Fieldwork encounters. Sharing research findings with religious leaders in The Hague.

‘We are getting a better grip, but it is like a culture shock at first’, says the Ghanaian Dutch pastor in response to a presentation by Jelle Wiering about sexuality education in The Netherlands. The presentation takes place in a meeting between the research team and small group of influential pastors, who are interested in taking our findings further and sharing them with Christian leaders in their networks.

The pastor explains that pastors are trained in theology and scriptures, but not always knowledgeable about sexual well-being. Therefore it can come as a shock when pastors realize that addressing matters of sexual well-being is necessary. Being a pastor in the Dutch Randstad for roughly two decades, he observes a shift in ‘the mindset of Christian leaders’. People in the (African) communities, including the pastors, increasingly prefer that their children are educated on sexuality within the community and the church. They don’t want their children to hear about sexuality only from teachers and professionals ‘outside’ the church. This also means that pastors need to increase their knowledge and their skills.

In response to another presentation by Amisah Bakuri on the experiences of African migrants and their sexual well-being, questions emerge with regard to contraception and unplanned pregnancies. In response to one of these questions Amisah shares that the prevention, planning and spacing of children is seen as a women’s issue. While this is not questioned by most of her female interlocutors, from a research perspective it is observed that both contraception and dealing with an unplanned pregnancy is a woman’s burden. Contraception is generally not seen as a religious or moral issue. Reasons for rejecting birth control is more often its (perceived) impact on sexual pleasure. However, when women have to face an unplanned pregnancy, they often find themselves in precarious circumstances. While our research suggests that churches sometimes become communities of care and support that welcome and celebrate a new life, there are also examples of women and girls who face gossip, stigmatization and forms of punishment and discipline within their churches. Fear for this, may also influence women to decide on abortion when they find themselves pregnant. In preventing and responding to pregnancy, it appears that women often find themselves in precarious and unequal positions compared to men. The small group of pastors in the meeting all emphasize that pastors should protect and support women, but also acknowledge that this is not always done in churches. ‘It is life’, one pastor says, suggesting that these things happen and need to be accepted rather than be judged.

Some pastors we have spoken to in this meeting and on other occasions, have developed their own ways of engaging with issues of sexual well-being, including sexuality education, in their churches. Yet others have expressed experiencing challenges or difficulties in doing so. These challenges have to do with a lack of knowledge, but also with the limitations these pastors experience in being a pastor. As role models in the community, they sometimes struggle with the moral upright positioning that is expected from them and the open and non-judgmental attitude that is required to discuss matters of sexuality with young people. During the discussion one pastor asks for methodologies and materials that can support pastors in giving sexuality education. Another pastor suggests that collaborations between pastors and health professionals should be motivated. However, Dutch health organisations are not always perceived as open and welcoming to people in the African communities: ‘The community is changing, but health organisations are slow. The health organisation need to be updated. (…) to get the people in (they need to) bring information direct and softly’.

It is often experienced that public health organisations lack a sensitive approach. They are seen as aligning with critical and often stereotypical ideas about (African) Christianity and Christian leaders that dominate public perception. ‘Where we are right now is that a dispassionate discussion on it is lacking. It is only about pro- or anti-gay. There must be an acceptance, mutual respect’. The pastor making this comment explains to struggle with how all nuance is lost in the discussion on homosexuality and religion in the Netherlands. The position that homosexuality is not acceptable in Christian perspective, that is often held by pastors, leads to accusations of discrimination of people based on their sexual orientation. This particular pastor states that the claim that Christianity does not support homosexual practice does not contradict respect and love for people regardless of their sexual orientation. In this context the issue of abortion is also raised. Under particular medical circumstances abortion is acceptable, and this shows there is more nuance than often expected. These examples underline that an equal and respectful conversation between health organisations and (African) Christian communities and leaders would benefit from suspending the judgments sparked of by polarized public debates and focus on those issues where common ground can be found.

  • Sexual health organisations and religious leaders share a concern about the sexual well-being of people in Afican-Dutch communities, that can be the basis for collaboration.
  • Sexual health organization can benefit from the knowledge and access of religious leaders to the community
  • Religious leaders can learn from the skills and expertise of sexual health organisations and can benefit from their ability to address matters of sexuality
  • For collaboration to be fruitful it is important that sexual health organisations and religious leaders are respectful of their distinct roles.
  • In order to address sexual well-being in the broadest sense it is important to move away from conflicting understandings on homosexuality and abortion. Agree to disagree and find common ground.