Live And Let Live
North Carolina Christians Are Reinventing Pro-Life Advocacy Despite Aggressive Government Opposition
On the day David Benham and his brother, Jason, first determined to stand for the sanctity of life, they’d already lived 13 years longer than their dad originally intended.
“Flip” Benham was a hard-drinking, miserable man when his wife told him she was expecting twins. He urged her to abort them; she refused, then told him she was leaving him. He asked what it would take to make her stay. “Come to church with me this Sunday,” she said.
He did. That decision – and the one for Christ he made at the end of the morning service – has saved many young lives in the decades since. In that crowded hour, Flip became a Christian, committed his life to the ministry, and transformed into an ardent opponent of abortion. His sons would grow up to follow that example – if not the exact path – in all three arenas.
The boys were still young teenagers the day their dad took them to a pro-life prayer walk he was leading at a downtown Dallas abortion center. They knew of their dad’s driving passion for these efforts, but had never seen one of the events firsthand. Climbing out of the car that morning, they were instantly overwhelmed: on one side, a crowd in pink was screaming obscenities and waving hangers and phallic symbols; on the other, 200 or so pro-life advocates stood singing and praying.
"Suddenly, it was so easy to see what kind of person I wanted to be."
The noise was deafening, the sight unnerving, as police officers immediately converged on their father, ordering him to leave. Flip refused. The officers instantly spun him around, yanking zip-ties so tight on his wrists that to this day, Flip has no feeling in parts of his fingers. They applied pressure to his back, pulling back on his arms. Even now, David remembers the officers’ gritted teeth, his father’s groans … and above it all, the sound of angry screams and “Amazing Grace.”
“I realized, ‘Wow – this is a real thing,’” David says. “This is worth fighting for.’” Suddenly, “it was so easy to see what kind of person I wanted to be.”
Jason Benham presents biblical business principles during the Benham brothers' weekly Bible study, livestreamed on social media.
The seeds of pro-life work, sown so deep that morning, were a long while blooming to full fruition. After college, the Benham brothers played baseball for a St. Louis Cardinals farm team, then became real estate entrepreneurs in Charlotte, North Carolina. In 2014, their notable success prompted producers at HGTV to enlist them for a home improvement reality show. Those plans were cancelled after leftist groups published high-profile reports targeting the brothers’ opposition to abortion and same-sex marriage. The loss stunned the Benhams.
“That was a multi-million-dollar reality show that I knew was going to bring significant influence to our family,” David says. “We were going to use that to [speak out] for the unborn and for our rights as Americans and for the Gospel.” He and Jason had hoped their newfound fame would give them the kind of platform other celebrities use to push “the agenda of death and sexual revolution,” while well-known Christians too often keep silent. The cancellation, he says, was “like a gut punch … all that influence, out the window. I had to work through that.”
The loss of that opportunity strengthened the brothers’ focus, he says, on the commitment they’d each made 25 years earlier. “We realized, ‘Man, here we are at the height of our business, we’re wealthy Christian entrepreneurs … what are we doing like what our father was doing? How can we step in and actually be the peaceful, “Amazing Grace”-singing, people-loving pro-lifers?’
“That,” he says, “is what birthed ‘Cities4Life.’”
"We're not trying to end abortion. We're bringing the kingdom, we're loving our neighbors as ourselves, and as a result, the end of abortion will come. That's our prayer."
The weak link, the Benhams decided, was the sidewalks. After more than 30 years of firsthand observation of the pro-life movement in action, David and Jason had a pretty clear bead on the strengths and weaknesses of conventional programs. They knew all the resources now available to pregnant women, and from the time of that first experience with their dad’s arrest, they knew how protests worked out in front of abortion centers.
But in between were the sidewalks, where frightened young women often ran a gauntlet between pro-life advocates and abortion activists, without knowing anything of the support groups available to those who might opt to carry a child to full therm. What these women needed was a streamlined, holistic frontline option: gentle counselors who could intercept them, pray for them, and make them aware of the extraordinary resources they could so easily draw on.
The Benhams set out to establish that new beachhead of compassion. Number one, they would recruit caring sidewalk counselors who could act as “missionaries to these mothers.” No yelling, no picketing, no accusations. Wherever possible, the Benhams wanted women who themselves had been impacted by abortion to be the ones standing on that sidewalk.
Debbie Hobson, a Cities4Life sidewalk counselor, calls out to women preparing to enter a Charlotte abortion facility, urging them to "choose life."
Two, they would synchronize a “life network” combining mobile ultrasound units, adoption centers, outreaches to unwed mothers, post-abortive counseling, and other resources into one coordinated effort. And three, they would identify ways of plugging these struggling, searching women into a local church.
