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His is a ministry of confrontation Flip Benham speaks up -- loudly -- on abortion, other issues
CRISTINA C. BREEN Staff Writer
Philip "Flip" Benham knows his harsh words and gruesome photos shock and offend.
He says his message demands confrontation.
The leader of Operation Rescue/Operation Save America, has moved his organization from Dallas to Concord, creating a new epicenter for what he sees as a fight against the sins of abortion, homosexuality and Islam.
Benham and his group have been involved in some of the most publicized anti-abortion events in the past decade. In 1995, he baptized Norma McCorvey, who was Jane Roe in the Roe v. Wade case that legalized abortion. McCorvey last week sought to reopen her case and overturn the 1973 landmark decision.
Benham says he seeks to awaken the Charlotte region.
He'll host the annual Operation Save America conference in Charlotte on July 12-20, an event that moves each year and usually draws hundreds. Participants will hold a funeral for aborted fetuses, and read the Bible in front of churches and mosques and along major thoroughfares.
In the past few months, Benham has become a common sight at Charlotte's three abortion clinics.
Last month, he took a poster of an aborted fetus to the National Day of Prayer events uptown. He disrupted the Charlotte gay and lesbian festival by screaming throughout a commitment ceremony for more than a dozen couples.
It's not the way things have been done in Charlotte. The anti-abortion movement here has been mostly a quiet and prayerful one in recent years. Small groups of Catholics gather at clinics on Saturdays to say the rosary. A few churches sponsor homes or crisis pregnancy centers for struggling mothers.
Benham, 55, has evoked wariness even in this Bible Belt region with a strong conservative Christian community. Charlotte-Mecklenburg police are assigned to his demonstrations, and Benham says local pastors aren't publicly supportive.
"The evangelical church has been asleep here in Charlotte," he says. "It's as if they've got this awkward peace with the abortion industry."
Some local church leaders have said they're still getting to know him and have avoided making judgments. Abortion clinic managers react angrily when he shows up, but don't comment publicly about his tactics.The Rev. Mick Hinson, senior pastor at Metropolitan Community Church, which draws large numbers of gays and lesbians, says he'll hire off-duty police officers to patrol the church's large events from now on. Members of Operation Save America showed up at a Bible seminar last month and upset some people when they dominated the discussion, Hinson says.
Cindy Thomson, co-coordinator of the Charlotte chapter of the National Organization for Women, says she's worried.
"That organization seems to engender hatred and violence," she said. "They try to say they don't do that, but it seems some of the followers get a little radical. We want to keep our clinics safe."
Photos showing Benham being arrested at clinic demonstrations hang on his office walls, and he's been jailed for months at a time. But he says he abhors violence and has denounced the killings of doctors and the bombing of clinics.
He says he cheered last month's capture of Eric Rudolph, who is accused of bombing two abortion clinics, a gay nightclub and an Olympics event.
"This man was no anti-abortionist," he says. "This man was mad at the world."
National and state anti-abortion organizations both compliment and fall silent on Benham's group.
"He's a very engaging, committed, dedicated guy. He's doing a great job," says Ann Scheidler, executive director of the Chicago-based Pro-Life Action League.
Leaders of the National Right to Life Committee responded to questions about Operation Save America by faxing their policy stating their opposition to violence. A spokeswoman didn't return calls seeking clarification.
Winding path to leadership
Flip Benham was a saloon owner in Kissimmee, Fla., and a heavy drinker until 1976, when a stranger invited him to a Free Methodist church. There, he says, he found God. He entered the seminary and started a Free Methodist church in Dallas in 1980.
He became involved in Operation Rescue in 1988, when the group was staging massive protests at abortion clinics, including several in Atlanta, where they blocked women from entering and heckled doctors and workers.
Although he hadn't been a national leader in the group, Benham inherited Operation Rescue in 1994, after the departure of founders Randall Terry and Keith Tucci. Terry left the group as clinic violence increased and lawsuits mounted against Operation Rescue. He later ran for Congress, divorced his wife and married a younger woman, and left his Pentecostal church. Benham and Terry have publicly expressed dislike for each other.
Tucci, who resigned to pastor a church in Pennsylvania and started an international anti-abortion group, says Benham was best suited for leading the group because of his strong character and family life and sound biblical principles.
