How Joe Baker, founder of Save the Storks, learned that winning hearts is more important than winning debates in advocacy.
SOULFIRES | IGNITING MINISTRY
In our Soulfires series, we share the stories of people who have encountered God in powerful ways and responded by initiating significant ministry projects.
Joe Baker is founder of Save the Storks, a nonprofit that has commissioned 40-plus Stork Bus mobile medical units equipped with ultrasounds that have saved an estimated 4,000-plus babies. Save the Storks partners with local pregnancy resource centers to inform an expecting mother of all of her options so that she can make the best choice for herself and her baby.
If there was any one thing that Joe Baker’s parents argued over, it was this: generosity. There was simply too much of it.
The frustration in the Baker household was that, as a pregnancy center director, Joe’s mom, Lynn, gave her life away to the ladies she served at all costs and at all times with no judgment. And in doing so, she was making the family have to play along, and pay along, whether they liked it or not. And mostly, they did not.
Take, for example, the case of a woman named Elizabeth. As Joe grew up it seemed she showed up about every 16 months to announce to Mrs. Baker that she was again pregnant and needed help, at which time Mrs. Baker would flood Elizabeth with every bit of care she could muster, even bringing her to family camp with them one year. By the time Elizabeth stopped coming, Mrs. Baker had helped her deliver eight babies from eight different men and found adoptive parents for each. Mrs. Baker had no problem giving up so much of her and her family’s life to Elizabeth. The family felt differently.
And Elizabeth is just one example.
But that was the backdrop of Joe’s life—the giving away of it. Of course, he wasn’t just an observer. Every chance she could, Mrs. Baker would recruit him to stuff envelopes or have pizza parties for his friends that just happened to involve stamp-licking and box stacking.
Then there was time when his mom asked if Joe, a 4th grader, was going to walk the neighborhoods that year to collect donations for the pregnancy center’s yearly walkathon. Joe’s two broken arms (he had fallen out of a tree) seemed like the perfect excuse to say no.
“Too bad,” his mom said. “The one who collects the most donations wins $350 toward a new bike at a bike shop.”
Joe’s arms suddenly didn’t hurt so much.
Arriving at his neighbors’ homes with a clipboard and two casts, he made his pitch for donations and was usually graciously met with little pro-choice pushback.
“Pro-choice?” Joe would say. “All my mom is trying to do is help women who want to keep their baby. You’re not against that, are you?” It seemed everybody had a hard time turning away the little boy with red hair, two broken arms and a good comeback. That year, Joe broke the record for most money raised.
The new bike gave him a great feeling, but so did something else: defending the defenseless. Suddenly and for the first time, being pro-life mattered to him.
In high school, a bit of the warrior spirit began to rise in Joe as nearly every paper he wrote had a pro-life angle. He would regularly debate the issue with anybody who thought they might stand a chance against him, a number that dwindled over time. The way he saw it, abortion was the injustice of our lifetime. It was worth the effort to overprepare.
One day he came across a book on creationism and it struck a nerve. Consuming each line of the book he began to formulate the point of view that the teaching of Darwinism was setting the table for increased abortions.
Joe began to challenge the biology department at his school about the Darwinian angle from which they taught the origin of man, and suddenly a standoff occurred. Local news outlets picked it up and ran stories. Even CNN came calling, giving him national exposure. Before his high school career was over, Joe even sued his school for $1 (and won) when they prohibited him from distributing fliers to fellow students with the title “Ten Questions to Ask Your Biology Teacher About Evolution.”
The pugilist in Joe was in high gear and getting more honed as the days went by. But it was at a campfire while listening to the summer director speak that the trajectory of his life began to come into focus. The director asked, “What in your life is going to matter in 1,000 years?”
Joe knew that the things he fought for were good and right, but he didn’t trust where his heart and head were. Somehow the director’s question and the feeling in his soul did not line up. “God,” he said, not knowing he was about to utter the most significant prayer of his life, “I don’t know what you want to do with me but … I’m available.”
Joe enrolled in a Bible college in Montana and tried to settle into the collegiate life. But by Year 2, he couldn’t take it anymore. He got on the road and started a tour speaking on intelligent design. A year later he was broke and needing somewhere to land, so he went back to college, which lasted another two years before he was once again breaking out of his role as student. He became a mountain guide in Alaska, then climbed mountains for a year.
