Monday, March 31, 2008

Could You Be That 26%?

We don't hear too much about AIDS these days, but a new fact sheet from the Kaiser Family Fund, reminded me this weekend that we need to continue to be talking about it, preaching about it, educating people about it.

1.2 million Americans are living with HIV disease, and more than 440,000 have AIDS. 40,000 people become infected with the disease each year, a true tragedy for a disease that is nearly if not totally 100% preventable. And 26% of the people with HIV don't know that they have it.

Which means that anyone who has sex with that person may also be at risk. Which means that there needs to be much better education about prevention and that everyone should be protecting themselves -- and getting tested.

Last year, the Religious Institute, with support from PBS, developed a guide for congregations on addressing HIV/AIDS which goes along with a copy of a DVD of their program, "The Age of AIDS." Best of all, it's free to clergy and congregations. Let us know if you would like one.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

One More Piece of Evidence - Abstinence Only Education Doesn't Work

A new study in the Journal of Adolescent Health is making headlines this week. A nationally representative sample of adolescents, which looked at young people who had taken comprehensive sex education, those who had taken abstinence only education, and those who had no sex education at all, found:

Adolescents receiving comprehensive sex education had a substantially lower risk of teenage pregnancy than those receiving abstinence-only or no sex education.

Abstinence-only education had no impact on reducing teen pregnancy, delaying sexual initiation, or reducing STIs.

Teaching about contraception was not associated with increased risk of sexual activity or sexually transmitted diseases.

That disadvantaged youth are less likely to have received formal sex education of any kind.

In short, as the lead researcher, Patricia Kohler, stated “It is not harmful to teach teens about birth control in addition to abstinence.”

The study examined a 2002 federal survey has found that heterosexual teenagers ages 15 to 19 who received comprehensive sex education were about half as likely to report pregnancies as teens who received abstinence-only sex education or no sex education....researchers found teens receiving comprehensive sex education were 60% less likely to report pregnancies than teens receiving no sex education and 50% less likely to report a pregnancy than teens receiving abstinence-only education.

(Summary from our colleagues at Advocates for Youth.)

How many nails in the coffin are needed before Congress stops funding ineffective even dangerous abstinence only programs and BEGINS funding programs that provide young people the information about responsible sexual decision making (including sexual limit setting, abstinence, contraception, and condoms) they need?

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

How Could She Have Said That?

I just saw the video where Hilary Clinton says that she wouldn't have gone to a church where Rev. Wright was the pastor.

When I saw the headline on YahooNews, I didn't believe it until I watched it myself.

As a minister and a person of faith, I'm horrified. Surely, Senator Clinton hasn't always agreed with the ministers of the church she has attended. (Although let the frenzy begin -- surely some newsperson or Republican operative or Right Wing organization is carefully combing for extreme sermons from HER pastors.) Surely Senator Clinton knows about the free pulpit and the free pew.

Diverse religious leaders need to stand together and say that attacking anyone's faith or faith communities is wrong. Period. It's not about which candidate you support -- it's about supporting everyone's right to worship as they choose with the religious leader that they choose, even when they sometimes disagree.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Yes, Balance is Possible

The Sunday New York Times business section had a piece this week that started, "Is it possible to live a balanced life, devoting enough time to both family and career?" They quote this article in a March Women's Day magazine, answering the question, "Not a chance."

It seems like every so often the national press puts out this type of story that essentially says that feminism sold women a myth that they could have it all. Perhaps I am over-sensitive to these warnings to the next generation of women as the mother of a 22-year-old who is just starting out on her own. Or perhaps it is because I feel blessed by both my now three decades long career and my two wonderful children. And although of course there are days when I feel off balance or torn between competing priorities, overall, my life is not only balanced but happy and deeply satisfying.

And when I think about the women I know and love most of us feel that way as well. Yes, of course, we make choices. I've never run a really large organization, I haven't run for public office. Don't get my children started on my lack of cooking skills and I don't know where our iron or vacuum cleaner even are. But, my husband and I just celebrated our 26th wedding anniversary, and we sit down almost every night for family dinner, say grace, and share our very varied days.