He started using the name Operation Save America after taking over the organization, but uses the names Operation Rescue and Operation Save America interchangeably in literature.
While his group doesn't draw attention like it did during the 1980s and 1990s when members were blockading clinics, it retains a core of followers who flock to annual meetings and write in to the Web site about their activities.
Abortion protesters reduced their activities during the 1990s after a series of court decisions prohibited them from blocking clinic doors and menacing patients, doctors and staff. But anti-abortion groups scored a victory in February when the Supreme Court decided that federal racketeering and extortion laws were wrongly used to prevent their protests.
Benham says the organization has been sued so often that it doesn't have any assets. He says his office, computers and equipment are leased or donated so they can't be seized.
Benham, though, can turn the tables. Earlier this month, he was in a Wichita, Kan., courtroom, suing the city for not issuing a parade permit to Operation Rescue in June 2001.
"We call ourselves the dirty pro-lifers," Benham says. "The clean pro-lifers work in politics. They never get their hands dirty. They never touch the women."
Benham moved to Concord last year to fulfill the dream of the late David Drye, a Concord businessman and Operation Rescue supporter who had wanted the organization and others like it to move here. Drye was a conservative political activist and religious leader who had a local cable TV show in Cabarrus County.
Before he died in a 1999 plane crash, Drye encouraged Benham's twin sons, Jason and David, 27, to move to the Charlotte area. They came two years ago. Benham's wife, Faye, and his five children, ages 11 through 30, often join him at clinic demonstrations.
Benham operates from a small two-room office near downtown Concord. He says he'd like to open an office next door to a Charlotte abortion clinic.
He says he doesn't receive a salary out of Operation Save America funds, but makes a living giving speeches, writing articles and accepting personal donations.
Besides his morning clinic protests, Benham spends his days meeting with pastors and potential supporters, including two Concord doctors who have offered to care for women who decide to have their babies instead of abortions.
He says he doesn't know how many people are involved in Operation Rescue/Operation Save America because the group doesn't have a roster.
But supporters from Florida to South Dakota have formed Operation Save America chapters. Members' activities range from stroller parades outside abortion clinics to a man who was arrested after he sneaked into a clinic.
A box of new T-shirts sits in Benham's office. They are black, with the word "Intolerant" branded across the front in big, white letters. In smaller print is a John 14:6 passage: "I am the way, the truth, the life ..."
On the back: "Homosexuality is a sin. Islam is a lie. Abortion is murder. Some issues are just black and white."
Benham smiles. "This is the bad-guy T-shirt," he says. He calls the T-shirt he is wearing -- white with a cross on an American flag and the words "Jesus is the standard" -- "the good-guy T-shirt."
White shirt or black, he knows he offends people, as he did at the gay pride festival last month.
Benham says his words are harsh, but his message is love.
"It seems ugly, my speech. But it's because we love them that we scream at them. You have to have a bad guy who will confront them. Somebody was a bad guy to me when I was an alcoholic.
"Abortion will end in ... Charlotte and in America when the church of Jesus Christ makes up her mind it will end, and not a second sooner. We, the church, are most responsible for the holocaust that is going on here."
Nationally, sentiment on abortions has remained fairly constant throughout the past decade, with about six in 10 Americans opposing the overturning of Roe v. Wade, according to a January poll by the Pew Research Center for Public and the Press.
Encounter at `gates of hell'
At 7:30 on a Wednesday morning, Benham is standing at what he calls the "gates of hell" -- the driveway of a Charlotte medical park that houses a women's clinic that performs abortions.
Chest-high posters of cute babies and dismembered fetuses line Wendover Road leading to the clinic. Benham put them there.
"Jesus loves you!" he merrily tells a woman pulling into the parking lot in a gray sedan. She stops the car; he hands her a pamphlet.
"Do you know they're killing little babies right here?" he asks her, holding a Bible in one hand and pointing to the building behind him with the other. "Why don't you go tell them to stop?"
The woman nods and smiles and drives on.
Fifteen minutes later, a woman in a van swerves, purple-faced, into the lot.
"You are traumatizing children! You are sending children to school looking at pictures of torn-up babies!" she shouts at Benham.
He responds: I show those pictures to my own children.
The woman shakes her head, rolls up her window, and drives off.
Cristina Breen: (704) 358-5697; firstname.lastname@example.org.
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