Grappling Where Once There Was Silence: Coming to Terms with Religion and Sexuality
Religious Institute’s Seminary Spotlight with Minister Aisha R. Thomas
What’s your theology of sexuality in 10 words or fewer?
Sexuality is a way to express being and embody love.
Growing up, what did you learn about sexuality in religious spaces? And how, if at all, has that influenced your approach as a scholar?
I was in church as a young person until I was about 11 and then not again, consistently, until I was in my late 20’s. In my upbringing, sexuality didn’t exist in religious spaces. When I reflect on the period that I was in church as a young person, I only hear silence. However, my home life was in chaos. I was regularly confronted with sexuality at home, albeit in unhealthy ways. This created a bifurcated way of being for me that continued into my adulthood. As a believer, I have struggled to marry my church and home life in ways that don’t leave me feeling that I ever have to leave parts of me home when I worship corporately. As a scholar, I recognize that in order to have congruence in one’s thinking and theology, we must be willing to grapple in areas where there have previously been silences.
Tell us about your research and/or your current project. Why you study sex and sexuality? What draws you to work at the intersections of sexuality, gender, and religion?
My project is about “sexual integrity” in and among African-American clergy (not to be confused with sexual morality or sexual purity). I define sexual integrity as a state of sexual wholeness that entails a conscious understanding and consistent grappling with personal ideas, biases, and prejudices about gender, sexuality, sexual orientation, and sex. This—combined with examination of one’s own sexual history, sexual ethics, and sexual desires—culminates into a sexual self that is able to see self and others as valuable, worthy, and fully made in God’s image.
The recent events at Aretha Franklin’s funeral where Bishop Charles Ellis III groped Ariana Grande’s breast and, when called out for it, offered an apology that was tepid, at best, is an example of why this project is imperative. These occurrences are not few and far in between, in my personal experience. As a seminarian, I experienced the full force of clergy behaving in ways that demonstrated an unhealthy understanding of sex and sexuality that led to sexual microaggressions, harassment, and violation. This caused me to want to understand and identify how this came to be in order to address it in meaningful ways. If I were to say what draws me to work at the intersections of sexuality, gender, and religion, I would say that I didn’t choose it, it chose me. It is, as the late Dr. Katie Cannon was fond of reiterating, the work that my soul must have. I have a burning desire to see people free to express who they authentically are in their sexuality in ways that manifest free and safe spaces for everyone.
What do you wish every graduate theological student knew about religion and sexuality?
I wish that every graduate theological student knew that grappling with one’s sexuality is a fundamental component to theological formation and spiritual growth.
As you know, our newsletter is called “Sexuality: From the Seminary to the Sanctuary.” How do you make connections between your theological education and your practical life and ministry?
Theological education is about enlarging one’s soul to push out all elements of arrogance, ignorance, and darkness that causes us to believe in faulty ways about God, ourselves, and others and, thus, treat others in ways that don’t align with human dignity. For me, theological education helps me understand myself better and, in turn, empowers me to treat others well. My project is an extension of the same thought. I believe that if we can understand and honor ourselves regarding who we are, as sexual beings, we will be able to treat ourselves and one another better.
Lastly, three quick-fire questions:
Book/activity/article that has had the most impact on your thinking about religion/sexuality?
Kelly Brown Douglas’ Sexuality and the Black Church: A Womanist Perspective
Favorite self-care practice?
What are you currently reading?
Pamela Cooper-White’s The Cry of Tamar: Violence Against Women and the Church’s Response
Min. Aisha R. Thomas is a native of Jersey City, New Jersey. She is the daughter of George W. Stevens and Ilene R. Stevens. She has four brothers and is the proud mother of one son, Johnny M. Thomas II. She graduated with honors from Norfolk State University in 1998 where she received her BA in Psychology and went on to receive her NJ State Certification in Alcohol and Drug Counseling in 2005. She graduated summa cum laude from the Samuel DeWitt Proctor School of Theology of Virginia Union University (STVU) in May 2013 where she received her Master of Divinity. She is currently a Doctor of Ministry candidate at STVU focusing on sexual integrity among ministers in African-American churches and theological institutions. Before responding to the call to preach the gospel, she specialized in counseling drug and alcohol abusers, children of substance abusers, people with mental illnesses and the homeless. She was licensed to preach under Rev. Hodari K. Hamilton at First Baptist Church of Charlottesville, VA in March of 2013. She serves in various capacities in the Body of Christ, and can be found counseling, preaching, teaching, dancing, acting, or miming throughout the region. She is excited about ministry and passionate about glorifying the Lord.
The views expressed here belong to the interviewee, and the ideas within are their intellectual property. Please cite accordingly.