UMAction Briefing HomepageJenny Moore and Mark Tooley
Institute on Religion and Democracy



August 7, 2000

The black church has historically been mainstream, if not conservative on issues relating to family and sexuality. But the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice (RCRC) is trying to change that, advocating acceptance of abortion and homosexual behavior within the black church community.

On July 5-7, RCRC convened in Washington, DC its fourth annual National Black Religious Summit on Sexuality. Featured speakers included former Surgeon General Joycelyn Elders. Mayor Anthony Williams of Washington, DC also endorsed the conference, calling on residents of the nation's capital to join him in "supporting the aims and goals of this organization."

Founded in 1973 in the wake of "Roe versus Wade," RCRC has long claimed to represent a "pro-choice" consensus among mainline churches. Its members include agencies of the United Methodist Church, the Episcopal Church, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), the United Church of Christ, the American Jewish Committee, and Catholics for a Free Choice.

But in recent years RCRC has expanded beyond its abortion rights activism to include "gay" rights advocacy. With generous funding from the Ford Foundation, it has also sought to shed its image as a coalition of primarily liberal white Protestants. Under its current president, the Rev. Carlton Veazey, a black Baptist pastor, RCRC has targeted black churches with its insistence on liberalized standards on sexual behavior. Included in this initiative is "Keeping It Real," a program to counteract abstinence-only programs among teenagers with a purportedly more plausible emphasis on "choice," "options," and "safe-sex."

"We've got a crisis in our community in the area of sexuality," proclaimed Jocelyn Elders to an enthusiastic audience. Known as the "Condom Queen" by her critics, Elders excited great controversy during her stormy tenure as U.S. Surgeon General under President Clinton because of her advocacy of abortion rights and the provision of birth control devices for under-age youth.

Over 600 church activists and academics hearkened to her message, which was broadcast on C-SPAN. Focusing on threat of AIDS, Elders complained: "We're doing too little, too late. We wait until they're in trouble and then we run out and try to fix it. That's too late. We've got to make sure contraceptive services are available to those who need it." Elders further complained about the lack of sex education. "We want them [youth] to have all this responsibility, but we don't want to empower them with the knowledge that they need to make responsible decisions." She admitted that sexual abstinence for children was nice but surmised it is unrealistic. "We say, 'Condoms will break,' and condoms will break, but I can assure you, the vows of abstinence break far more easily than any condom," Elders proclaimed to wild applause from the audience.

Churches were challenged to stand up and fill their role as educators through this "sexual crisis." They were also challenged to be tolerant and inclusive. "We must be not be at the business of condemnation. We must be at the business of invitations," said Dr. Kenneth L. Samuel, pastor of Victory Baptist Church in Stone Mountain, GA. Dr. Susan Newman, Associate Pastor of First Baptist Church in Washington, D.C. added, "It is not our role to judge, it is our role to love. I believe that is because of the love and the faith of the church that we will be healed as a nation, and that we will become whole as a community, and that we will be delivered as a people of God."

"Everyone has the right to sit at God's table," Samuel's continued, referring to homosexuality. He insisted that homosexuality is genetically determined and likened its opponents within the church to the Catholic Pope who ex-communicated Galileo for claiming the earth orbits the Sun. "You are challenging God when you criticize His creation," Samuel said.

Acceptance of homosexuality and bisexuality was a strong theme running throughout the three-day Summit. Speakers in worship services, plenary sessions, and workshops alike proclaimed that all sexual preferences are beautiful parts of God's creation. Most conference attendees cheered and shouted praise in response to these statements. "The way one is genetically wired is determinant of what kind of sexual orientation they may have. The church has a responsibility to embrace and bring into the fold all people of all sexual orientations," insisted RCRC President the Rev. Carlton Veazey in a statement that was typical at the summit.

As part of her AIDS/HIV presentation, Dr. Nannette Finley-Hancock, Clinical Director at AIDS Minority Health Initiative in Oakland, CA, quoted a speech given at the recent "gay-rights" Millennium March in Washington, D.C. The speech included statements such as, "I speak so that all black lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgendered teenagers will one day be allowed to live peaceably in their own homes. . I speak because I refuse to worship at the altar of religious bigotry and self-righteous piety... . I speak as a proud African-American same-gender-loving Christian-identified man unashamed of who I am, unwilling to be divided into identity camps, and unbowed by the demons of hatred that would incite me to fear instead of love."

