Somebody say amen!

The Rev. Sheron Patterson brings the word to black singles

Is the black man worth loving?"
The question hung over the crowd gathered in the pews of Jubilee United Methodist Church on a recent Friday night, a promise and a paradox. To each of the 125 African-American men and women, the answer was obvious. Yet here was Robert Ashley, well-known radio personality from KHVN, prodding them to consider the possibility of another answer.

Ashley, acting as moderator, walked up and down the aisles, microphone in hand Oprah-style, looking for people who wanted to talk. Yes, the question was rhetorical, he said, but think about it. "Did Felicia (Moon) think Warren was lovable when he was choking her?" he asked. Did Nicole Brown Simpson think O.J. was lovable when he beat her? What about all those nameless brothers who have loved and cruelly left countless black sisters? he asked. Are they lovable?

The crowd muttered, some in assent, some in incredulity. These were not lovable cases. Ashley then looked to the stage where three panelists--two men and a woman--waited to give their opinions. Reginald Woods, associate pastor for St. John Missionary Baptist Church in Grand Prairie, spoke first.

"The black man is definitely worth loving," Woods said, "but part of this love comes from understanding who we are. Do you really know where this man is coming from?"

If you look at the individual cases, you can find lots of reasons why the black man isn't worth loving, Woods admitted, but you can't write off all black men because of the sins of a vivid few.

The audience murmured in agreement, with a couple of amens thrown in. This was church, after all.

Then Ashley stirred up the audience again. What is it about black women and men with money? "Why is it that they only seem to want men who drive a nice car and have lots of green?" he asked.

The men in the audience roared their agreement. The other male panelist, Arthur Gregg, a counselor at Eastfield Community College in Mesquite, said a woman often will look down on a nice man who only has one thin dime, "but if I don't make nothing but a dime, then there's some woman who will want that.

"Money doesn't buy you happiness, but it does make happiness a little easier."

It was time for the lone woman on the panel to speak. The Rev. Sheron Patterson acknowledged that there are many women who look at a man's financial status as a basis for a relationship, but it is all part of the pressure they feel to get a husband and get married.

"There is a mild panic in the black community" among women, she said. "The biological time clock is ticking. You're 35 years old and you want to get married. Bad. That's where this money comes in."

The audience erupted. There were yells of assent from women while the men were shaking their heads. Hands were up, and Ashley was walking around to let people talk.

On stage, Patterson looked over the audience members of her church and smiled. They were talking, and perhaps through talking they could begin to stop hurting and eventually heal.

The intergenerational rap session is called the Love Clinic, the Rev. Sheron Patterson's creation. It's a monthly workshop dealing with relationship issues pertinent to the African-American community. The clinic touts itself as a project to help heal the hurts of the African-American community with dialog and prayer.

Patterson believes, more than that, that she is recapturing a part of people's spiritual lives that the church has been neglecting: the personal. "People were living in the grips of desperationEgrabbing ahold of somebody who doesn't want them or being a fool in a relationship that leaves them shattered and broken," she says. "A lot of churches weren't addressing their needs."

For more than a decade, Patterson has devoted her ministry to helping people see themselves and their relationships within the light of God. She knows well the frantic pangs and ill-conceived choices people can make when they are single.

Patterson seems a good candidate for a relationship adviser. The thirtysomething pastor looks more like your best girlfriend than a spiritual guide. With a bone-straight, chin-length bob and stylish granny glasses perched on the edge of her nose, she wears the latest clothes, choosing a black velvet dress to wear to a recent Love Clinic and later a black-and-gray wide-legged pants outfit for an interview. Her no-nonsense way of talking is suited to the job. She is animated, using her hands, and whole body even, to make a point. She comes across like the friend you always go to for advice, even though you know you'll hate it.

"That girl could be a Phi Beta Kappa in the classroom, but in life--she fails." Patterson is on the phone counseling a church member who is trying to get a friend out of an abusive situation. It hasn't been going well. The woman just wasn't ready to accept the truth.

"They usually hear the message after they have been burned and made a fool of," Patterson says with a sigh.

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."

The clinics have also been a boon for Jubilee United Methodist's attendance, bringing in scores of people who normally wouldn't attend the church. People with no church family have come as well as those who "want to give God one more chance," Patterson says.

The recent "Is the black man worth loving?" clinic is a case in point. With Ashley as provocateur, the audience members and panelists talked, cajoled, and teased about the plight of the black man and the black woman.

What would you do, Ashley tossed out, if you found out that your husband was having an affair, with another man? Ashley pointed out that the National Black Gay and Lesbian Association was in town for a convention that week.

"This man is a deacon in the church," Ashley added. "Would you stay and pray for him? Try to convert him? I mean, we see this more and more happening in the black community. We thought it was only stuff that happened to white folks."

The audience wailed at the salaciousness of the premise. "No way I would stay!" said one woman.

Then Patterson spoke: "That scenario is not rare. A lot of women pretend that it isn't there. A lot of time men tell us what is really going on, but we pretend not to see it. You are better off by yourself than with a man who does not want you."

The topics changed. One woman talked about how she didn't limit herself to just dating black men. She hasn't written them off, she said, but has had such bad luck with them that she has dated outside the race.

"I'm looking for a man to put me on a pedestal," she said. "It doesn't matter what I am accused of, I have to make myself happy."

The audience tensed up. Necks of women began to work as many hissed or clucked in disapproval. The sentiment through much of this audience was that this is a line not crossed. Stay with your own kind. A woman stood up and read a poem about why she will always love the black man. "What could I talk to a white man about, the struggle? I think not." The poem was met by a standing ovation from the men in the audience.

At another juncture, the question was turned around. "Does the black woman know how to love the black man?" asked a man in the audience. It had been his experience, he said, that many black women don't, and they bring much of the trouble in their relationships upon themselves. His comment was met with catcalls from the women in the audience.

Still, the session ended in a prayer and an exhortation to attendees to remember and bless each other. Afterward, people said they were glad they had come.

"As a single woman, I have a hard time finding someone and I was looking for some answers," says Karen Caston, 32, who attends St. John Baptist in Grand Prairie. "I was encouraged because I saw so many black men here. I didn't want it to be a roomful of women. It reassured myself and my beliefs."

For husband and wife Charles and Sharon Brown of Arlington, the Love Clinic gave them a chance to find out more about each other than they ever knew. Twenty-one years of marriage can sometimes make you too complacent, says Sharon. The couple has been coming to the clinics since their inception.

"I find things that can relate to our lives," she says. "We go back home and talk about things."

For Charles, the clinics are his therapy. "I learned tonight that my wife likes to take walks in the park, and I'm taking her," he says. "I'll take her walking in the park, or anywhere."

The Love Clinic's success has rippled outside the church. After the first clinic, which dealt with infidelity, hosted by KKDA radio personality Willis Johnson, a man called Johnson's program the following Monday to tell Johnson the Love Clinic had changed the man's life. He had been cheating on his wife, and after the clinic, he confessed to her. They were working through it, he said.

"Now that's what I call success," Patterson says. "The big stuff is not going to happen in the sanctuary, it is going to happen outside, but you've got to start somewhere."

Patterson believes that churches will eventually come around to talking more about relationships. As it is, she fields many phone calls from people, who attend other churches, seeking help with their relationship problems because their pastors won't discuss them. The need is great, she says. Those pastors soon will have to open up.

In the meantime, the Love Clinic continues, the third Friday of each month, getting black men and women talking, laughing, and praying.

"We are going to keep doing it until the need dissipates," Patterson says. "Just as long as there are hungry people that want to be fed by it, we want to keep on feeding souls.

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