Ministering to Bodies and Souls

Rev. Elizabeth Barnum Talks About Religious Support for Women’s Reproductive Health

This interview with Rev. Elizabeth Barnum is part of a series profiling leaders of the Faith and Reproductive Justice Leadership Institute, a project of CAP’s Faith and Progressive Policy Initiative conducted by Sally Steenland.

SOURCE: Rev. Elizabeth Barnum

Listen to the interview (mp3)

This interview is part of a series profiling leaders of the Faith and Reproductive Justice Leadership Institute, a project of CAP’s Faith and Progressive Policy Initiative. The Institute provides faith-based leaders working on reproductive justice with training and resources in order to strengthen and raise the visibility of their work. You can learn more about this project here.

Rev. Elizabeth Barnum is an associate minister at the Barrington Congregational Church U.C.C. in Barrington, Rhode Island. In addition to working with the senior pastor to help lead worship, Elizabeth facilitates the church’s confirmation program, offers pastoral care, oversees its youth ministry, and provides ministry team support. She currently serves on the ethics committee of Rhode Island’s Bradley Hospital and on the board of directors for the Rhode Island Conference of the United Church of Christ. Elizabeth has a background in secondary education and has been trained in a sexuality education curriculum called Our Whole Lives.

Sally Steenland: We know that clergy are on the front lines of the communities they serve. As a minister you see up close the struggles of families and individuals. Can you tell us some of the pressing issues in your congregation and community?

Rev. Elizabeth Barnum: It does feel like we’re on the front lines. Families are struggling to keep their jobs, send their children to college, or find resources to overcome addiction or address mental health issues or rising health care costs. People worry about losing a job and, in fact, some do.

I meet with young couples who are preparing for their wedding, and they’re making decisions about how to manage student debt, how to buy a house, whether or when they will become parents. In Rhode Island we have a high unemployment rate, and the church that I work with is on a public bus line. Individuals stop by on a regular basis and ask for assistance. Sometimes they need perishables for their children or diapers or personal hygiene products. We try to send them to the places that can help them or provide direct aid if we’re able.

SS: That’s a huge range of needs. When people come to you, what kinds of care do you provide?

EB: First and foremost as a pastor, I see my role to provide a patient ear and really listen, but also to do triage. As clergy we tend to know our communities well and are able to send people to resources where they can get the kind of help they need. Members of our congregation work in a variety of fields in the community—some are teachers, some are contractors, some have served or serve in the military, some are government employees or public officials. All are trying to find ways to make good decisions for their families and communities. So when we gather on Sunday mornings, people are looking for information and sustenance so they can go out and be contributing citizens.

SS: Some conservatives believe the government should get out of the business of providing social services because it makes people dependent. They believe that everything from job training to homeless shelters to food kitchens should be provided by faith groups. If that were to happen, could you meet those needs?

EB: Absolutely not. We can’t even meet current needs. I have to say to people on a regular basis that we’re just not able to meet every need. For healing and wholeness for individuals, communities, and the country, it is a matrix. We need everybody and all realms of the public sphere working together to provide for basic needs. It’s a big web.

SS: You raise an interesting point. Often houses of worships and faith-based organizations are seen as distinct and even oppositional to the government—it’s one or the other. But you’re talking about partnerships and everybody working together and doing their part.

EB: I really do see it that way.

SS: Some of your training and interest is in women and youth. Are there pressing issues that are specific to women or young people?  

EB: Absolutely. The women and young girls in the congregation and community are all trying to make the best decisions they can for their families and communities. With that comes a whole range of reproductive health issues. I see, day in and day out, people discerning how to make wise choices about relationships and partnerships, about marriage, about when and whether to have children, and how to get the resources and education they need.

SS: You just described a big bucket of issues. Let’s put them in one place. And then there is work you do on sexuality education. Are the two connected?

EB: Absolutely. I believe that sexuality and spirituality are blessings and God-given gifts. We are both sexual beings and spiritual beings—we are bodies and souls. Sexuality and spirituality inform our experience of a relationship.  In church language I use the word “covenant”—our covenant with one another. I see sexuality education and religious education as two sides of the same coin. Quite simply and profoundly, it all comes down to love.

Our sexuality is one of the ways we express love. For many people, being part of the religious community is another way we express love—through worship and service in the world. For me as a person of faith in the Christian tradition, I understand the stories about Jesus and the teachings of Jesus as stories and teachings grounded in love and in justice. So sexuality education and religious education go hand in hand.

SS: When you say that to your parishioners, do they blink in surprise or do they say, “yes, of course”? What’s the range of reactions you get?

EB: I have been pleasantly surprised by the openness and willingness to address some of these issues in the particular congregation I’m part of right now. In sexuality education and religious education, parents are the primary educators of their children. But they appreciate help. When I talk to parents, they’re usually grateful. They want their schools, churches, and health care providers to help them out.

It’s a partnership in terms of giving them information they most need. Despite fear of talking about issues of sexuality (or just discomfort), people generally are relieved when those in leadership are willing to talk frankly about these issues. And when they have correct information and some skills to dialogue about issues that can be controversial and sensitive, they are usually grateful.