I can give a reporter dozens of names of women who lead balanced lives. Anybody want to write an article on us?

Saturday, March 22, 2008

An Easter Parable

I had my own experience with resurrection during my chaplaincy on the oncology floor. One Thursday, I went to visit an elderly man, Mr. F., who was suffering with advanced cancer. I introduced myself as the chaplain and asked him if he wanted to talk. He told me NO! that he was an atheist and that he had nothing to say to me. I told him that I was a Unitarian Universalist and that a lot of us are atheists – and asked him if he just want someone to talk to…I ended up staying for more than an hour, listening to the long story of his life, his joys and his sorrows, how he had once loved belonging to a church but gave it up over a disagreement with something that had happened there, how he missed it sometimes, how he was no longer in touch with his ex-wife or their son, how he really had only one person in the world who still cared about him.

When he became tired, I knew better than to ask him to pray with me; but I said a silent prayer as I left him, that he would rest more easily and know that someone cared. He said I could come back. I looked forward to hearing more about his life, for more time to offer him human connection and to be blessed by his life stories. The next day he was sleeping when I came by…and then it was my weekend off. He died that Sunday alone.

Three days later, one of the nurses told me there was a note for me on the staff bulletin board. I picked it up – it was a carefully folded piece of plain paper. On the outside it simply said, “For Deborah Haffner.” On the inside fold, in shaky handwriting, it said, “Oh Lord, I believe. Help throw my unbelief.” It was signed Fred F.

It was a note from a dead person. Where it had been those three days was and is a complete mystery. My co-chaplain, a Greek Orthodox priest, said to me, “How wonderful Debra, you brought him back to his faith.”
I didn’t find that comforting or think it was that simple. Where had the note been for three days, hidden in a tomb? What had he wanted to say to me? My colleague told me that the verse was from the Book of Mark. A father brings his child who is tormented to Jesus to be healed; Jesus tells him “all things can be done for the one who believes.” The man answers, desperate I think for the healing, willing to say anything to get Jesus’ help for his child: “I believe. Help my unbelief.”

I think it was Mr. F’s way of reaching back to the faith he loved hours before his death, hoping that his faith was greater than his atheism in his last hours. But, I think in his own way, he was also saying thank you, thank you for the human connection that he so needed before he died. That note hangs in my office today, as a reminder of how faith is lived, one person, one moment, one day at a time.

And that’s ultimately what I think Easter is really about. We all have the possibility of resurrection, of rebirth. We can move from struggle to hope, from despair to rebirth, from crucifixion to resurrection. We can roll away our rocks, and find ourselves anew. We can and we must, for we have no other way to create the life that is waiting for us to live, despite the struggles, despite the suffering.
Mr. F. reminds me to this day that we must be grateful, grateful down to our bones, for the gift of THIS day -- to believe against all odds, that we too will rise again.

And so may it be.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Freedom of the Pulpit

It was a big week in the world not to be blogging -- the 5th anniversary of the Iraq war, Senator Obama's stunning speech on race in America, the revelations by the new Governor of New York and his wife's infidelities, and the roller coaster ride on Wall Street.

And the endless tape loop of the Reverend Jeremiah Wright on the right wing talk shows, caricaturizing a long term successful ministry into a few soundbites.

I kept thinking about our shared congregational polity with the UCC that gives ministers the right to a free pulpit -- the right to express ourselves without limitation of dogma or institutional boundaries. I learned in divinity school that we are to "comfort the afflicted, and afflict the comfortable" when we are in the pulpit. It has never once occurred to me that I have to agree with my minister on everything he says or that anyone who comes to my services has to agree with me on anything or everything. Indeed in my tradition, we expect as many "I really disagreed with you today" as "good sermon, Reverend."

