Village Life News: November 21, 1996
By Jane Donovan
It's Friday evening in the suburbs, and a group of parents and their adolescent children greet the pizza deliveryman at the door of their church. Just another youth group meeting? Not quite. This is the beginning of an eight-hour retreat, spread over three days, entitled, "The Christian Meaning of Human Sexuality."
After the meal, the parents are sent to one room, the kids to another. During the evening program, "puberty bags" are handed out to each participant in both sessions. The contents include deodorant, shaving cream, razors, sanitary napkins, and tampons: all the "equipment" acquired while going through puberty. The room erupts with giggles when a tampon is thrown into a bucket of water to demonstrate how it absorbs fluids inside the body. During a subsequent session, the visual aids include condoms, diaphragms, and birth control pills.
This weekend retreat is not an isolated event, nor is it limited to a particular denomination. Local churches around the country are getting more involved in helping teenagers and their parents supplement the sex education the youth are receiving in their public schools.
According to program materials from Dumbarton United Methodist Church in Washington, D.C., "What [the youth] learn at school is biology. What this weekend workshop is about is far more. It is about values, emotions, self-esteem, and appropriate decision-making."
The retreats strive to create a caring environment in which youth and parents can comfortably explore the meaning of sexuality in the context of the Christian faith, and above all, facilitate communication between youth and their parents. In addition to the conversation-provoking puberty bags, local church courses include Bible study, an anonymous "question box" for the adolescents, and a closing worship service.
Parents and children have separate sessions, facilitated by well-prepared church members and a certified Christian sexuality educator, then join together for other sessions. Retreats are organized on three distinct levels: for older elementary (usually fifth and sixth graders); junior high; and senior high. Programs are tailored very specifically for the needs and development of each level.
The United Methodist Church (UMC) has been particularly active in the local church human sexuality education movement. The Rev. Rob Vaughn of Suffolk, Virginia notes that since the Virginia Conference of the UMC began certifying sexuality educators in 1974, nearly 200 local churches in that state have held weekend workshops. Presbyterians and Unitarians have developed strong programs during the past 15 years, and other religious bodies including Episcopalians, Lutherans, and the United Church of Christ are also active in this area.
Melany Burrill, a certified workshop leader from Alexandria, Va. has been involved in several events in Virginia in which Protestants from a variety of denominations joined with Reform Jewish congregations and, in one case, a Roman Catholic church to conduct sex education workshops.
Vaughn and Burrill are quick to identify the most important result of local church retreats: communication between parents and youth. "That's what I'm doing this for," says Burrill. The most emotional moment in every retreat happens when parents answer anonymously-posed questions from the youth: "What would you do if you found out that I was pregnant/had a sexually transmitted disease/or some other serious question?"
"It's that recurrent thing that happens in every workshop I've done," Burrill states, "when the parents say, 'After I calmed down, we would sit down and figure out what's best to do because I love you, and I want to be there with you through thick and thin.' Parents think their kids know that, but kids so much need to hear their parents say those words."
Vaughn said parents, children, and local church congregations all benefit from, as he calls it, "getting over the hump of responsible, mature conversation. Once folks can talk about this, they can talk about almost anything. Learning from the techniques of the course, in a structured setting, give the freedom to dialogue about a whole lot of other important issues."
Cathleen Raisher, R.N., is the school nurse at Lafayette Elementary School in Washington, D.C., and co-teaches that school's sex education course for fifth and sixth graders. Raisher, a Presbyterian, strongly applauds the local church programs. "Although we try to impart a sense of sexual responsibility along with the basic information [on human anatomy and reproduction], all adolescents benefit from reinforcement in a group setting. It helps these kids to know that other people share their values, especially when they are young and peer pressure is a big issue. They're not out there fighting this wave of temptation and media pressure alone, with everyone else having opposing views."
Families who have been through church-sponsored sexuality education retreats speak positively of the influence on their children and family life. "It was a pretty free environment for asking questions, and I think it really put the youngsters at ease," says Elaine Friebele of Cheverly, Md. who participated in a church retreat with her son, Bill. "I think the sex ed workshops contributed to Bill not being obsessed with sex as a mystery and to understanding that [women] are real people." Friebele continued, "I can't say that the values he has wouldn't be there anyway, but it helped to have the church reinforce what we were trying to teach at home."
Joe Eldridge, of Washington, D. C., and his 13-year-old son, Justin, attended a local church workshop last spring. The course "took the explosive force out of the language," said Eldridge. "The ease with which certain terminologies were used in the classroom robbed these terms of their power. I hope they have another session for my younger son."
And what do the youth think about it? "I would do it again," said Elizabeth Goergen, age 13. "It taught me a lot of things I need to know."
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