A former minister echoed those sentiments during a summit worship service through a song he had written when he came to terms with his homosexuality. The chorus stated, "I know who I am, I know what I am. It doesn't matter how; it doesn't matter why. There's no one to blame. The truth now is clear. I stand with no fear. You can know my name for I am not ashamed." Not everyone seemed so pleased with the all-inclusive openness, however. One workshop was called "The 'Kin-dom' of God: Are We Really For It?" The word "kin-dom is stylish about theological liberals who reject the notion of God as "king" because it is partriarchal, chauvenist, and imperialist. Vaguely described in the Summit program as a workshop designed to "foster a spirit of full acceptance and love of each other in the Black Church," several attendees were disappointed to realize the workshop was mainly about promoting acceptance of non-traditional sexual practices. "If I had known what this workshop was about, I wouldn't have gone," commented one attendee. "I still believe in the Bible." This voice of dissatisfaction was a fairly lonely one at the RCRC summit.

Besides homosexuality, "reproductive choice" was also a major theme of the Summit. The Rev. Madison Shockley, a United Church of Christ minister from Los Angeles, led a workshop called "The Voice of Choice: A Cry in the Wilderness."

"At what point do we diminish the personhood of the woman when we take away her control over her own reproductive options?" Shockley asked. "As we take away her freedom of conscience, her freedom of choice, her physical freedom, we diminish her personhood." He added, "Women who can choose to not have that fifth child or that fourth child or that third child are better parents to the two children they have or the two children they will have, and that those kids have a better chance at life."

Dr. John Kinney, dean of the School of Theology at Virginia Union University and pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church in Beaverdam, VA, was back after an enormously positive reaction to his presentation at last year's summit. This year, he energetically repeated many of the ideas he had expressed previously, such as the idea that even though Mary, the mother of Jesus, was a "biological virgin," she wasn't a "theological virgin" because she believed she had to have a man {God the Father} to create her child.

Kinney's main message was the theology of "withness." Basically, he rejects the traditional Jewish and Christian notion of God as transcendent and authoritative. Instead, he prefers a fully immanent deity whose spirit dwells among humanity as an equal. God is not over us, under us, or beside us, He is with us, Kinney lectured. "God didn't become an 'over' God until the snake told you God was over you," he surmised. "The biggest problem in America right now is that we're under God, rather than walking with God. If you're under, you're in a Godless place. If you go to church under God, you go where there is no God."

In addition to the main sessions and workshops for the adults, teens had their own separate sessions for the first time this year. With speakers such as former NFL Denver Bronco Rev. Steve Fitzhugh and Executive Producer of Black Entertainment Television's Renee Turner, the youth focused on issues such as the sacredness of sexuality and the impact and impression of hip-hop and rap.

Special attention was also paid to "Keeping It Real," a sexuality education curriculum developed by RCRC's Black Church Initiative. "Keeping It Real" aims to help youth make "responsible choices" concerning their sexuality. "We are first an abstinence organization, realizing and recognizing that there are those who are already sexually active, and we try to teach them to be responsible with their sexuality," Veazey explained.

But Veazey and other RCRC speakers implied they have little expectation of abstinence as a realistic option for today's teenagers. "Keeping It Real" is aimed at youth ages 13-17 who are tired of "moral platitudes and scare tactics about sex." The 7-week curriculum calls for small groups of 12 to 15 youth to meet for frank discussion about sexuality, with one clergy and one lay person to guide the discussion.

"We are on the cutting of revolutionizing Christian education in the Black church," Veazey enthused. "The church, a pillar of the African American community, is finding practical ways to move out of its reluctance to talk realistically and compassionately about sexuality issues." Veazy was especially pleased that clergy have a new willingness to "break traditional taboos" about preaching and teaching about sexuality.

"We are especially pleased to have Dr. Elders participate in this year's Summit because she has been in the forefront of advocating change in attitudes and behaviors surrounding sexual health and education," Veazey added. More than 800 youth have so far participated in "Keeping It Real" in churches across the country.

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