Beliefnet
WAYLAND, Mass., May 12 (RNS)--The seventh graders weave in and out of thepolished wooden pews, chasing each other, paper planes flying about. Theteachers raise their voices. A sense of order and propriety is quicklyrestored to the sanctuary of this 200-year-old steepled New Englandchurch, and the guessing game goes on:

"Am I an ovary?" shouts out one student.

"Am I a sperm?" blurts another, followed by peals of laughter.

The game is part of the Unitarian Universalist sexuality educationcurriculum, designed to help teenagers learn to use such words withoutembarrassment or shame, as well as to teach them to understand thesource of male and female reproduction and sexual pleasure.

These students may be part of a liberal religious tradition, but theyaren't the only ones who are being taught--in church or synagogue--howto say no, what it means to say yes, how to use a condom--or whenthey do.

Faith-based sex education is taking off across the nation, with theprinciple that sexuality is God-given, an integral part of being human,at its core. Rather than offering a litany of dos and don'ts, religiousleaders are increasingly interested in helping adolescents see theirphysicality in spiritual terms.

The phenomenon has spread across the United States. From Richmond,Va., to Phoenix, and across more and more of the liberal-mainstream religious spectrum. From Conservative and Reform Jews to Methodists and Baptists, teens are getting their lessons about the birds and the bees from religious leaders.

"Having a rabbi talk about sex blows kids away," said Rabbi JonathanStein, of Congregation Beth Israel in San Diego, Calif. "You can putsexuality into perspective for them if you teach through Jewish eyes,with Jewish texts and values, or those of any tradition. It helps themintegrate their own sexuality in terms of how they fit into the worldand how they interact with others."

If young people understand their sexuality as something divinerather than something dirty, the thinking goes, then they are lesslikely to abuse or exploit it.

"We believe a person's sexuality is part of their whole person, sothe question we ask is, how do you use that gift, do you use it in adevastating way or do you use it wisely?" explained the Rev. Carlton W.Veazey, founder of the interfaith Religious Coalition for ReproductiveChoice's Black Church Initiative, which is working to bring sexualityeducation into African-American denominations.

"We teach that we must be responsible stewards of all of ourGod-given gifts," Veazey said. "This takes sexuality out of the 'do anddon't school,' which doesn't work, and makes it a spritual principle."

Like Veazey, many religious educators also believe that bringingsexuality and spirituality together for young, hormonally charged peoplewho are beginning to explore their urges not only will bring them closer to God but will raise their self-esteem.

"Teenagers are amazed when I talk to them about how in Judaismsexuality has the potential for holiness," said Rabbi Peter Knobel, ofBeth Emet: The Free Synagogue, in Evanston, Ill., and past president ofthe Chicago Board of Rabbis. "Sexual appetites are a vehicle not onlyfor sin but for holiness, but we've emphasized the sinful aspects ofsex. We need to talk to people about these matters before they becomesexually active.

"We need education that emphasizes the religious aspect ofsexuality, but in a way that goes beyond ethics and morality, to who weare as beings, created in the image of God."

With the Unitarians Universalists and the United Church of Christleading the way, religious leaders are recognizing there is a deep needto reclaim and redefine the religious approach to sexuality, and that,for both children and adults, there is no better place to do so than inchurch or synagogue.

"These are places of confidence, of trust--places people feelclose to the values that inform their lives," said Sarah Gibb, outreachcoordinator for Our Whole Lives, a sexuality education curriculumdeveloped by the Unitarian Universalist Association that covers the entire human life span and is used both in secular and faith-based settings.

Because sexuality is so controversial, and because this is amulticultural, multifaith nation, most public schools are blocked fromteaching a sexuality education curriculum with any real substance, saidthe Rev. Roberta Nelson, who as minister of religious education at CedarLane Unitarian Universalist Church in Bethesda, Md., teaches thecurriculum.

Religious sexuality educators point out that the home is still theprimary, and ideal, place to learn about sexuality. But they believe thefaith community should support parents in the task.

They also insist they are not interested in encouraging sexualactivity, but rather in filling in the gaps left either by schools orfamilies that do not or cannot give adolescents the information theyneed--particularly since adolescents do, in great numbers, engage insexual activity.

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