Religious summit calls on black church leaders to address sexual issues Teen pregnancy and AIDS are among topics noted

July 11, 1998|By John Rivera | John Rivera,SUN STAFF

A national coalition of African-American clergy, educators and laity meeting this week have issued a call for the black church to break its silence on sexual issues, including the acceptance of homosexuality, using alternate ways of fighting teen pregnancy and addressing the rising incidence of AIDS.

Church leaders participating in the National Black Religious Summit II on Sexuality said that when the black church has spoken at all about sex and sexuality, it has only been to condemn.

The conference, which drew more than 380 people to its sessions at the Howard University School of Divinity in Washington, concluded yesterday.

"For many years in the [black] church, you just didn't talk about certain things," said Leslie M. Watson, director of multi-cultural programs for the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice, which sponsored the conference. "Now, the black church, which is the pillar of our community, is being forced to come into the new century" and deal with sexuality.

"What we have been doing is engaging in an interfaith, intergenerational dialogue" on sexual issues, she said. The young people who attended "are going to go back home and talk to their parents. They will go home and talk to their pastors."

The coalition, established in 1973 after the Roe. v. Wade Supreme Court decision legalizing abortion, comprises 42 Christian, Jewish and other religious organizations that support abortion rights and advocate a range of reproductive health services. It started the Black Church Initiative last year, when it held the first National Black Religious Summit on Sexuality.

The black church traditionally has dealt with sex and subjects like teen-age pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases by preaching abstinence. Most pastors preach against abortion and condemn homosexuality.

But organizers of the summit pointed to the high rates of teen-age pregnancy and AIDS among the black community as evidence the black community faces crises it cannot ignore. The Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice supports legalized abortion, sexuality education that includes acceptance of homosexuality, and pregnancy prevention through access to contraception.

Robert Wingfield, 20, of Nashville, Tenn., said he appreciated the opportunity to talk about sex in a religious context. Before, "It was the elephant in the room that nobody talked about," he said.

And the conference changed his mind on one issue. "I went from pro-life to pro-choice in a couple of days," he said.

Addressing the gay issue and calling for tolerance is a move that is likely to cause controversy and resistance among some in the black church, organizers admitted.

"The theological question is a justice issue," said the Rev. Madison T. Shockley, a United Church of Christ minister from Los Angeles. "How can a church that has fought for justice and civil rights not fight for civil rights and justice for gay and lesbian people?"

The Rev. Theodore M. Williams Jr., pastor of Mount Sinai Temple in Randallstown, who did not attend the conference, said his attitude toward gays and lesbians was civil rights, yes, but acceptance, no.

"I believe that homosexuals should be entitled to constitutional rights and privileges as any other citizen," he said. "However, homosexuality is not an acceptable Biblical lifestyle."

Pub Date: 7/11/98

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