“Cities4Life is a spark plug to get the local church into action,” David says. The non-threatening, prayer-centered approach was designed not only to avoid intimidating pregnant women, but to engage the church in something more proactive and involved than just a once-a-year sermon on Sanctity of Life Sunday.
“It’s a Gospel-centered ministry,” David says. “We’re not trying to end abortion. We’re bringing the kingdom, we’re loving our neighbors as ourselves, and as a result, the end of abortion will come. That’s our prayer.” It’s a prayer that’s being answered abundantly.
A 2015 Washington Times study showed a 26% drop in abortions (the largest in the country) in North Carolina, across the first five years Cities4Life was in business. During that same period, Benham says, Cites4Life helped nearly 3,000 women choose life over abortion.
Five years later, that success continues to grow. Cities4Life has now ministered to more than 5,000 women and enlisted some 200 sidewalk counselors and volunteers, with more looking to join all the time. “It’s hard to keep a schedule,” David says, “so many people want to come.”
The situation was a little awkward. Not just because the young woman looking at her baby’s sonogram no longer seemed so sure about getting an abortion, but because this was … well, an abortion center. And the young woman’s aunt worked there.
The aunt – watching her niece, listening to her talk – realized that the young woman really was at a loss for what to do. And was feeling a little self-conscious, trying to decide such a momentous question here, in front of her aunt.
The aunt cleared her throat.
“You know what?” she said. “I’ll be honest with you. I know those people out there.” She pointed toward the street out in front of the abortion center, where most of a dozen Cities4Life volunteers were praying, and offering counsel to women like her niece. “They have all kinds of resources for you. Why don’t you go out there and talk to them?”
The niece must have been taken aback at the suggestion, but was confused enough to accept it. A few minutes later, she stepped out the front door and made her way over to one of the people waiting, smiling, across the street.
“My aunt told me I should come out here and talk to you guys,” she said.
Most of them come from the more than 1,000 local churches in Charlotte, which has one of the highest number of churches per capita in America. It’s also in a state where abortion is the leading cause of death.
“Not heart disease, not cancer,” says Justin Reeder, another Charlotte entrepreneur and close friend of the Benhams. “We have between 150 and 200 abortions happening every week in our city.” Charlotte’s four abortion centers are among the busiest in the southeastern U.S. – busier than Miami’s or Atlanta’s, and drawing women from throughout the South.
Reeder knew most of the pastors in Charlotte had no better grasp of that reality than he did, and no clearer understanding of what actually happens at abortion centers. So, he founded Love Life, a sister ministry to Cities4Life, and began inviting pastors, one by one, to take an hour and come find out.
“I want you to see these clinics for yourselves,” he told them. “I want you to see these as real lives, as human beings. And I want to share a vision with you on how we can shift the culture.” To date, more than 300 pastors have taken him up on the offer. And the culture’s begun to shift.
Love Life launched in 2016 with a prayer walk of 22 people. Over the last four years, though, more than 80,000 people have chosen to walk and pray, rather than take abortion in stride. One result: “We’ve seen over 2,000 families that have made the choice for life.”
Saving lives is the main goal, but not the only one, Reeder says. “We’re here to activate the church,” Reeder says. “Not only to educate them, make them aware, call them to prayer … but also to activate them beyond our prayer walks.” That includes cultivating church members as mentors to unwed mothers, as disciplers of moms and dads who hadn’t planned to be moms and dads, as foster and adoptive parents, as people who care for orphans “in and outside the womb.”
Love Life works closely with Cities4Life, providing consistent prayer support and cultivating the relationships with pastors and churches who supply many of the latter group’s sidewalk counselors and volunteers. The Benham brothers, meanwhile, cultivate fellow entrepreneurs in the community, enlisting them to underwrite much of the financial cost of these ministries.
As a result of that two-pronged approach, “we just have seen the church come alive,” Reeder says. They’ve seen opposition come alive, too.
David’s aunt, a Cities4Life volunteer, was on the phone. She wanted him to raise a little money for a woman from Atlanta. The woman had been living in Charlotte for a while, but things weren’t working out, and she wanted to go back home. She didn’t really have the money to get there. David wondered how his aunt had come to know of the woman’s situation.
“That woman who’s been standing out by the clinic, screaming and yelling obscenities at us – the really filthy stuff?” his aunt said. “That’s her.”
Someone had called and offered the woman (and quite a few others) $15 an hour to disrupt Cities4Life’s sidewalk counselors and volunteers. But, after a few weeks, “this just isn’t what I thought it was going to be,” the woman said. “I’m getting paid, but I’ve got no connection, no community, no nothing.” Plus … the Cities4Life people kept trying to make friends with her.
