Guest post: “Equal Time” Outreach/Inreach with Missionaries

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This is a guest post from Gary Loewenthal, co-creator of the advocacy group Compassion for Animals.

A couple of weeks ago, Gary mentioned on his Facebook page the intriguing idea of “equal time advocacy.” That is, allowing others, like missionaries, to speak to you about their message in exchange to listening to you about your animal rights message. Gary has always amazed me with his ability to reach out to people I wouldn’t even give a second thought about discussing animal rights with, and this particular example was especially interesting to me. So, I asked him to write a little bit about the concept as well as his experiences putting it into action.

The other day, two Mormon missionaries on their rounds stopped by my house. As usual, they agreed to my “equal time” advocacy proposal, in which I get to advocate to them as much they get to advocate to me, for as long as they like.

I started doing this several years ago, shortly after I got involved with vegan outreach. Since I’ve worked at home for most of those years, I encounter my fair share of door-to-door evangelists and charity solicitors. At least it seems that way.

The “equal time” technique has worked consistently well. As far as I can tell, “the other side” has the same positive impression. Here are some possible reasons for its success:

  • The people with whom I’m talking are generally experienced at one-on-one outreach. Like me, they’ve had to put up with rudeness, non-sequitur diversions, and so forth. So they’re inclined to listen respectfully to my pitch. As I do to theirs.
  • I imagine that after a high percentage of rejections, the missionaries welcome a chance to say their piece, even with the caveats.
  • Our overall goals and motivations for doing outreach overlap. They are working toward peace, harmony, and justice. So am I. In fact, I think most people want these things; the commonality between the missionaries and me is that we both regularly take time to engage in personal outreach in an effort to bring these goals to fruition. The biggest difference between their goals and mine is that the needs of animals, and our obligations toward them, play a central role in my worldview. Also, their ideas of morality may not always jive with mine – although we tend to agree on basic concepts such as the Golden Rule and the obligation to refrain from inflicting avoidable harm on others.
  • I hold up my end of the bargain. I listen to what they have to say, and my questions and counterpoint are earnest and polite.

During my allotted time for outreach during these sessions, I try to meet my worthy counterparts where they are, and proceed from there. I start by asking them their views of our obligations toward animals, and about their diets. I might ask if they have any companion animals and how they feel about them.

I try to explain how vegan concepts and behaviors are compatible with their religion, and how striving to be as compassionate as possible is a sincere and glorious way to practice one’s faith and to respect and honor both Creator and Creation. (I use upper case here strictly to reflect how my audience at the time refers to the two upper-cased entities.) If those concepts are not met with any serious objections, I generally move into practical tips and personalized suggestions, and finish up by a) emphasizing how important I think it is to transition away from animal exploitation and toward a vegan lifestyle, b) the degree of suffering and hurt done on our behalf that each of us can – and thus should – reduce by choosing veganism, and c) the peace of mind that comes with knowing that one is not inflicting avoidable harm on others.

I listen to what they have to say also. I’m honest and state that it’s unlikely that I’ll convert to Mormonism or become a Jehova’s Witness, but I am keenly interested in knowing what they feel is compelling about those choices.

As it turns out, Mormonism has some fairly progressive views on animals. According to the missionaries, we’re to eat meat sparingly, and mostly in times of famine or when there are insufficient non-animal food sources. I usually ask, in return: “Since most of us in the developed world now have access to an abundance of non-animal food all year round, are we thus obligated to forgo animal products? Would abstaining from animal products reflect an earnest, good-faith adherence to the idea of refraining from killing animals for food except when there is no other practical alternative?” This line of questioning is generally productive. Somewhere in there, I point out the considerable suffering and killing – if not the inherent cruelty – in commercial dairy and egg operations.

Before leaving, the missionaries usually want to leave some literature. So do I. So I propose my “equal amount of literature” policy, to which they, so far, always agree. I highly recommend having some copies of the Christian Vegetarian Association’s “Are We Good Stewards of God’s Creation?” pamphlets on hand.

So far, all these sessions have gone well, and we part amicably. One of my hopes is that if anything I say or hand out to the missionaries resonates strongly with them, they will employ their outreach skills to spread the word to their peers and associates.

I use some similar approaches with people who come by the house to solicit funds for Greenpeace, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, and progressive lobbying organizations.

One variation with people asking for donations – assuming I like the goals of the organization – is “if you pledge to be vegan for X days within the next Y weeks, I’ll write a check for Z amount.” This equation is dependent on many factors, such as how much money you can spare, but you can usually arrive at a deal that everyone thinks is fair and meaningful. If the person represents a progressive group, there’s a good chance that they’ve already partly divested from the standard American meat- and dairy-centered diet. He or she may already be vegan, in which case you can just give the secret handshake. More seriously, when I have encountered vegetarians or vegans soliciting for a non-veg group, I ask if they’re in a position to influence the group. They may already be doing that. That response may increase the chance of me giving the group a donation,

I try to be mindful of the solicitors’ time schedule; I figure they want to cover as many homes – and get as many donations and email signups – as possible. But sometimes the discussions are apparently mutually enjoyable and they insist that no, they’d rather stay for a few more minutes and talk. Maybe they get tired of getting curtly turned away or knocking on doors of empty houses, and a polite discussion about topics in which they’re interested is a nice change of pace.

Granted, “equal time” advocacy is not something you can do every day, but it’s fairly easy, since your audience comes to you, and the individuals in that audience tend to be good listeners who know and appreciate the hard work of outreach and are thus likely to give you the respect that all advocates want. You may gain some interesting insight into their worldviews also, and that in turn could help your own advocacy.