But, we also have freedom on the pew. We encourage our congregants to take what they like, to leave the rest, to only believe our truths as it reflects their own. In all the reports on Reverend Wright, I haven't seen a news report that remembers to tell us that Trinity UCC has more than 6000 members and is the largest church in the UCC.

That's because these attacks on the Reverend Wright aren't really about him or his church -- they are about trying to discredit Senator Obama. In this "GOTCHA 24/7 news cycle" Governor Paterson felt he needed to tell us about the most private of issues in a marriage before the press could do a story on it, and every association that a candidate has is available for dissection and ridicule.

If you want to know more about the Reverend Wright and the Trinity UCC, go here. And a hurrah to Senator Obama for saying what all of us in free churches know -- that our ministers have the right to speak their hearts and minds from the pulpit and the people in the pews have the right to love them even when we disagree.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Check out my new website!

I'm actually on vacation for this week, including a vacation from blogging, but I just learned that the website for my new book is now live and I wanted to share it with my regular readers.

Check out

You can read excerpts from "What Every 21st Century Parent Needs to Know" there, as well as excerpts from my other two books for parents. And if you purchase the book through the link on the site to some of the proceeds will go to support my organization, the Religious Institute on Sexual Morality, Justice, and Healing.

Have a good week. I'll be back on Friday.

Friday, March 14, 2008

Religious Leaders To Congressional Staff: Support Sex Education

I wish you could have been there.

On March 13, 2008, the Religious Institute on Sexual Morality, Justice, and Healing, along with our co-sponsors, the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice (RCRC) and the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States (SIECUS), held a congressional briefing in the U.S. House of Representatives on religious support for sexuality education. The briefing was sponsored by Representatives Barbara Lee and Christopher Shays, who are the lead Congressional sponsors of the Responsible Education About Life Act.

I was joined by Reverend Steve Clapp of the Christian Community, Rev Consuelo Donahue of Bethany Hospice, Rev. Dr. Janet Parker of Rock Spring Congregational United Church of Christ, Rev. Carlton Veazey of RCRC, Rabbi Laura Novak Winer of the Union for Reform Judaism, and Jennifer Heitel Yakush of SIECUS. We represented ordained clergy from seven different faith traditions: Church of the Brethren, Reform Judaism, National Baptist Convention of the USA, Presbyterian (USA), United Methodist, United Church of Christ, and Unitarian Universalist.

Our traditions are different, but our message all affirmed that religious institutions support and provide comprehensive sexuality education out of our deep commitment to our theology, to our sacred texts, and to the belief that we are called to serve the most vulnerable, the most marginalized.

As I told the more than sixty people in attendance, for those of us from Jewish and Christian traditions, Scripture calls us to truth telling. We are to teach that “there is a time to embrace and a time to refrain from embracing”, but we also are required to give young people accurate and honest information so that they can make moral and healthy decisions about relationships for themselves now and in the future. As our Open Letter to Religious Leaders on Sexuality Education states, “education that respects and empowers young people has more integrity than education that withholds information, gives misinformation, and instills fear, guilt, and shame.”

I ended my testimony, “It is time – it is way past time – for the federal government to support sexuality education programs for youth and to cease funding programs that are not only ineffective but may put our children and teenagers at risk – for disease, for short changed futures, for denial of the gift of their sexuality. It is time to provide all our young people with accurate education that respects the diversity of values in a community. It is indeed a time to speak and a time to act. May our religious voices help you understand that it is also the only moral response.”

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

The New Seven Deadly Sins

Earlier this week, a Vatican representative announced a new list of the seven mortal sins for the 21st century. As I understand it a mortal sin without accompanying confession is the route to hell. I asked my colleague Dr. Kate Ott, Associate Director of the Religious Institute and a Roman Catholic theologian, to share her thoughts on the new list:

After reading the list of new mortal sins, I wanted to applaud the Catholic Church, of which I am a laywoman and trained academic moral theologian. For the first time in years, there seems to be a focus on the systemic nature of sin. And then, I read the finer details. Archbishop Gianfranco Girotti named these at the close of a week long Vatican conference on confession. Why create a new list of mortal sins that recognize the scope of globalization and systemic oppression, all in an effort to revitalize individual confession?