Within an hour, David helped his aunt raise about $1,500 from donors. She passed the gift along to the woman, explaining where it had come from. The woman began to sob.
“You guys have treated me with such respect,” she said. “I can’t believe I even came here.”
David Benham (left) and Justin Reeder
City officials and pro-abortionists in Charlotte and nearby Greensboro have tried many things to block the efforts of Cities4Life and Love Life volunteers. Screaming obscenities and playing loud rap music. Passing ordinances to shut off the ministries’ microphones. Rezoning parking to make them walk longer distances to get to the abortion centers. Mocking them during city council meetings.
All of it has had some effect; none of it has stopped the volunteers from being on hand, day after day. But, earlier this year, during the pandemic shutdowns, the opposition grew more aggressive.
With the coming of COVID-19, Reeder paused the en masse weekly prayer walks that were Love Life’s trademark, telling individuals they were free to continue, but urging them to adhere to CDC regulations by using hand sanitizer and maintaining proper distancing. One Saturday in March, Reeder himself was walking on private property, with the permission of the owner, across the street from a Greensboro clinic, praying. Four others, including his attorney, were with him, a few feet apart.
"This wasn't about health concerns. This was about silencing our voice because they don't like what we have to say or what we stand for."
Within seconds, police began pulling up to the curb. Officers ordered Reeder and other Love Life staff to leave. Reeder and his attorney pointed out that they were on private property, with permission, obeying all health directives – and that as a 501(c)(3) organization, they were within their rights. They also pointed out that a lot of people had entered the small abortion center across the way – too many, it appeared, to allow for much social distancing.
By the time Reeder and the attorney finished explaining all of that, they were in the back of a squad car. The charge was “illegal gathering” – having more than 10 people together during quarantine. Reeder pointed out that there were only five in his group. The arresting officer took back the citation, crossed out the charge, and wrote in: “unlawful travel for nonessential purposes.”
“The city had been looking for a chance to silence our speech,” Reeder says. “This wasn’t about health concerns. This was about silencing our voice because they don’t like what we have to say or what we stand for.” Reeder and the others wound up in the same holding cell, praying and worshiping in ways Paul and Silas (Acts 16:25) would have understood.
“You read the Scriptures a little differently, after you walk through these things,” Reeder says. He called David in Charlotte, to warn him to be ready.
David Benham joins other Love Life supporters in a pre-coronavirus Saturday prayer walk.
Like many people in the early-April pandemic days, the young couple were wearing masks. They’d been on their way into the Charlotte abortion center when a woman, a few feet away on the sidewalk, offered to pray for them. She asked if she could help.
The young woman began to cry, as the two blurted out some of the problems they were facing – problems that seemed insurmountable by any solution other than ending the life of a child. The woman listened, then offered something these two hadn’t seen much of for a while … hope.
She walked with them to a nearby RV, where they could talk things over with Vicky Kaseorg, a Cities4Life counselor and the ministry’s volunteer coordinator. Kaseorg talks almost daily with young couples like this, and she began to ask some thoughtful questions that would get to the heart of their situation, and maybe offer them a way out of the circumstances pressing in upon them.
Meanwhile, inside the RV – a mobile ultrasound unit – another woman was changing her mind. Talking with a Cities4Life counselor, she decided to carry her child to term after all. As she came off the RV, the still-teary young woman with Vicky finished filling out some forms, and Vicky guided her and the young man onto the RV to see a sonogram of their baby.
As she did, Vicky’s phone wiggled with a text. It said police were arresting some of her friends in front of the abortion center. One of them was David Benham. Vicky frowned, breathed a prayer, and followed the couple onto the RV.
David was sipping a good cup of coffee when the phone rang. About 15 police officers were confronting the two or three Cities4Life counselors on the sidewalk that morning at the abortion center. David sped to the scene, but was barely out of his truck when officers converged on him, ordering him to go.
Like Reeder, he explained his group’s 501(c)(3) exemptions … pointed out their adherence to health directives … noted that considerably less than 10 of his people were on the scene. As with Reeder, none of it mattered. Officers surrounded him, placed his hands behind his back, and locked handcuffs on them so tight that David could barely feel his fingers –
– and just like that, he was 13 years old again, watching tall men arrest his dad.
“I went all the way back,” David says. “The emotions were crazy. I felt … honored.”
One of the officers later smiled and gave David a nod. “I know why you’re here, Mr. Benham,” he said. “Is there any way I can make you more comfortable?”
David laughed. “Well, you could loosen the one on my left hand.” The officer did so.
