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Black Church Leaders Confront Sexuality Issues

July 13, 2006

At a time when some see a growing divide between religious values and contemporary culture, a group of African American church leaders are meeting this week in Washington, D.C., to narrow the gap. With such goals as reducing teen pregnancy and addressing HIV/AIDS and other reproductive health issues, the 10th Annual National Black Religious Summit on Sexuality approaches head-on what can be the most contentious of issues. “We base our work not so much on the Bible itself, but on principles like responsibility, aspirations, self-respect, and others,” explains the Reverend Carlton Veazey, president and CEO of the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice, which sponsors the summit under its Black Church Initiative. Gathered at Howard University’s School of Divinity, the three-day conference makes room for clergy and laypeople, children and parents, advocates and skeptics. “Some people still think the Bible is the only way to live, rather than living by Christian principles,” says Veazey. “We have to speak openly about sex and sexuality and understand that it’s a natural part of human behavior, as, at the same time, we work to educate and uplift our communities.”             That conversation is a life-and-death issue for the Reverend Rae Lewis Thornton, a Chicago Baptist minister who is leading a panel at the conference and travels around the nation talking about her 21 years of experience living with HIV/AIDS. Credited as being among the first black women to go public about her disease—on Nightline, the Oprah Winfrey Show, and in her own local TV series of first person stories that won her an Emmy—Rae is currently working towards a doctorate in church history. “The church must talk about sex in order to discuss HIV,” she explains. “It’s not as simplistic as don’t have sex. If you look at the statistics, the African American community is in grave danger, and women particularly are suffering the highest rate of infections.” Citing data that over 70 percent of the African American church is female, Rae says, “It stands to reason that ministers put forth ideas and programs that affect, educate, and benefit women.” The Summit on Sexuality is a culmination of the Black Church Initiative’s Keeping It Real! program—a seven-week education initiative carried out throughout the year in nearly 800 churches in 25 states. The program provides educators and youth ministers with a faith-based teen dialogue model on sex and sexuality to give young people the resources to make responsible decisions. Veazey hopes those attending the conference can become catalysts in their own communities. “There was an 80-year-old woman who attended one of our previous conferences and sat in on the discussion on sexual orientation,” Veazey recalls. “At the end she came up to me and said, ‘I was homophobic and I didn’t even know it. Now I understand.’”