Fred Sokol stands on a thin strip of grass along Shaker Boulevard clutching the thumb-worn beads of a rosary.
Sokol has a familiar face — the kind you’d expect from a 67-year-old father of three. His untrimmed brows are graying. His jowls hang heavy. Spidery creases frame his pale blue eyes.
On this November afternoon, Sokol wears little more than khakis and a cheap blue department store jacket for warmth.
But none of that is what you notice first about Fred Sokol as you drive east on the divided boulevard from Cleveland to Shaker Heights. What is most striking, almost impossible to miss, really, is the bright yellow, wooden sandwich-board Sokol wears around his neck: “Pray to end abortion” it reads in black capital letters.
Scuffed and muddied, it’s chipped around the edges like a battle-worn shield.
With a cranberry-colored rosary in one hand, he waves sheepishly at oncoming traffic with the other.
Most ignore him, but occasionally someone lays on the horn.
A police officer tips his hat. A black middle-aged Benedictine High School bus driver waves while ferrying teenagers home from school. An older lady with tufts of white hair gives him the middle finger without a second glance. A balding white man in a brown trench coat hangs out a rolled down window and shouts, “Keep up the good work! Keep up the good work!”
Sokol draws affirmation from even the slightest bit of attention. Every Wednesday and Friday from 2 to 6 p.m., he stands quietly outside the four-story glass building that houses Preterm, Ohio’s largest ambulatory surgical facility offering abortion services.
While he’s just one of about 2,000 who protest annually at the clinic, he’s here alone many days, accompanied by several small yellow signs staked into the narrow strip of ground between the crumbling roadway and small brick retaining wall.
“5,234 abortions here in 2015,” reads one. Another pictures two infants — one white with hands clasped and eyes turned skyward as if in prayer and one black with a wide-eyed expression of puzzlement — under the words “Save Us.”
“It’s important for them to see that message,” says Sokol, who hasn’t missed a shift in more than a year.
He comes armed with an arsenal of prayer cards and pamphlets redirecting patients to faith-based organizations that offer support or adoption services. He says he’s here to save lives — and since Sokol began his crusade 10 years ago, he believes he’s succeeding.
“There are people who still believe they’re doing the right thing when they’re having an abortion,” he says. “We try to educate them.”
In just the last three years outside Preterm, he says a half-dozen women have approached him publicly, confessing that his signs and daily devotion inspired a change of heart to carry their pregnancies to term.
Three of the clinics he’s picketed in the past decade have closed. Preterm is the fourth he’s visited. Since Gov. John Kasich took office in 2011, the number of Ohio’s abortion providers have been cut in half as regulations that limit access or create barriers to their services have increased. It’s been 45 years since the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark Roe v. Wade decision made abortion legal in the U.S., and yet legislative restrictions on abortion access and women’s health care continue to increase.
Sokol avoids Preterm’s busy Saturdays, when protestors come out in droves. He prefers to carry out his mission on the other side of the street when there’s less activity. His family worries for his safety, but supports his efforts so long as he limits them to two days a week. Every Sunday, he drafts an email newsletter to about 70 people with updates.
“We believe in human life,” he says. “We’re not trouble makers. We’re not chaos people. We don’t try to impose our ideas on others by standing in front of the door or whatever. We’re just standing over here.”
As Sokol speaks, a gray four-door sedan drives by with its window down a little after 4 p.m. As it passes, a man leans out the window and shouts, “Go kill yourself!”
Sokol winces and looks over his shoulder as the car fades into the distance. His head hangs heavy for a moment over the sign around his neck.
“That guy comes by every day and says the same thing,” Sokol says. “ ‘Go kill yourself.’ ”
He takes a breath and meditates on the words for a few moments. He smirks ever so slightly, as if he has to muster the strength to move past it.
“All we want to do is to make them think,” he says. “If we’re not here to make them think, who else would?”