Notes from a working conference in the Hague.
How do African Christian churches in the Netherlands approach the issue of sexuality? What is the role of religious leaders in supporting youth and parents in navigating the complex topic of sex? These were some of the questions that were addressed during a working conference on raising children, organized by stichting Mara, the Council of International Churches in The Hague and the cultural encounters project.
Part of this conference focused on the role of sexuality education, with an opening lecture by pastor and scholar Rachel Theodore Smith. Discussion continued during a workshop, conducted twice, with contributions by a Pentecostal pastor, Arjet Borger of the Care for Sexuality Foundation, and the keynote speaker.
Who will I become? The role of the church
“A girl comes home and asks her mother: what is sex? The mother is startled and tells her daughter: we don’t talk about that! Don’t ask me that! “all right, says the daughter, I will ask the boy who toldme about it” This anecdote was met with laughter and recognition by the audience, and immediately brought home to those present that sex education is important. For Rachel Theodore Smith, and many of the other participants of the workshop afterwards, it was self-evident that both churches and parents should invest in developing ways to talk about sex from an early age, starting around 8 years old. While Dutch schools teach children about the technical details of sex, they found it important to also develop a Christian, biblical approach to the topic, of course based on all the right biological insights.
In her lecture, Rachel Theodore Smith emphasized the importance of recognizing the position of children with African parents in the Netherlands: who will they become? Will they become like their parents, or will they become like the Dutch? For parents and religious leaders, she argues, it is important to recognize the questions that youth have to navigate and to develop styles of communication with their children that are suitable. Above all, she counsels, this means that parents should listen, help their children sort out confusions. And of course, this is all the more crucial during puberty and the early twenties, when sex becomes a topic. According to her, the church also has an important role to play in this.
Rushed marriages and sexual harassment
For our research team, this was an opportunity to present some of our findings from within the ongoing research. Brenda Bartelink presented on two of the key problems that she found religious leaders are confronted with: unplanned pregnancy and sexual violence. Parents and the religious leaders often translate their concern about these issues in strict rules to supervise girls, who are sometimes also blamed and disciplined when they get pregnant or harassed. A question that is relevant to conversations about sexuality in churches is therefore how the needs of both boys and girls can be addressed. The observation that teenage pregnancy sometimes leads to rushed marriages led to the question how the church can be a caring community in cases of unplanned pregnancy of single girls and women.
Talking about sex: always difficult
One of the central issues that came up during the workshop was the question how to get parents on board with addressing sexuality in churches. The participants in the workshop all agreed they would like a follow up that focused more on training the participants how to talk about sex, what to avoid, what to counsel. Talking about sex between different generations has the potential to be quite uncomfortable, leading both parents and children to avoid the topic. This is one of the reasons it is important to start talking about this early, because, as dr. Rachel Theodore Smith explained: “you can’t be naïve! Children grow up, develop hormones! The Holy Spirit won’t protect you from sex!”