The following is the second installment of our new series, “Profiles in Leadership.” In this edition, we’re featuring the work of Reverend Lacette Cross of Richmond, Virginia. For decades, Rev. Cross has worked around issues of sexual health, ethics, and HIV/AIDS education. Later in her career, she continued this calling by studying at the Samuel DeWitt Proctor School of Theology at Virginia Union University, and later at Union Presbyterian Seminary, studying under the Reverend Doctor Katie Geneva Cannon. She is currently the founder/CEO of Will You Be Whole ministries and the pastor of Restoration Fellowship RVA. Her full bio is below.
[Progressive Southern Theologians] Rev. L, thank you for speaking with us. I know you wear many hats in Richmond (VA), but how would you describe your work and your calling?
[Lacette Cross] As a pastor, I would say that I’m connecting people - and connecting with people - and connecting community. I do that through engaging conversations and facilitating safe space, or, at least, brave space, to engage our growth. I especially work to engage people around some of the topics that the Church is not traditionally and classically known for discussing, yet alone topics that are common for Baptist ordained ministers to talk about - matters such as identity and faith and sexuality and justice and serving others, along with race and equity and intersectionality.
With “Will You Be Whole,” I use that as a platform to focus more specifically on sexuality and sexual ethics and bringing faith and sex together. The beauty of being a pastor is being able to do something like “Will You Be Whole” but also being able to teach and open people’s eyes to theology and learning together how to bring a liberative lens to the Bible. I try to follow the model of holding the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other.
[PST] You mentioned safe and brave spaces. How do you understand the difference between these two terms?
[LC] We have a tendency in this world to think that we can create spaces that are safe. The reality is that at any given moment we can never know how safe a space is for any one individual. So I’ve been retraining myself to use the term “brave” instead of “safe.” What I hope to do is make it such that when we enter into a space, we can do so bravely enough to be vulnerable because, as Brené Brown would say, vulnerability is what drives connection. One of the ways I do that is to claim the space that we’re in and invite others to share at the level they’re comfortable.
I believe the other thing that’s important for facilitating a brave space, as a leader, is to keep an ear to the spirit of what’s happening. As a facilitator and as a pastor, you have to pay attention not only to the dynamics that are happening between individuals, but to the broader spirit of the room. From there, we have to cultivate a wisdom of how to respond to that spirit given the particular situation.
I want to honor that space by giving spiritual direction to folks or sometimes even shutting people down in gracious and compassionate ways so that harm is kept as minimal as possible. If a conversation is moving in such a way that it’s going to be harmful, then it’s a facilitator’s responsibility to stop that conversation with grace and generosity.
Though we can’t control everything, my intention when I enter a shared communal space is to create an environment in which people are reminded that they are more than enough and that they are brilliant enough. A brave space means naming that we’re going to talk about some difficult things and that we may feel some things in our personhood, in our bodies, and that’s okay. But we get to set the tone, and we’ll let the Spirit do its work. I give gentle reminders to do no harm as we share our stories and as we respond to what other people share of their own stories. Working in this way hasn’t failed me yet.
[PST] You mentioned reading the Bible through a liberative lens. What does that mean for you?
[LC] To me, it means giving ourselves permission to let go of what was passed onto us. I think that’s the first step. We have to give ourselves permission to let go of what “mama and them” taught us, or what that mother in the church who was our Sunday School teacher taught us, or what we learned from that beloved pastor who meant well but didn’t go to seminary or did go but didn’t learn a liberative theology.
So some of the initial work is giving ourselves that permission to move beyond what may have been passed on to us, realizing that not all of that knowledge is beneficial to our full flourishing and wholeness.
I also think a liberative lens means being willing to ask hard questions of our received traditions, including the Bible. But it also means asking questions while learning to be okay sitting with the mystery of those questions not being answered.
We also have to free ourselves from needing to have specific answers from the Bible, which we first have to acknowledge is a text that wasn’t written with us in mind in the 21st century, though it’s certainly a text that informs our individual lives and even the social-political milieu that we find ourselves in today.
While of course some aspects of Scripture will even appear problematic for our contemporary context, as with certain things we find Paul saying in his letters, I do think there are benefits to asking how we can engage even these hard texts and find liberation in them. However, we can’t view that creative possibility if we don’t first give ourselves permission to think critically about these sacred texts.
We also have to remember to ground ourselves in the mystery that is God… this mystery is where we find God, and where the Spirit of God is, there is liberty (hence, liberation), and if there is freedom in God, then no matter how we look at a given passage from the Bible, then we should be able to find liberation for ourselves and our communities.
[PST] What led you to this work? How did it unfold?
[LC] I was first brought to the work of sexuality about fifteen or twenty years ago after hearing the statistics about the rate of HIV/AIDS in black women between the ages of 18-25. At that time, if I wasn’t in that age range, I was really close to it. So that led me to begin a career in sex education.
