Somebody say amen!

The Rev. Sheron Patterson brings the word to black singles

Patterson started her singles ministry in the 1980s, when she noticed there were more single than married people in most black churches. God led her to create programs for these people toward whom the church showed little interest, she says.

It wasn't easy. There weren't any other black churches in the North Texas area that geared ministries toward singles. Patterson began holding meetings and workshops for the singles at St. Luke Community United Methodist Church. Not only was the ministry popular, but it grew.

Patterson has published books, including Black Single Adults and I Want to be Ready, about what she found to be common mistakes single people make in relationships. Despite the obvious demand, she still found many churches resistant to dealing with the needs of single people.

"I'm laughed at, harassed, and harangued for working with singles, period," Patterson says. "'Sheron, when are you going to get a real ministry,' they say.

"Singles are the butt of jokes. If you are single, something is wrong with you. If you were a really good person, you would have a husband. You can't keep a wife--you aren't a real man. Society has stigmatized that population so much that people who work with them are also stigmatized."

Why don't churches deal with this? Churches can be strongholds of many of the same isms it should combat: sexism, misogyny, classism. Relationship ministries seek to tear down these negative attitudes, Patterson says.

Patterson herself was single during the start of her ministry. She's married now, but she makes it clear her work didn't lead to a husband.

"Singles ministries, the Christian ones, aren't designed to find you anyone but yourself and God," she says. "I do not push myself off as a matchmaker or love doctor or anything else. If you meet somebody, great, but the goal is not to come out married. It's to be happy as you are."

In the end, two things led to the creation of the Love Clinic. The first was Patterson's doctoral research on African-American male-female relationships within Christianity. In her studies, Patterson examined the decades of baggage that men and women have been carrying around about each other which they never deal with. "I think we need some healing," she says, "and one way to heal is to open up and talk about our problems."

The second was her arrival at Jubilee United Methodist in April. As pastor for the two-year-old church in Duncanville, Patterson felt the congregation members not only needed healing themselves, but wanted to spread the word to others. Most of her studies and sermons were on relationship issues. So when she proposed the clinic, she found the congregation eager and willing. It is an extension of the traditional role the church plays in the community, much like economic empowerment and civil rights, she says.

"People at this church saw themselves as having a prime opportunity to impact the community, giving something that it really needed," she says. "We are launching a new way of helping the communityEby helping them with their relationships."

The clinics deal with love--not the overarching paternal love that God has for all His creation, but the more earthly sort. For far too long churches have sought to keep this aspect of people outside the church, making it seem shameful and secular.

"It's a shame that they would call it secular," Patterson says. "I mean look at Jesus Christ and the woman at the well. He asked her about her sex life. This tells me that this is not secular. Our whole bodies belong to God, so don't try to segment your genitalia for outside."

The clinics seek to offer Christian-based solutions to vexing personal problems. They began in November with a session dealing with infidelity, and haven't let up since. With provocative titles like "Has Waiting to Exhale hurt or helped male-female relationships?" the sessions have tackled cheating, interracial dating, and addictions.

Patterson admits the titles and topics are chosen for maximum impact. You want to get people in the pews listening to what is going on, she says; then, once you get them in the church, you want to make them feel safe. The sessions begin with prayer and praise. Patterson says that's to remind people that they are in church, so nothing too terrible will happen to them.

"This is kind of like you are making a cake," she says. "You pour in a little bit of spirituality, make them comfortable, then you open up this big wound and look what is inside of it."

A few things won't be tolerated, the main one being badgering. Everyone has a right to talk as long as "you are speaking the truth in a calm strong voice, you've got to hear it," Patterson says. The idea is to make sure people are heard, because for too long they have been silent or ignored.

"It can be a very debilitating experience, to not have your opinion heard, to feel like what you have to say has no value," Patterson says. "In the confines of this black church, you will be heard and you will hear."

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