In need of an income, he decided to start a T-shirt business and, in the typical Joe Baker way, adorned the shirts with in-your-face design and the most provocative sentiments he could think of—thoughts that were meant to push people’s buttons and make everybody feel uncomfortable. He began to follow the Christian rock band circuit with his Live Offensively T-shirt label, and sell them at booths at music festivals—getting banned and kicked out of many along the way.
Bob Lenz, a frequent speaker at the festivals, saw Joe working his business and took a liking to him. “I love what you do, Joe,” Bob said, “but I have to ask you, are you winning anybody?”
“Are you kidding?” Joe replied. “I can beat anybody in debate.”
“But are you winning any hearts?” Bob asked. Joe realized then that winning an argument and winning a heart were two very different things. Something would have to change.
It happened on the day he wanted to see for himself a very interesting practice taking place in the Bronx, New York. A small pregnancy center had the idea of installing a sonogram machine in a van and parking it in front of abortion clinics. The idea was to invite pregnant women onto the van to see the life within them. Joe, used to seeing the pro-life issue handled mostly with protests and picket signs, just had to witness this idea for himself.
The experience was at the same time fascinating and a little puzzling. The idea was great, but the van was about the most uninviting vehicle imaginable. He couldn’t fathom that any young woman would feel comfortable going inside—he hardly felt comfortable going inside.
As the team that welcomed him to the Bronx stepped into a coffee shop, they left Joe standing alone by the van. A young woman walked up. “Hi, I’m here for my appointment,” she said to Joe thinking that he was working for the clinic.
Joe was caught off guard. “Oh, you’re here to get an abortion, ma’am?”
“Well, I’m not with the clinic. But if you’d like, you can board this van and the folks inside will take a sonogram of your belly for free. And if you decide to take your pregnancy to term, they’ll even provide you with a lot of services to really help you get by.” Joe looked at the van hoping that she didn’t notice how ramshackle it was.
“OK,” she said with ease.
“You will? I mean, OK!” he said.
Joe stood on the outside of the van while the sonogram was taking place and couldn’t believe how excited he felt. When the young woman was finished and stepped out, she had tears in her eyes and was in the process of making a call.
“Miss, do you mind if I ask who you’re calling?” Joe said.
“I’m calling my mom to tell her that she’s going to be a grandmother,” she replied. Joe was stopped in his tracks. He couldn’t believe his simple suggestion and a sorry van could save a life, change a life and potentially bring more life into the world in the years to come. He had to pinch himself. It was as if every bit of debate prowess he had slipped away into meaninglessness. None of that mattered anymore. Only this. The rush of saving lives coursed through his veins, and he was addicted to the feeling immediately.
“I have to do that again,” he said aloud. Several more women entered the van that day and agreed to carry their babies to term.
He quickly called Ann, his fiancée. “If we can pull this off, this is what I think we should do,” he excitedly said. “But I have just two requirements. We have to do it with excellence and we have to do it everywhere.”
Ann was in.
Joe went home, sold Live Offensively, bought a van with the proceeds. With friends and family thinking the couple was out of their minds, he and Ann set out on a countrywide tour to raise money and cast the vision for what they wanted: a beautiful, welcoming, state-of-the-art van with a sonogram and a staff to make women feel safe, warm and cared for—at every pregnancy center across America.
When one wise Christian man they met at the beginning of their journey said, “You’re about to go through fire,” Joe was more than a little put off by his lack of tact and encouragement. But in the end, it could not have been a more accurate prophecy. Joe only wished the man might have mentioned just how hot that fire was going to be.
Not having any clue about how to raise money, the process strained Joe and Ann’s marriage, depleted their savings and heaped on crushing debt as they ran up every credit card to keep the vision alive. A trusted friend and partner tried to take thousands of dollars from them, which took a huge emotional toll and nearly forced them to quit. As the years passed they would lie awake at night in the back of their gutted Sprinter van—hungry and broke—and wonder when God would take their two available hearts and breathe life into their vision.
Today, four years later, Save the Storks is a 501(c)(3) that has partnered with 60 pregnancy centers to raise enough funds for 48 Stork Buses throughout the U.S. with 12 more coming soon. Four out of every 5 pregnant women who step onto a Stork Bus choose to take their pregnancy to term. It is estimated that more than 6,000 babies have been saved.