Shirleen Rannals petitions “Hail, Mary” like she is calling on an old friend, someone who knows her voice.
On this mid-October day the requests deal with offenses against body and soul. The plea heavenward is to a Mother, on behalf of mothers in crisis.
Rannals is a veteran sidewalk counselor facing off against abortion. She’s bundled in a long quilted winter coat and low black heels, poised on Anchorage’s East 40th Avenue, ready to move seamlessly from prayer to action. Approachable, quick-thinking and deferential to the mood of those she meets on the street, Rannals is ready to initiate conversation with anyone.
Pro-life sidewalk counseling is a world of boundaries. There is the well-marked line between commercial and municipal property, as well as the more nuanced boundaries which separate counselors from those who might receive their message. The gravity of this afternoon’s business is guarded by a concrete wall that elevates a maroon grate at the entrance of an abortion clinic in Anchorage. Rannals’ petite figure is facing the parking lot through that grate, with license plates and cigarette butts filling the view at eye level. More than twenty cars come and go in an hour.
Rannals grew up in Anchorage, a few blocks away from two abortion clinics. She describes herself as a lifelong Alaskan Catholic born into a large pro-life family at a time when just two parishes served the city. She and her husband Larry are longtime parishioners of St. Patrick Church in East Anchorage.
Rannals says she sees everything as a sidewalk counselor. Fathers and pimps often pace and smoke in the parking lot, but Rannals recalls one young man arriving by bicycle and dashing inside with hopes of affecting a change of heart. His efforts were too late, and Rannals hunkered behind a dumpster with him as he poured out his grief. She counseled him to be vigilant and compassionate to the needs of his aborted child’s mother, telling him what he was feeling then, she would one day feel, too.
Wary mothers hustled their teen daughters inside as Rannals stood outside Planned Parenthood last month. A lone thirty-something woman answered Rannals’ inquiry with curiosity but her face went vacant when she saw the pro-life sign being held aloft nearby.
Rannals told me of a man who attacked her verbally after he dropped off a woman who was unable to walk. Rannals watched as five workers emerged from the building and carried the woman into the Planned Parenthood abortion clinic at 4001 Lake Otis Parkway. She called the local paramedics for the ill woman, and was meanwhile subjected to a vulgar barrage from the driver. He shrugged when she asked about his companion; he seemed mostly concerned that he might be recognized.
A week later, Rannals is presiding over a conference table in the downtown basement of Holy Family Cathedral, following a Rosary Breakfast hosted by the Legion of Mary. She has shed her crisp all-weather gear, revealing soft pastels beneath. Her small glass earrings chime faintly as she recounts decades of sidewalk counseling.
Each hour of work extracts a toll, she says, spiritually and physically. She usually goes home and takes a nap after counseling.
It was the Legion of Mary that first trained Rannals in this unique outreach more than 30 years ago. She was prompted to choose from various ministries, learn alongside a mentor, and complete two hours of work each week.
She began as an apprentice to the late Kim Syren. Two counselors must be present, but it’s crucial that only one counselor speak at a time, to ensure a sincere exchange that doesn’t overwhelm. It’s important that the other partner move aside to uphold that privacy. Rannals now counsels alongside Kim’s daughter, Therese. They are the only two sidewalk counselors they know of working in the state.
There is no trace of the wrath or belligerence sometimes portrayed in caricatures of the pro-life movement. For Rannals, the sidewalk outside clinics isn’t the place for political grandstanding; the women she speaks to are too important to risk alienating. She favors prayerfulness and compassion, typified by recitation of the Rosary and Divine Mercy Chaplet, which she says is “always on our lips.” Instead of speaking truth to power, she offers truth to the powerless. She offers pamphlets which detail the double trauma of abortion for mother and baby.
Rannals isn’t looking for controversy but she doesn’t flinch when it finds her. She says the pro-life ministry has grown more refined over the years, while the abortion workers have become more emboldened. A passerby once bellowed, “How dare you judge women, don’t you know they’re in agony?” She responded, “Their agony is just beginning, if they’re headed in there,” alluding to post-abortive regrets expressed by many women. She sees her duty to women as an extension of her concern for the well-being of Anchorage and her fidelity to Catholic teaching.
“The truly pro-life stance must preserve innocent life and women’s dignity, and cannot participate in the destruction or objectification of either,” she says.
Rannals cautions against mentioning the baby or God in the beginning of a dialogue. She acknowledges the counterintuitive nature of this approach, but insists, “It cannot be a pretense. You have to truly care about the woman’s problem.” The scriptural encounter of Jesus and the Samaritan woman is often her model for conversations — allowing women to define their own issues before clarifying the path ahead.
“Our Lord knew what burdened the woman at the well,” she said. “Yet he let her share about herself on her terms first.”
Though sidewalk counselors seek to connect, Rannals says they must keep their tone prayerful and professional, with no chitchat or visiting. Training is paramount, she notes, but all temperaments can learn the technique. It’s a match for men and women at any age or station in life, provided they commit to learning the approach to this ministry, which exists free from the counselors’ ego or personal histories.
Rannals stresses that God must be trusted with the results.
“Satan’s work is inside those walls,” she said. “And the Lord’s is outside.”
Equal parts seasoned and demure, Shirleen Rannals doggedly tends to her own childhood neighborhood along Lake Otis Parkway, calling out to mothers both earthbound and celestial, hopeful that God will allow them both to hear her voice.
Those interested in being trained as sidewalk counselors can view Rannals’ most recent public talk, posted to YouTube on AK Right To Life’s channel, and may contact Rannals directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.