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NEWS STORY: Breaking the black church’s silence on sexuality

c. 1997 Religion News Service WASHINGTON _ For a year, the Rev. Carlton W. Veazey, acting director of the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice (RCRC), worked the telephone seeking to bring together African-American pastors and laity to”break the silence”on the long-taboo subject of black sexuality. For a long time, many on the voices on the […]

c. 1997 Religion News Service

WASHINGTON _ For a year, the Rev. Carlton W. Veazey, acting director of the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice (RCRC), worked the telephone seeking to bring together African-American pastors and laity to”break the silence”on the long-taboo subject of black sexuality.

For a long time, many on the voices on the other end told him to”leave the issue (of sexuality) alone.”But as pregnancy rates soared among African-American teens and HIV/AIDS claimed greater numbers of children and adults, Veazey began hearing a yes to his urgings that”It’s time.””Most of the guys I called initially just heard abortion instead of reproductive health and human sexuality, which embraces a lot of other areas,”Veazey said. It didn’t take them long to come around when the issues of teen pregnancy, spouse abuse and HIV/AIDS infection”were put in the context of their own ministries.” The result was a two-day forum of worship, workshops and speeches called the National Black Religious Summit on Sexuality, held June 12-13 at Howard University Divinity School and sponsored by RCAR. The event drew more than 200 lay people and clergy from across the nation and from most black mainline denominations.

Organizers said they want to help rescue African-Americans by providing a theological framework for discussing issues of sexuality and reproductive choice by placing the topic on the church’s agenda.

According to Veazey, it marked the first time black religious leaders have formally come together to address these issues. But, he said, silence on sexuality issues only harms the church. Pointing to the pregnancy rates among black teens, Veazey said,”What it is doing is pulling down all of the gains we tried to make”in the civil rights movement.

For too long issues of sexuality have been ignored and cloaked in secrecy, said Kelly Brown-Douglas, a professor of theology at Howard Divinity School.”I’m just so happy that the dialogue is happening.” Brown-Douglas is the author of”Cleaning Out the Closet: Black Sexuality and Its Role in the Black Church and Womanist Thought”to be published in the fall.

The debate over sexuality in the black religious community has been mired in homophobia and hampered by”white racism,”she added.

Veazey agrees, saying discussions about black sexuality have been waged largely by”white conservative fundamentalists,”not by African-Americans. What conservatives _ both black and white _ have failed to address”are the very people who are having the problems, those who are dying.” But as African-American clergy begin the work of shifting the debate from the hands of”white conservatives”to pulpits in the black religious community, one minister here said what’s been happening in the black church is itself tellingly symbolic of a certain kind of sexuality.”The black religious community hasn’t been silent on sexuality,”said the Rev. Mariah A. Britton, youth minister at New York’s Riverside Church. She pointed to Sunday morning worship services as evidence. On Sunday mornings gender roles in most black churches are”glaringly clear”: older men flank the male pastor in the pulpit and women decked in crisp white usher uniforms dot the corners of the church, doling out fans or supporting those members overcome by the Holy Spirit.

Britton’s keynote address was greeted by repeated”amens”and cheers to”tell it.” Britton, an expert on human sexuality, lamented what she called the”rigid teachings”issued by the church on sexuality and its”just say no approach”to premarital sex for teens and single adults. She also accused the black church of having perpetrated a”double standard”when it comes to not holding men in the church accountable for their roles in creating unwanted pregnancies and initiating”sexual liaisons.””It’s time for us to ask the Holy Spirit what sayeth the Lord for direction in a new and different world,”she said.

The Rev. Sheron C. Patterson, senior pastor of the Jubilee United Methodist Church in Duncanville, Texas, said she has gotten her answer from above.

She calls it the”Love Clinic,”a series of monthly relationship seminars that attracts nearly 200 church-goers and those in the community.

Patterson uses provocative sounding topics to lure members into to her Christian-based, frank discussions on sexuality and concludes with prayer and professional referrals and counseling service.

Organizers of the National Summit say they expect to conclude the two-day event with a list of action items and plans that lay and clergy leaders can take back to their communities. A paper that offers a”theological response”to sexuality in the black religious community will also be a product of the summit.

MJP END HAWKINS