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Condom chaplain: ministering to college students about sex and faith

I have a reputation among a certain crowd of students who have nicknamed me the “Condom Chaplain.” This name comes from the fact that I have a supply of condoms in my office for students and the fact that I have hosted convocations and discussion panels to talk about various topics within sexuality. This openness and honesty with young people let’s them know that my office and my presence are a safe place for sharing their concerns and questions around sexuality.

While I may have regular conversations with young people about sexuality, I have one question for you: when was the last time you intentionally talked to a group of young adults about sex?

The last time I talked with some young adults was last Tuesday. In fact, I spend an hour every Tuesday talking with students about sex and sexuality. And the best part: it is a class first-year college students take for credit.

Last spring when I proposed teaching this course, I was not sure how it would be received by the administration. When it was approved, my worries transferred to the classroom: would anyone sign up for such a class? Who would want to spend time every week discussing the intersectionality of sex and faith with the college chaplain?

As I was preparing for the course, I spoke with a colleague about my nerves. They told me not to worry. And, to my surprise, I had a full class of 15 students on day one. As I introduced the course, I let them know that the class would be a safe place to discuss a wide range of topics. And as any good former youth director would do, we began the class by creating a covenant.

We now are halfway through the semester and each class has brought joy, insight, wisdom, questions and dialogue. It has been an eye-opening experience for these young people to hear a religious leader speak in an open and honest way. For some, this is the first time they have even examined their sexuality alongside their church doctrine and religious beliefs. For others, it is helping reshape them from the negative messages from their childhood into a more positive self-image and sexual identity.

No matter what is occurring in the lives of these students, one thing is consistent: for an hour each Tuesday, we enter a discussion and exploration of how religious beliefs and communities shape our experience and sexual identity. For good or bad, that is what we examine.

And we have found that, for the most part, churches aren’t engaging the topics and questions young people have about their sexuality. This conclusion does not disappoint nor surprise my students — they grew up in religious communities hearing non-affirming words about their bodies and bodily functions.

What is shocking and even life-giving for them is the idea that there are churches that can and do preach a positive and affirming language when talking about bodies and bodily functions. It becomes freeing when we read statements, church documents and theological interpretations that offer up a more affirming viewpoint.

This got me thinking, why does it always have to be this way? Why does the church have to shy away from talking about sex? What is it that makes it so taboo?

Sex is awkward. Sexuality is complicated. And to deny conversations about this in a faith context does a disservice to those the church serves. Being open and honest can be freeing, healing and deeply spiritual.

Don’t get me wrong, it has not been all rainbows and unicorns in our discussions. There have been honest moments, ones that break hearts. There has been sadness at how dark and manipulative the church world can be when it comes to sexuality. There has been a real sense of the abuse that can take place within the church and even culture when it comes to discussing sexuality. But we have also had many moments of laugher, blushing and shock that the chaplain just used “street” language for a certain topic.

The key to it all is to be honest, to be open and to be willing to learn from one another along the way. That is what we have done as a class and that is what has freed us to find new ways of expressing how church and religious communities can be and should be involved in the discussion of sexuality. So, take a deep breath, and go begin that awkward conversation, for when you do you might just be the church person who can reframe how a young person feels about their body and sexuality.