"God will still love you if you stop doing what you're doing," he would say as Sargent passed on her way to her public affairs job each day.
She would say nothing to the man, but her silent response was also the same.
"He already does."
Five years later, sitting in the Planned Parenthood clinic in Oakland's Eastmont Mall, Sargent is no longer silent.
She repeats those words often and out loud inside and outside the clinic.
It's her job.
Sargent is a Planned Parenthood chaplain.
Her position is rare — one of five within the national Planned Parenthood organization — and seemingly oxymoronic, violating the stereotypical separation of church and choice.
In the great political abortion debate, religion falls on the right and abortion on the left.
Yet reality is not so simple.
Some religious teachings say abortion is a sin and a life taken. Others say it’s not. And individuals, regardless of their religions’ official doctrine, use contraception, have abortions and often struggle with those decisions.
That’s where a chaplain comes in, the 30-year-old seminary student said.
Planned Parenthood patients visiting the 850 clinics nationwide don’t leave their religion in the waiting rooms, said Sargent, a candidate for ordination with the Unitarian Universalist Association.
“They bring their God with them,” she said, sitting at a desk in the empty abortion recovery room at the Eastmont clinic.
Down the hall in an examination room, a man slightly slumps in a chair, waiting for the clinic’s medical staff.
Sargent walks in, says hello and introduces herself.
She asks him how he is. She asks if he’s religious.
“I believe in God. I don’t know who he is,” the man answers.
“Do you have a relationship with God?” Sargent asks.
The room falls silent as the man considers his answer.
I’m thankful to just be here, he says finally. Life has been crazy. Living the fast lane. A friend died yesterday, he says.
I’m sorry, Sargent responds.
“You don’t like to live in the fast lane,” she adds, phrasing it as both a question and a statement.
“I’d rather be in the second lane,” the man says, a smile creeping in.
With few words, he tells Sargent about his life — a life filled with drugs, a recent overdose.
Sargent nods her heard. “I hear ya,” she says.
It’s hard to change one’s life, she adds. It takes courage.
“I was just doing too much drugs. I didn’t have the will to go on. I didn’t want to be here anymore,” he tells her.
It sounds scary, Sargent says, pulling a shiny blue rock out of her pocket and giving it to the man.
It represents all the changes he’s making, she says. It can remind him of those changes whenever he looks at it.
“I’ll be thinking of you and praying for you,” Sargent says before getting up to leave. The man smiles again.
Thanks, he says.
Getting the call Even when she was a child, people used to ask Sargent if she had ever thought about being a minister.
“And my answer was always no,” said Sargent, who spent much of her youth in Danville.
She didn’t want to be a Sunday preacher like her Presbyterian grandfather.
And yet, she couldn’t quite shake the idea of seminary. “People tell me that I make them feel peaceful,” she said.
Eventually, the call was too great. She packed her bags for the Starr King School for the Ministry at Berkeley’s Graduate Theological Union, where she is finishing her studies.
A chaplaincy at Planned Parenthood was her dream job — one that didn’t exist when she started at the seminary.
The appointment of a national chaplain, United Methodist minister Ignacio Castuera last year, gave religion a more formal and visible roll in Planned Parenthood.
It was the opening Sargent was looking for and led her to the Golden Gate chapter, where a month ago they added her to the staff. She works most days out of the Eastmont Mall clinic but also visits another nearby Oakland clinic and a Hayward clinic.
Across the country, few Planned Parenthood chaplains are on the payroll.
Other than the national chaplain, there are a total of three in Texas, Washington and Nebraska.
The idea of a Planned Parenthood chaplain shouldn’t be surprising, Sargent said. Hospitals have chaplains.
Chaplains are on hospital staff for those struggling with health care decisions and people wanting support and guidance in making them, Sargent said.
Planned Parenthood clinics provide health care and, yes, abortions too, but that’s a relatively small part of what they do — although it’s what brings protesters to the picket lines, Sargent said.
“They think we do abortions every day of the week, and that’s simply not true,” she said.
Sargent washes her hands between patients.
It’s a ritual. A cleansing, allowing her to move on to the next person.
The young woman sits in the chair, fidgeting a bit.
Dark circles ring her eyes. Are you religious, spiritual, Sargent asks the woman after introducing herself.
No, the woman says.
“I believe there’s a higher power. I’m not sure what it is.”
“I hear ya,” Sargent says. “Do you believe there’s a loving God that cares about you?”
