My friends Renee and Susan have been together for nearly 24 years and are thoughtfully raising a beautiful and brilliant five-year-old son. Like most parents, they goad him to eat his vegetables, admonish him to “slow down” inside the house and to share about his school adventures. They are making a home life worthy of him and their hard work.
For both moms, faith is very important, but finding a church has been difficult. They drive more than an hour to get to church because, as Susan says, “All the nearby churches we tried are silent on sexuality, and we are unwilling to expose our family to a faith community that does not welcome us as we are.”
That deafening silence exists in too many of our churches, and it’s not a time of prayerful meditation.
We gather for sacred worship dressed to impress.
We bring our cares and concerns in hope of solace and peace.
We share in gratitude, celebration and praise.
Our worship is moving and inspiring.
Songs ring with joyful rhythms and we are moved deep within our hearts.
The preaching is impactful and powerful.
Yet there is much left unspoken and, at the time of benediction, we are still carrying heavy burdens.
The Black church has a sex problem. Saying such a thing may be unsettling and seem out of place—but it is profoundly true.
Allow me to explain. We deal with high rates of teen pregnancy, marriage difficulties, disproportionate incidence of HIV/AIDS, and injustices faced by LGBT families as though they’re separate issues, when in fact, they could not be more related.
Rates of teen pregnancy in our community remain far too high—stubbornly the highest of any group. Despite progress, one-third of African-American teens have had sex by age 15, and six in ten girls are pregnant at least once by age 20. In our community, three-quarters of both teens and adults say they want more involvement from churches and houses of worship in preventing teen pregnancy.
Singleness for men and women captures the attention of pastors and spawns Singles Ministries in nearly every congregation. Census data reveals that nearly three-quarters of Black women and men age 25 to 29 have never been married, and only half of Black women wed by age 30.
Older adults who are either newly widowed or newly dating are encountering a scene that is unfamiliar to them and fraught with treacherous terrain previously unimagined in their experience.
Rates of HIV/AIDS and other sexually transmitted infections are at epidemic proportions in our community. According to a recent CDC report, African Americans face the most severe burden of HIV of all racial/ethnic groups in the United States. Despite representing only 14 percent of the U.S. population in 2009, African-Americans accounted for 44 percent of all new HIV infections.
Young African-American gay and bisexual men are especially at risk of HIV infection. The Black AIDS Institute has noted that one in four Black gay men have HIV by age 25, and that 60 percent have HIV by age 40. The prevalence rate in Washington, D.C., is among the highest for any U.S. city.
Gay and transgender members of our churches, as well as their families and friends, dwell in an abiding sense of concern and trepidation. Far too often, they realistically expect or have the experience of isolation, condemnation and/or invisibility.
As every pastor knows, sex is one of the leading issues when couples come to us for marriage counseling. Whether or not we’re prepared or comfortable, we’re already dealing with sex.
Here’s what I know.
When we are silent about human sexuality, we cannot minister effectively nor remain relevant to the life issues of our people, including faith Christians like Susan and Renee. The Black church has a sex problem.
On the other hand, when we can open up conversations dealing with attraction, romance, relationships, courtship, marriage and starting a family with children—yes, human sexuality —people are finally able to exhale. There is such a longing for the conversation just beneath the surface.
Just like a wound, this conversation needs air and light in order for healing to occur. Among the most intimate, personal and ubiquitous of human experiences is that of connection, relationship and love. How can we not address the topic openly and fully in our churches?
From our first reading of the Genesis, we are exposed to God’s desire to be in relationship with humanity and humans desire, even need, to be with another.
Genesis 2:18 “Then the LORD God said, ‘It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper as his partner.’ "
James Weldon Johnson’s poem “The Creation” opens with “AND God stepped out on space, And He looked around and said, ‘I'm lonely—I'll make me a world.’ "
The tools of navigating our relationships—sensitivity and caring, mutuality and trust, support and respect—these are the stuff of our life learning. When we share our faults and flaws, our hurts and missteps, we grow and become better in community.
Proverbs 27:17 “As iron sharpens iron;
so one person sharpens another.”
Silence interferes in this growth. The Black church has a sex problem. We can solve it together by overcoming silence with knowledge-based, spiritually grounded, respectful and comprehensive dialogues and training about this often taboo subject of sexuality.
Someone wise has counseled: When you have a problem, do not run from it. Face it, and bring to it your wisdom and the best wisdom of others. It’s time to address our reluctance, prepare ourselves, gain knowledge and acquire the skills necessary to engage the conversation and create the grace-filled place of healing—sexuality included—that the Black church is called to be.
Reverend Cedric A. Harmon, co-director of Many Voices, a Black church movement for gay and transgender justice, is a Washington, DC–based ordained pastor affiliated with the National Baptist and Missionary Baptist Churches. This article was originally published on TakePart.