Fast forward, I was going to a church (Covenant Baptist UCC) where one pastor had a Ph.D and the other had a Doctorate of Ministry. One had studied with James Cone, the originator of Black Liberation Theology, and the other had studied at the intersection of pastoral care and psychotherapy. Having come from mostly fundamentalist traditions, this was eye opening to me. The pastors led the congregation in the work of social justice, which helped me start forming a critical lens about the connection of faith and ethics.
For a long time, I knew that I was called to preach, but I had only interpreted that through a more fundamentalist lens. Being at this church, though, helped orient my head and heart toward my desire to form justice oriented spaces. I eventually enrolled at Virginia Union University’s Samuel DeWitt Proctor School of Theology (STVU).
The summer of my first year of seminary I was exposed to Womanist thought. A friend of mine was a gender women’s studies scholar and she let me borrow a copy of The Womanist Reader by Layli Phillips. I immediately read it and then began to read everything I could about Womanist work from across all disciplines - especially Womanist theology and theological ethics. Eventually a professor mentioned to me that the Reverend Doctor Katie Geneva Cannon, the founder of Womanist Theological Ethics, was a professor just up the street at Union Presbyterian Seminary. I was later invited to a public event that Dr. Cannon was facilitating , as she was classically known for doing.
That event led me to take a course with Dr. Cannon the following year. Working with Dr. Cannon led me to a place where, for the first time, I saw my potential to be a scholar. I saw that I could embrace my identity and the work I’d been doing around sexuality and sexual health and that there was room for that type of calling in the theological academy.
I realized, too, that these aspects of my calling were congruent with my call to pastor, which was something away from which I tried to run. But being a pastor hasn’t meant sacrificing my scholarly pursuits or my work with sexuality.
Dr. Cannon helped me hone my Womanist theological ethics and sexual ethics and this work around wholeness - bringing all of my work together. I later completed my Th.M. with her, and accepted a call to pastor a small LGBTQ+ affirming church here in Richmond. I knew I was called to pastor, but I always assumed I’d be with a more traditional black church.
I think what led me to this place has been sitting under Dr. Cannon’s tutelage and mentoring. Those experiences have pushed me to expand myself in ways that I didn’t think were possible. Her encouragement to take my lived experiences and use them to encourage others, that freed me up to question the Biblical text and to develop a liberative lens that made sense of what I’ve learned over the years in work around sexuality.
Working with Dr. Cannon, along with professors at Virginia Union who were asking tough questions about the black church and justice… these various streams of influence all came together in me and led me to this place. It’s really been a beautiful blossoming of events, and there’s no succinct or short way to capture that beauty.
[PST] This work must be difficult. What sustains you? What keeps you going?
[LC] Over the years, as I’ve matured, not necessarily chronologically, but in terms of my spirit, the things that sustain me have changed. Now, I would say, I’m carried along by having quiet time to pray, or by sitting in nature, to watch the sunset - really embracing the power of quiet - and also by reading things that spark my intellect and bring me joy. Dancing with friends, too… and spending quality time with the people with whom I can just be myself around. I need to have relationships in which I don’t have to care for others, but where we can mutually care for each other.
[PST] If you were addressing a group of graduating seminarians, or anyone interested in work similar to your own, what advice would you share with them?
[LC] Be willing to take risks. Be open to your path changing. Stay grounded to the work that your soul must have.
All I have done to this point - all that can be considered a success - all that I’m proud of for my own self - has been connected to the people I love. It’s been connected to the work I love and to this grounding I have and my desire to change the world and to make Richmond a more just place.
You have to stay grounded and connected to that voice or that pull or whatever sense you have for what you’re called to do in the world. And you may not ever know from one season to the next just what type of job this will turn out to be, but you know this is what you’re called to do.
I never thought I would help to bring the first ever Black LGBTQ Pride festival to the Commonwealth of Virginia, but because I love people and because I believe in justice and because we deserve to have voice and space, I was able to do that with a committed group of folks. I never thought that would happen.
I never thought in a million years that someone of the caliber of Dr. Cannon would not only consider me a student but one of her friends. I never thought I’d be able to go across the country and talk with people - black women, LGBTQ folks, and all types of people - around sexuality and faith and how we find wholeness. Though I never knew over the years how this passion would manifest from one year to the next, I always knew it was my calling in this larger sense.
In short, be willing to take risks, because even when things aren’t going the way you thought they would go, they’re going the right way. Even in failure, there is success, and there are good lessons to be learned in that.
Rev. Lacette Cross, affectionately called Rev. L, lives in Richmond, VA. She is actively involved in the greater Richmond community as a faith leader, activist, speaker, and volunteer. Rev. L is the pastor of Restoration Fellowship RVA, the Founder/CEO of Will You Be Whole that talks sex and faith for wholeness and the co-founder of Us Giving Richmond Connections (UGRC), a black LGBTQ health and wellness nonprofit responsible for the first ever black pride festival in the state of Virginia. Her interests include spending time with friends, watching sci-fi action movies and reading good books. Social media: FB: Will You Be Whole w/Rev. L and IG: @revlsexandfaith