An hour later, David was sitting in a holding cell, sharing his faith with the teen boy sitting next to him. He heard the creak of the cell door opening, and looked up to see … his father, hands cuffed behind him, being pushed inside. Police had arrested him outside the same abortion center. He, too, sat down and began to share his faith.
A few minutes later, the door creaked again. This time, it was David’s oldest son in handcuffs – arrested shortly after witnessing the arrests of his father and grandfather.
“And I tell you,” David laughs. “I played in some major league baseball stadiums. But I don’t think my dad’s every been so proud as that one moment, when his son and his grandson were both in the slammer with him.”
Vicky glanced at another text – eight more of her fellow volunteers had just been arrested – as the couple in the mobile ultrasound unit gazed at pictures of the baby in the young woman’s womb, at what Vicky calls “the unmistakable miracle of the tiny beating heart.” The couple, she saw, were holding hands. Above their masks, their eyes shone with joy.
“I never really wanted to abort the baby,” the young woman said, as they got up to leave.
“Are you choosing life?” Vicky asked. The two nodded in unison.
Vicky asked if she could talk with them about God. They said that she could, and listened with rapt attention and not a few questions as she shared the Gospel with them. When she finished, they prayed to give their lives to Christ.
Vicky gave them information and resources for how to follow through on both of their decisions from that life-changing morning. She watched them walk away – one young life, and two young souls, saved. Then she hurried to see what was happening out on the sidewalk.
That night, she was stewing over the arrests of her friends when her phone chirped again. This text was from her new young sister in Christ: “Thank you so much. Thank you for everything.”
And that, Vicky thought, is why caring people stand, day by day, in front of abortion centers.
David Benham (center) with his father, Flip (left), and oldest son, Bailey (right), near the scene of their March arrests.
Researchers for Cities4Life and Love Life estimate that some 700 abortion clinics are doing their brutal business every day across America. “The best data we have,” Reeder says, “is that there is only a Christian witness at about 30% of those clinics. That means 70% – about 500 – have zero Christian witness … no Gospel being offered, no hope, no help to those families. We hope to see that change.”
A formidable obstacle to that goal is growing government interference and opposition, of the kind that led to the arrests of Benham, Reeder, and others last spring, says Kevin Theriot, senior counsel with Alliance Defending Freedom, and vice president of the ADF Center for Life. The arrests were “clearly unfair, and clearly targeted toward these pro-life advocates,” he says.
The very different standards applied to Cities4Life and Love life, as opposed to many other groups and organizations, raise the question, Theriot says, of “what the government’s powers are during times of pandemic, and if they can treat religious and pro-life leaders and organizations differently than they treat secular ones.
“Abortion activists have said all along that abortion is ‘a choice,’ he says. “Now, many state and local officials say it’s ‘essential.’ But those who provide women with real choice and real help are considered by some to be nonessential. When government officials and abortion activists allow these clinics to be open, but shut down the folks who are allowing women real choice … that just shows their true colors.” ADF has filed lawsuits against the cities of Charlotte and Greensboro, challenging the government’s enforcement of that double standard.
Meanwhile, Cities4Life and Love Life “have seen an acceleration of growth,” Reeder says. “We’ve expanded into more areas. Now, we’re not only at four abortion clinics, we’re at about 20, ministering on a consistent basis.”
Justin Reeder with his 5-year-old daughter, Josie.
“We’re winning,” David says. “Not us – the Holy Spirit working through us. We’re entrepreneurs. We have standards of measure, a system and a process, and we deliver it by the power of the Holy Spirit, and we win. We know we’ll win.”
“We’re called to a spiritual battle,” David tells his children. “We’re not called to just a safe, easy, comfortable life – to just make money and be cool. We’re called to be leaders and champions for the kingdom of the Lord and also for the weakest among us … the unborn. And if you’re not taking arrows from the devil,” he adds, “you’re probably not over the target.”
Like David, all those years ago, Justin Reeder’s three young children – 6, 5, and 1 ½ - saw their father being arrested (he was on Facebook Live when the police confronted him). And they understood why.
“Our kids have really grown up being at the prayer walks with me,” Reeder says. “It’s a family call for us. We’re disciplining our children how to live out what we believe.” In prayer times since the arrest, his children have often brought up the incident: “Daddy, when are you going to give me a chance to stand strong?” “I’m ready to go to jail!” “Will they let me bring snacks?”
But that’s not all.
“My kids pray for the abortionists,” Reeder says. “They know them by name, and they pray for them by name almost every night. It’s precious to see. They’ve seen me cussed at and yelled at – and even have been themselves – and they respond with love. They pray for those people.”
Maybe they’ve just seen enough to know what kind of people they want to be.