SS: It sounds like that’s what the Our Whole Lives curriculum aims to do. Can you talk about how values and morality and faith fit into sexuality education, especially in a congregation where people might have very different views?

EB: In the program we try to provide a place where all views can be discussed or considered thoughtfully. The program includes values of justice and inclusivity, of sexual health and well-being and responsibility. It seeks to honor where every youth or parent might be on a wide spectrum of belief. So as a pastor, I’m not saying, “You need to do this.” I’m providing information and tools about how to make the best possible decisions.

It’s not didactic. It’s about giving information and skills and instilling values of self-worth and moral agency regarding whether to abstain or engage in responsible sexual behavior. It’s also important to know what contraceptive choices are out there, to know the risk of sexually transmitted infections, and to be able to recognize when relationships are healthy and when they’re unhealthy.

SS: You raise an important point: when to have sex and when to abstain. Sometimes people think that sexuality education implies active sexuality. But it also gives people skills in how to say no.

EB: Absolutely. The curriculum attempts to be age appropriate and honor the sexual development of a human being. That begins at birth and goes to death—it’s not just about sex. It’s a much bigger picture about what it means to be part of a community, to have friendships and relationships.

SS: How are you building support for this program?

EB: We’ve been working for several years to roll out the Our Whole Lives program. It’s available from kindergarten through adulthood, and we’re going to start offering it to our seventh and eighth graders this coming year. I had a lot of conversations with parents and lay leaders in the congregation about whether or not the congregation was ready. We had an Our Whole Lives trainer come and meet with us one evening. It was an early summer evening, and we were surprised at how many parents of children of all ages showed up. They were so eager to hear about this program and wanted support.

Several years ago this congregation took a formal vote, initiated by members in the church, to become an “open and affirming congregation” in the United Church of Christ. They were making a statement that whatever one’s race, ethnicity, age, socioeconomic or marital status, ability, sexual orientation, or the way that one might express their gender—that whoever you are, you are welcome into the full life and ministry of the church.

When that vote happened, I knew that one of the next steps was including an educational component for our youth. We can print a statement on our bulletin each week, but we also need to put our faith into action and live out the values of an inclusive welcome. A program like Our Whole Lives helps give young people the tools and resources they need to understand why our values include this inclusive welcome and help us make the best decisions we can for ourselves and our families.

SS: I can imagine that some parts of the curriculum might be controversial. And because it’s a comprehensive curriculum, it will include reproductive justice and abortion, which can be more problematic for people.

EB: I try to stress these two parts: providing information and education about the rights every human being has in regards to sexual health and well-being and reproductive rights. And I try very much to instill the value that religious women and men are making a variety of choices about birth control, about whether or not to terminate a pregnancy. Just as a person can choose to abstain or engage in responsible sexual behavior, so can a faithful and religious person decide to terminate a pregnancy or use birth control, or not. While two people might make different decisions, those options should be available so that people can choose.

SS: I want to shift a little bit and talk about CAP’s Faith and Reproductive Justice Leadership Institute. As one of our leaders, what do you see as pressing issues in the coming days and months?

EB: I am increasingly concerned about the backlash and assaults on women’s moral agency and decision-making ability. I feel that some of the legislative attempts are seeking to insert one particular doctrine or moral judgment that excludes other sets of values. I see it as discrimination. Plenty of women who identify as religious choose to use birth control or to terminate a pregnancy. Their voices get lost when their rights are threatened in legislative attempts.

We live in a diverse religious landscape, as well as a diverse landscape of sexuality. I want to hear more than one voice in the public square. Education is so important, and that includes religious literacy—our learning about the wide diversity of religious expression across our communities and country. I do believe we can come to common ground when it comes to supporting freedom to make the best possible decisions, and that we’re also each responsible not only to ourselves but to our wider community.

SS: Normally the debate around reproductive justice or abortion is framed around religious opposition vs. women’s rights. You’ve raised a religious liberty argument that supports women’s reproductive rights and health.

EB: Exactly.

SS: These are some of the challenges. What gives you hope about the work you’re doing?

EB: As clergy we are in the business of hope. I get especially hopeful on a day-to-day basis when I see individuals able to build support systems to make good decisions for themselves and their families. When I see people working in partnership with those around them, I get hopeful. I’m hopeful when I see people choosing compassion over greed and working to share power rather than exploit or abuse power as a means to control others. And I’m especially hopeful when men join their voices to the conversation about reproductive health and become progressive advocates with and for the women in their lives. I really believe that reproductive justice helps everyone. There are certainly many challenges but I stand on the side of understanding that sexuality and spirituality are about love.

SS: Your being part of our institute gives us hope. Thank you so much for the work you do and for talking with us today.

EB: Great. Thank you so much, Sally.

This interview was edited for length and clarity.

Sally Steenland is Director of the Faith and Progressive Policy Initiative at the Center for American Progress. For more on this initiative, please see its project page.

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Sally Steenland

Former Director, Faith and Progressive Policy Initiative