ROCHESTER — Johan Engstrom believes that when sexuality is discussed with teens, it should be presented in a positive way.
Engstrom highlighted this point during "Mind, Body, and Spirit!" a presentation he gave to a roomful of teens from several area youth groups last month at St. Mary Parish. He held his talk in the parish rectory, where about 25 participants sat in a circle, some elbow to elbow on oversized couches or folding chairs, and others cross-legged on the carpeted floor. The event opened with an icebreaker, which brought easy laughter from those gathered.
Engstrom — who has a theology degree from St. John Fisher College and a certificate in youth ministry from St. Bernard’s Institute — worked as a youth-ministry director for about 18 years, most recently at St. Joseph Parish in Penfield, and has been presenting chastity-related workshops to youth groups since 1988.
Using his miniature Bible, he began his presentation at St. Mary Feb. 21 by reading the creation story from Genesis. He said that he chose this passage because it relates to the life-giving gift God has given us.
"When I first bought this Bible it was very easy to read," he joked. "I think it’s shrunk since then."
He then played the contemporary pop song "Tattoo" by Jordin Sparks, emphasizing the lyrics of the song by projecting them onto the wall in a PowerPoint presentation. The song addresses a romantic relationship between two young people, and Sparks belts out, "You’re still a part of everything I do, you’re on my heart just like a tattoo."
St. Mary parishioner Tim Wood, 18, said that he was struck by the song.
"Some music goes into things that aren’t good for a relationship, like saying bad things about females," he said, adding that he thought this particular song had a better message.
Engstrom then showed a clip of the Disney Channel show "Suite Life on Deck," in which one teenaged character, Cody, flirts with a girl while he is on vacation despite having a girlfriend at home. Engstrom said he picked the song and the clip because they showed that two people might have differing views on the same relationship.
"The first thing to remember about sexuality and relationships is to see everyone as a person. To recognize their mind, body and spirit," he said. "There is more to us than what you see, but there is also more to us than our thoughts. As people of faith, we believe we were created in God’s image."
Rather than rattling off scary statistics about teen pregnancies or condemning sexual practices, Engstrom took a positive approach to talking about sexuality: "Sexuality is a gift — it’s something God wanted us to have," he said. "The reason for the gift is that it is a life-giving aspect of who we are as persons."
However, Engstrom noted, just because something is life-giving does not mean it is always good for you. He cited the example of school lunches, saying that hypothetically they have all the nutritional value a person needs, but that doesn’t mean they always meet the taste value. He recalled a time that he was served a big, steamy bowl of split pea soup; unfortunately, he didn’t like it.
"It was back on my plate as soon as it hit my mouth!" he exclaimed. "The person cooking the soup wasn’t cooking for me. It wasn’t poison, but it wasn’t life-giving."
Engstrom then discussed the difference between chastity and abstinence. Abstinence, he said, is negative, because it simply means not having sex. Chastity, on the other hand, is positive, he said, because it is about embracing a new lifestyle.
"It’s not a, ‘No, I’m not gonna do this,’" he said. "The idea is we’re going to have desires for different things and people. We have to make it so the desires aren’t what control us. We control and direct how we want to express our sexuality in a life-giving way."
Engstrom then invited participants to anonymously ask questions by writing them on small green sheets of paper, which he read and answered for the group. The teens scribbled their queries on the papers, asking questions about such things as birth control, homosexuality, healthy relationships and peer pressure regarding sex. Engstrom responded to the latter question by explaining to the youths that it is important to have some friends who hold similar values to theirs, so that those values will be honored.
Engstrom said he believes it is important to offer teens a safe and open forum to discuss sexuality.
"Frequently, people aren’t finding a safe community which can answer questions about living with this gift (of sexuality) in a faith-filled and life-giving way," he observed. "(I like to) provide an opportunity for (the youths) to ask honest questions and hear a message of faith in response, only a positive perspective."
Engstrom ended his discussion with a reading from Song of Solomon 1 relating to love and sexuality. He said he chose this passage because it presented a positive view of married sexuality.
On the subject of the positive perspective, he said, "We as a church are labeled to be negative about sexuality, and out of touch with reality. But there’s so much wisdom in our teaching for people to live happy lives."