It’s hard sometimes, when bad things happen to you or other people, the woman says, looking down.
At her annual PAP smear, she learned she had a venereal disease, from a former boyfriend, she explains. Now her fiancé has it.
“I’m glad you’re here,” Sargent says. “I’m glad you’re taking good care of yourself.” It’s hard, the woman says.
With no insurance, no dental insurance, it’s hard, pointing to her decaying teeth.
Sargent gives her information about a dental clinic that could help.
And then the chaplain asks if she can bless the patient.
With her hand on the woman’s head, her eyes closed, Sargent begins.
“May the spirit of love guide you on your path.”
The other side A chaplain in a Planned Parenthood clinic is the “height of hypocrisy,” said Brian Johnston, executive director of the California ProLife Council.
The very idea of a chaplain inside the walls of a Planned Parenthood clinic simply reinforces the idea that abortion is in fact a spiritual issue, he said.
The moral qualms involved in abortion are “inescapable,” Johnston said, and the fact Planned Parenthood is using religion to ease those qualms is hypocritical.
“It clearly violates the conscience,” he added.
On the one hand, the fact that Planned Parenthood recognizes the moral and spiritual aspect of abortion would seem to bolster the anti-abortion argument, seemingly recognizing the loss of life in the procedure.
“Chaplains are there because human lives are taken,” Johnston said, referring to the roll chaplains play in hospitals or battlefields.
“If this is such a great procedure, why is a chaplain necessary?” he added.
Perhaps the one thing abortion rights advocates and abortion foes do agree on is the morality and religious aspects involved in abortion.
Granted, the two sides differ when it comes to definitions. Johnston said abortion requires the ending of a human life, an inescapable question of morality.
Yet for abortion rights advocates, the moral and spiritual questions raised aren’t so clearly defined.
Take a single parent, mother of four with limited means, posed national chaplain Castuera.
Say the pill failed. Or the condom broke.
“Is a fetus valuable? Yes, of course it is,” Castuera said. “Is the fetus as valuable as a mother with four children?”
What if she can’t afford another child?
“That’s where everybody earns their stripes, making those tough decisions,” Castuera added. “Anybody who paints that as an easy decision has never spent a second with those women struggling with what to do.”
The positive values of religion have always been connected with the abortion rights movement, Castuera said. Chaplains are an extension of that, he added.
“I want many more like her,” he said of Sargent. “There will be.”
The oldest child stays in the waiting room.
The two other children, a toddler and a slightly older son, are with the mother as Sargent sits across from the woman.
Sargent smiles at the boys, the older one obviously impatient and determined to return to roughhousing with his brother in the waiting room.
“What are you doing for yourself?” Sargent asks the woman, who bounces the toddler on her lap while chastising the other for sneaking toward the door.
“Look at me,” the 29-year-old woman responds.
I’ve gained weight, she says.
Food is her answer when the frustration boils over. She eats when she’s stressed.
She’s on another diet, and maybe this one will work.
Sargent smiles, handing the antsy son a shiny blue rock, saying he’s special and the rock will remind him of that. He looks confused, but returns to his mother’s side to sit.
“You need to take care of yourself, find things that you like to do and do them instead of eat when you’re stressed,” Sargent tells the woman.
“You need to do things for yourself,” Sargent says before leaving the woman with the clinic’s medical staff.
Plenty of tears
Clinic staff often call Sargent in when patients are crying.
Perhaps they are nervous about a pregnancy test or emergency birth control or a pelvic exam.
On the days abortions are performed, she visits with the women and teenagers in the recovery room.
She says she doesn’t believe God and abortion are at odds.
“As a Christian, I believe in a God who loves me unconditionally and who at the same time has expectations of me in the world,” Sargent said.
The idea is to tune in to those expectations and stay on that path. Sometimes, that means having a baby, sometimes not.
“God has dreams and visions and hopes for us, much like a parent for a child,” she said.
Her message to patients is simple: “Your life is important to God.”
“I don’t see my job as telling people what to believe,” she added.
If a patient believes it’s an unborn child they’re killing, “I’m not going to argue with that,” Sargent said.
Others don’t believe they are killing an unborn child.
“I would also not argue with that,” she added.
She will, however, argue with patients who come in wondering if God can ever love them again because they have had sex, they need contraception or they want an abortion.
Sargent already knows her answer: “He already does.” Contact Jill Tucker at firstname.lastname@example.org