A mortal sin “is sin whose object is grave matter and which is also committed with full knowledge and deliberate consent” (Catechism, #1857, © 1994). But “inflicting poverty” is not done by one person, but global capitalism in which we all participate. “Environmental pollution” is the result of individual choices, but also fixed social systems of waste disposal, water treatment, and energy distribution. The confession booth is either going to be overflowing . . . or people will soon exempt themselves from these sins. Who can claim full knowledge and consent for global markets? I’m feeling sloth creeping into our psyche.

The traditional seven deadly (or mortal) sins – pride, envy, gluttony, lust, anger, greed, and sloth – already seem to cover the modern evils. Isn’t gluttony, greed, maybe even pride and envy at the foundation of “accumulating excessive wealth.” It is the intention behind the sin that classifies it as mortal. Of course, Girotti does not fail to mention abortion and pedophilia as two of the greatest sins of our time. I assume he puts those under “violation of fundamental rights of human nature.” Somehow, the social nature of sin is lost on these remarks. Why not note patriarchy and the devaluing of women’s reproductive rights, instead of abortion? And why not own up to the gravity of pedophilia as a sin of power and pride motivating years of shuffling priests instead of holding them accountable?

I want to place my vote for keeping the age old sins. Most of the new sins are a result of the original list. Shaming folks into confession because they drive their cars too much, won’t result in a reversal of global warming. But people understanding how greed affects their daily choices could result in real conversion on multiple levels. Penance is intended to bring about a conversion of heart through God’s grace . . . Recognizing the fundamental rights of every human being, especially women around the world, means we take environmental, racial, economic, sexual, and reproductive justice seriously – in their systemic entirety.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

More thoughts on Spitzer

See my blog on today's Huffinton Post:

Smart Men, Foolish Choices

I don't want anyone to think I just care about Republican politicans like David Vitter, Larry Craig, and Mark Foley, making really bad decisions about their sexuality.

As you no doubt know, New York Democratic governor Eliot Spitzer was found on a federal wiretap sting to be arranging for meetings with prostitutes at Washington, D.C. hotels.


How many politicians ending up on the front pages will it take before men in power understand that they should be making healthy decisions about their sexuality...that a sexually healthy adult understands the difference between a sexual relationship that is life enhancing and one that could hurt oneself or others? One more time: a moral ethical sexual relationship is consensual, non exploitative, honest, mutually pleasurable and protected. Sex for money surely violates a few of these.

Governor Spitzer, who had previously investigated prostitution rings, surely knew the risks he was taking. It is hard to imagine what he was thinking.

Oh, right, he wasn't.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Where's the B and the T in LGBT?

This weekend, I attended a meeting of my church's Rainbow Task Force, our congregation's welcoming committee.

Our church officially became a welcoming congregation more than fifteen years ago. We have significant numbers of gay men and lesbians in the congregation, and we have celebrated many civil unions. Our policies, our membership materials, and our web site all affirm our welcome to LGBT persons.

But like most of the congregations I work with we fall far short on the B and the T of LGBT. We are just taking baby steps to look at how we can be welcoming of transgender persons; a workshop I led in the fall on transgender has started to focus attention.

When I suggested at this meeting that we also need to become more welcoming of people who are bisexual, I was taken aback by some of the comments. Several people mentioned bisexuals as "promiscuous", confusing having attractions to people of both sexes with wanting to have sex with multiple partners. (I thought to myself, but didn't mention Kinsey's definition of promiscuous: anyone who is having more sex than you are.) Others mentioned that bisexuals can choose to live as heterosexual and therefore don't have the same issues as gays and lesbians. Still someone else wondered whether we should be encouraging people to label themselves at all.

