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National Black Religious Summit II

Breaking the Silence on Sexuality

Leslie M. Watson
Washington, D.C.

Leslie Watson Malachi"I feel empowered and truly was enlightened throughout this conference! There was some controversy, discrimination, tradition, and truth; all of this balanced off in an educating, inspiring outcome. Praise God!!!" Pam Jackson

The National Black Religious Summit II on Sexuality, convened by the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice July 8-10, 1998 was a forum for African American clergy, laity, youth and educators to address issues regarding teen pregnancy prevention, sexuality, and reproductive choice within the context of African American religion and culture. Held on the historic campus of Howard University School of Divinity, the summit continued through worship, workshops, plenary sessions, and testimonies to develop stronger, trusting, and healthy relationships in the black community.

Four hundred participants from more than 20 states attended the summit, a project of the Religious Coalition's Black Church Initiative. They shared faith-based models for engaging in dialogue around issues often spoken of in whispers, rumors, and gossip in the kitchen or behind closed doors.

"The goal of the Black Church Initiative is creating a new paradigm for dialogue about sexuality," said Rev. Carlton W. Veazey, president and CEO of the Religious Coalition. "We no longer feel intimidated by the forces that would have us remain silent about sexuality. The black church has come to understand that we must minister to the whole person, not just a person's spiritual life but every part of his or her being, recognizing the interrelation of our sexual nature and our spiritual nature."

More than 100 teen-agers from Tennessee, Georgia, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, and the Washington, D.C. area, brought a strong and necessary perspective to the intergenerational dialogue. The teens, ages 13-19, explored their feelings and attitudes about sexuality in their own workshop, which concluded with a covenant with the African American community and their spiritual authority. They committed to "treat our bodies with respect as temples" and only "choose to have sex when we are ready for marriage, commitment, financial stability, and the emotional consequences of the act."

Synthesizing the covenants from each workshop, the summit concluded with a covenant to "continue the dialogue, continue the education, and continue the movement to break the silence" at home and their place of worship.

Because religion plays such a critical role in the black community, African American clergy and religious leaders must be better prepared in worship, counseling, and ministry to talk about sexuality in an informed and honest way, said Leslie Mari Watson, director of the Multicultural Programs Department, which houses the Black Church Initiative. With high rates of teen pregnancy and an increase of more than 50 percent in the spread of HIV/AIDS among homosexuals and heterosexuals, African American clergy are finding they must deal with real life issues they had not been prepared to deal with before.

"The Black Church Initiative, through the summit, is bringing the faith community together to find new ways of reaching out to young people and addressing the challenges of diverse thought and approaches on sexuality issues," said Ms. Watson. "This is meeting the expressed needs of clergy, who now see the urgency of helping young people understand the life-altering, life-threatening consequences of choosing to engage in sex before they are spiritually, mentally, and economically prepared."

Lori Valencia-Greene of the American Psychological Association and Rev. Frank Tucker of First Baptist Church of Washington, D.C., co-chaired the 1997-98 National Summit Advisory Committee, which assisted in developing an agenda that addressed a variety of sensitive issues. These included teen pregnancy prevention, abortion, sex outside of marriage, HIV/AIDS, substance abuse, sexual and domestic violence, and the personal responsibilities involved in parenting. A number of rarely discussed topics were also introduced as a result of last year's evaluations; these included sexual ethics in pastoral relationships, sexual orientation, and men's roles as partners in relationships.

Featured speakers included Dr. Gail E. Wyatt, author of Stolen Women; Prince DaJour, host of Black Entertainment Television's Teen Summit; Pernessa Seele, CEO of The Balm in Gilead; Rev. James M. Lawson Jr., host of Lawson Live on the cable TV Odyssey channel; and Dean Clarence G. Newsome of Howard University School of Divinity.

The Black Church Initiative includes the African American Clearinghouse on Sexuality, development of an African American faith-based sexuality education curriculum, faith-based teen sex education dialogue models, and Black Clergy Forums. The forums were held this year in Atlanta, Chicago, Nashville, and Philadelphia to prepare for 1999 regional summits that will replicate and expand the successful national Summit. Extensive media coverage of the summit on National Public Radio, ABC-TV's Evening News, Black Entertainment Television, American Urban Radio, and major newspapers throughout the country has create widespread interest in the Black Church Initiative and its projects.

"As staff and committee members prepare for Summit III, they are reminded that the movement to break the silence has many voices representing the African American faith community," said Ms. Watson. As one participant said, this is a courageous move on behalf of RCRC If the information shared is carried back to the communities in love, this summit will truly have broken the silence."
Leslie M. Watson is director of the Multicultural Programs Department at the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice. She is also a poet and a political consultant. She grew up in Louisiana where she attended Southern University at Baton Rouge. She is a former student outreach coordinator for the National Abortion Rights Action League. She was a principal organizer for the passage through Congress of three abortion rights laws. She has been honored with the Young Woman of Achievement Award by the WIN organization. She lives in Washington, D.C.

Published in In Motion Magazine - September 19, 1998