ropes course. There are workshops on starting a student organization and communicating well. Viewing YouTube videos of abortion procedures is an optional activity.
Many speakers also visit. This year the guests included Arland Nichols, the national director of Human Life International America, who spoke on the ethics of in-vitro fertilization, and David Pomerantz, an activist with Save the Storks, a group that offers sonograms to women outside of abortion clinics on board its bus. Two state representatives, Dwayne Bohac and Jim Murphy, both Houston Republicans, visited during a workshop on lobbying the Legislature.
“They all have a passion; that’s why they are here,” said Jen Rumpf, a second-year counselor and the outgoing president of Pro-Life Aggies, of the campers.
The purpose of the camp, Rumpf said, is to plug students into the movement and help them refine their passion into knowledge they can use to advance the cause in their own communities.
Rumpf and other counselors said they try to teach campers to avoid commonly perceived anti-abortion “turnoffs”— in particular, an overly aggressive, judgmental approach. She said counselors encourage them to focus on a gentler, compassion-based form of persuasion.
“You really care about this woman, and you really care that other people don’t know about this issue. But are they bad people?” she said. “No, they just might not know all of the truth. Because that is really the only way that pro-lifers are going to win anything is inviting them in to talk.”
Back at the lodge, campers were about to watch video clips of activists speaking with abortion-rights sympathizers on the street, to critique and observe their methods.
But first, Stevens had a message for them.
“If we are going to be effective, we have to care about who we are talking to,” she said. “You’ve got to be sensitive to make a difference in someone’s world.”
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