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Of Faith and Compassion

Black Leaders Urge the Church to Tend to Its People

January/February 2012

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Although Wyatt discussed sexual health and knowledge within the context of black history, Rev. Sanders took on the job of urging faith leaders to become comfortable discussing sexuality as it relates to their own history. He said, "We need to have the ability to talk about any aspect of human sexuality openly, honestly, and competently. We have to have the ability to accept the sexual preference and activities of others without feeling personally threatened and without moralizing or being judgmental.

"It's amazing to me in how many instances people feel like they are personally threatened by the fact that a person's sexual orientation is different from their own," he continued. "And in this instance, it goes way beyond the whole issue of same gender-loving people or the whole issue of how the relationship between two men or two women manifests itself. In our communities especially, I'm always intrigued by people who go around talking about 'what we don't do [in a harsh, hard tone]. We don't do that. That's what the other folk do.' It's very interesting because I find that most of that is guilt-bound moralizing to feel more comfortable with themselves."

Pernessa Seele agrees with that. "We have many faith leaders who take the position that their congregations don't do anything [considered wrong], and we all know that's not true. We all know that every church is full of people living their everyday lives. A church is not a place where only the holy and the righteous go. They're all people living their lives to the best of their ability." She remembers that her mother wouldn't allow their pastor to see her smoke, even though the pastor himself was a smoker, so she understands that people may hide their true selves where their church is concerned.

"I think that if I had to make one simple statement about how we talk about sexuality in the context of the church it's to simply say sexuality is a gift from God," said Rev. Sanders to the faith leaders. "One of the things that has happened to the church is that we have come to interpret sexuality in a way that has put it outside the realm of what we are used to thinking of as a gift. But we need to appreciate the fact that it is a gift from God, that needs to be celebrated and needs to be respected and understood that it's good. That will help us get beyond the blinders that we have let get in the way of what we can learn and what we can do to understand ourselves as sexual beings. It's something that can no longer be peripheral, but rather becomes the subject matter of the sermon that we preach, of Sunday school lessons that we teach, whenever we come together for any reason for fellowship and spiritual growth.

"I think that until we do that we're going to find ourselves in a place where the things that are not being talked about are the things that are going to harm us, and are going to harm us in ways that will continue to perpetuate this disease and the impact that it has on our community. This begins where I think we need to start, and that is, are you comfortable with your sexuality? People don't easily move to talk about and think about and deal with the ways their own experiences as sexual beings have evolved. And if they do, in many instances, it's associated with things that are not necessarily positive. It's often framed in a way that is negative. I have a feeling we might not be here if we were comfortable in a way we need to be with this issue."

Are You Comfortable With Your Sexuality?

Sexually comfortable people:

  • Have examined their own personal sexual history
  • Have explored their own sexual attitudes and confronted their own limitations and biases about sexuality
  • Have listened to the beliefs of others about sexuality, which are different from their own
  • Have the ability to speak openly, honestly, and confidently about any aspect of human sexuality
  • Have the ability to accept the sexual preference (the way they choose to identify themselves) and activities of others without feeling personally threatened and without moralizing and being judgmental
  • Have the ability to discuss sex with the young, middle aged, and elderly
  • Have the ability to interact with people of all genders, ages, and sexual orientations in respectful and appropriate ways
  • Are knowledgeable or seek to increase their knowledge about human sexuality, including sexual behaviors, sexual response, sexual and gender orientation, and relationships
  • Will have up-to-date, science-based, factual knowledge
  • Will have knowledge of different sociocultural and religious beliefs about human sexuality

From MICTAN training for faith leaders, taken from The Theology of Sexuality, of the United Methodist Church.

Editor's Note: The ability to engage in open discussion does not include being forced into conversations where you are uncomfortable. In such cases, listen to your gut feelings, and know you have the right to walk away.

Faith in Action

A postcard from Faith Responds to AIDS, established by the AIDS Foundation of Chicago, puts it more bluntly, "Do or Die." The card lists the statistics affecting African Americans and what churches can do to promote testing, treatment, and awareness, as well as scriptural evidence supporting the foundational concept of God's love of all people. At its website (, the project offers a manual of how churches can do work around HIV, including a chapter on homophobia, stigma, and discrimination.

"We are living in interesting times," said Pernessa Seele, "and every person of faith -- every person of faith -- whether they are a member of a church or not, or part of any institution, has the responsibility to address HIV and the suffering that we are seeing in this country. That's what people of faith should be about -- the compassionate business of the whole and not just the one. That's faith that works, faith in action."

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This article was provided by Positively Aware. It is a part of the publication Positively Aware. Visit Positively Aware's website to find out more about the publication.
See Also's HIV/AIDS Resource Center for African Americans
HIV and Me: An African American's Guide to Living With HIV
More on African-American Churches and HIV/AIDS

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