WASHINGTON -- For the past 17 years, the Rev. Derrick Harkins, pastor of Nineteenth Street Baptist Church -- a historically black church -- has buried people who had AIDS. The increasing number of people with AIDS and the rise in teen pregnancy, he said, are forcing black ministers to speak out.
"Black churches have a complicated history as it relates to speaking about sexuality," Harkins told an audience at the recent National Black Religious Summit IV Sexuality. "Unfortunately, many black clergy deal with sexuality in an intellectually dishonest way."
The summit encouraged black ministers to discuss human sexuality in their sermons and to take a more active role in addressing such issues as teen pregnancy, AIDS, domestic violence and homosexuality.
Several hundred church leaders, laity, health professionals and youths attended the three-day summit in early July at the Howard University School of Divinity. The summit was sponsored by the Black Church Initiative, a multicultural program of the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice.
Many ministers acknowledged that the issue of sex has been tacitly ignored, but now, they say, they must speak about it from the pulpit and not simply condemn masturbation, teen pregnancy and homosexuality as sinful behavior.
"What most of us were taught about sex by our parents and ministers was, 'Keep your dress down, keep your pants up, and don't bring any babies home,' " said the Rev. Susan Newman, a minister at First Baptist Church in Atlanta.
In a workshop called, "Can We Preach About That Thing From the Pulpit of the Black Church?" Newman likened the routine of a regular Sunday service to intercourse. Soft mellow singing and prayers that remind churchgoers of God's love, she said, set the mood in the sanctuary as everyone anxiously awaits the preacher.
During the sermon, the preacher finds his rhythm and requires a response from the congregation, Newman said. People stand, fan themselves and shout, "Amen." Afterward, she said, some deacons go outside to smoke, while others make their way to the church basement to get something to eat.
A few people in the audience covered their mouths and shook their heads at Newman's imagery. Others chuckled. Some nodded.
"My goal was to get people to see that there are sexual undertones in the black church," Newman said. "We need to develop another way of looking at sexuality. The reality is that we've been silent, but now we have to find our voice."
Former U.S. surgeon general Joycelyn Elders, the keynote speaker at the conference, urged ministers and politicians to stop preaching and legislating morality and to start teaching young people.
"Many ministers continue to preach about abstinence. But the vows of abstinence can be broken much easier than a latex condom," Elders said. "Sex has enslaved us all. It has enslaved our ministers to the point that we are ready to kick them out the church if they speak about sex. We have all been enslaved by myths, taboos and 'isms.' "
Elders was heavily criticized during her tenure as surgeon general and ultimately was forced out of her job for frank talk about sexual health issues -- especially concerning the nation's youth.
At the summit, Elders told the ministers and church leaders that they have a responsibility to teach abstinence first, but also to preach to young people about responsible sexual behavior.
The black church, she said, was the central nervous system of the civil rights movement and the struggles to end discrimination against blacks. However, many black churches condemn homosexuals.
"That's a big irony," Elders said. "Black people know best about discrimination. We need to accept people of all sexual orientations."
Another irony, Elders said, is the church's silence and reluctance to talk about sexuality while the numbers of teen pregnancies and of blacks with HIV/AIDS continue to soar.
"We have a crisis in our communities," Elders said. "I know you don't like talking about sex from the pulpit. But when we have a problem in the black community, where do we go? We go to church. So it makes sense to start talking about it instead of watching our young people die."
African Americans account for nearly 50 percent of AIDS cases nationwide. By 2005, the figure is predicted to increase to 60 percent. Teen pregnancy among black females ages 15 to 19 fell 21 percent last year. However, a 13 percent increase is predicted by 2005, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Some area ministers disagreed with the idea of addressing sex in their sermons or holding a conference to discuss the issues.
"I'm not in favor of the context 1/8that 3/8 they are dealing with it at the conference," said the Rev. Morris Sharon, of Israel Baptist Church in the District of Columbia, who did not attend.
Sharon advocates teaching about sex strictly from the Scriptures. "We don't deviate from the Scriptures," he said.
Sharon said the Bible covers fornication and adultery and that once those lessons are taught, all the issues relating to sex and sin are covered, including homosexuality.
"These are things that God hates," he said. Homosexuality is "missing the point of the plan that God has set forth for humankind. God didn't make a mistake. People believe that God gives them the freedom to live their lives as they please or who they choose as a sex partner. But that's not in accordance with the word of God."
Harkins, who led a workshop, said parents need to teach their children that sex is a treasure and precious but that it "is most satisfying in a spiritual context."
"The Bible does not run from romance, sex or intimacy," Harkins said, "and neither should ministers."
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