But naming is so important -- as is breaking the silence about the range of sexual orientations and gender identities. I think it's fair to assume that there are signficant numbers of people in my home congregation (and in your's) who are bisexual, who have questions about their erotic attractions and interests, and who need our support.

It's time to stop just saying saying LGBT, and pay attention to what those letters mean.

Friday, March 07, 2008

What Happened to Truth Telling?

I cut my teeth in sexuality education as a volunteer for Planned Parenthood at a teen clinic in 1976. From 1980 to 1984, I was the director of counseling, education, and community affairs for Planned Parenthood of Metropolitan Washington. It was a wonderful job for a newly graduated M.P.H., and I have always been grateful to its then Executive Director Mary Janney for taking a chance on a young but very eager newly minited public health professional.

I have been a strong supporter and believer in Planned Parenthood and its mission ever since, and at the Religious Institute, we are proud of our association with its Clergy Advisory Board.

That's why I felt a little sick to my stomach when I read this latest piece of hatred aimed at Planned Parenthood, reprinted by my colleagues at People for the American Way. A so-called Christian group is spreading hateful mistruths about Barak Obama and his association with Planned Parenthood's alleged racist mission.

I can't speak for what was true at Planned Parenthood's beginning in the 1930's, but as someone who has proudly been associated with the organization my entire career, I can absolutely say that this is a vicious, distorted, and blatantly false description today.

And it needs to be exposed for being just that. Shame on Christian News Service for passing on these lies.

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Talk -- and Talk Often

A new study by the Rand Corporation reported in the March issue of the Journal of Pediatrics found that the more 10 - 15 year olds talked with their parents about sexuality topics, the closer they felt to their parents.

Well, duh, as some teenagers would say.

The authors used the same title for their study as my 2001 book for parents, "Beyond the Big Talk." My publisher tells me that you can't copyright book title names.

Other previously published research has demonstrated that when families talk openly and honestly about sexuality and their family values, and that when teens feel close to their parents, those teens are more likely to delay getting involved with sex. This new study quantifies that this should be an ongoing part of family discussions, something that sexuality educators have known for a very long time.

After all, why would sexuality be different than other important parts of life? I've never had someone ask me what age they should introduce their religion or their faith beliefs to their child. We seem to just know that even the smallest child can be introduced to our family's faith rituals or receive simple answers to their questions about life, death, and God. We do it with good eating, exercise, safety, family responsibilities -- age appropriate, little by little, giving our family values.

Sexuality should be no different.

Monday, March 03, 2008

Cancelled in Connecticut

I was supposed to speak to parents next week in a nearby town on how parents can educate their children and teenagers about sexuality in their own homes.

The school superintendent cancelled the talk as too controversial, after as I understand it, receiving some concerned calls. Part of the issue that was raised was the flyer that was to be sent home to parents contained the word "sexuality", and the fear was that some parents might now want that word coming into their home.

Really. I wonder what those parents do about television, magazines, radio, newspapers...and oh yes, those ubiquitous Victoria Secret Catalogs.

I've only had events cancelled two other times in my 25 years as a public speaker: once by a group in the deep south who had not done their homework on my positions on abortion and GLBT issues and once because of an unrelated community controversy that meant the timing wasn't right for a visit.

Talks for parents, whether at schools or religious institutions, are probably the least controversial thing I do. My talks, like my books for parents, encourage parents to give their own values about sexuality to their own children. And they are based in the research that shows that when parents talk to their children openly and honestly about their values and about sexuality, their children are more likely to delay sexual intercourse and more likely to protect themselves if they do have sex.

It is hard to believe that in 2008 in Connecticut talking to parents about talking to their own children about sex would be seen as too controversial and risky.

The point is -- the point always is -- that our children and teens are bombarded with sexual messages that we can't control, whether or not there is sexuality education in the schools. As I learned a long time ago, the question is never whether young people receive sex information or not -- it's only whether it comes from trained teachers, trained religious leaders, and empowered parents or whether it comes from the media, their friends, or the street.

I'm sorry that this town chose the latter.