Christian ministers' wives and widows from around the world, meeting this week in downtown Baltimore, have been tackling what they called the "epidemic" of teen pregnancies, a social problem whose extent was unheard of by the organization's founders in 1941.
Shirley Alexander Hart, concluding eight years as president of the international association yesterday, asked 1,300 women at the Omni Inner Harbor Hotel to return to their home churches on five continents with a renewed sense of urgency about the dangers of underage sex.
"High infant mortality rates, permanent defects at birth, lessened academic and economic potential, and a need of prolonged medical attention are some of the results one may experience when a very young, unprepared body enters into the reproductive process prematurely," Dr. Hart told the association.
The International Association of Ministers' Wives and Ministers' Widows, with headquarters in Richmond, Va., claims a worldwide constituency of more than 43,000 women in 103 Christian denominations. It was founded 53 years ago at Second Baptist Church in Richmond.
Dr. Hart released a 21-page committee report on ways to help children resist peer pressure to have sex. Group discussions of their feelings of abuse and neglect were recommended, along with discussions of pornographic or sexually explicit recordings, magazines, television programs and movies that they encounter increasingly, at younger and younger ages.
"Our prayer is that each of us will accept the challenges that teen pregnancy presents, that we continuously seek to impact positively upon all vulnerable teens, and that we avoid becoming judgmental, yet refuse to become accepting of the unacceptable," Dr. Hart said. A member of the American Baptist denomination, she is on the faculty of the Norfolk (Va.) Technical-Vocational Center.
Also attending the Baltimore convention, which began June 24 and ended yesterday, were about 150 clergymen -- husbands of association members -- and about 150 of their children. The latter are organized as Preachers' Kids, or PKs, who have their agenda of Bible study, other educational projects and recreation.
Elected to succeed Dr. Hart as president was Celeste Ashe Johnson, an administrator with the public school system of Hartford, Conn.
Members said that Dr. Johnson's election was an indication of how the group's influence has expanded beyond its Baptist roots. The new president's husband, the Rev. William Johnson, is pastor of the Church of Our Lord Jesus Christ of the Apostolic Faith in Hartford.
Another trend noted at the convention was the increasing number of women who are ordained co-pastors with their husbands.
During the week, the association offered classes in 12 subjects, ranging from stress management and "The Minister's Wife as Counselor" to creative writing and the use of computers. Nearly 400 members took the courses.
Tuesday night, the group's annual Community Service Award was presented to Bea Gaddy, who operates East Baltimore's Patterson Park Emergency Food Center.