Rev. Lacette Cross is associate minister at the Covenant Baptist United Church of Christ in Washington, D.C. She was formerly the pastor of Christian education at the Abundant Life Christian Center International in Hopewell, Virginia. Lacette has worked extensively with young people—including young women of color on reproductive justice issues—and was a sexual health educator for the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice. She is a board member and volunteer facilitator for the Richmond Organization for Sexual Minority Youth, or ROSMY. Lacette is also a programs committee member and a Girls For Change coach, mentor, and trainer for Camp Diva in Richmond, Virginia. Lacette earned a master’s of divinity from the Samuel DeWitt Proctor School of Theology of Virginia Union University. She is also a leader in the Center for American Progress Faith and Reproductive Justice Leadership Institute.
Sally Steenland: I want to start by asking about the work you do as a pastor and with reproductive justice. Tell us how your faith is connected to reproductive justice and how it plays out in your day-to-day work.
Lacette Cross: I believe that it is important to be whole. As a woman of faith, a Christian, a clergy person, pursuing wholeness not only means our spirit but also my body and my mind. I firmly believe that God created us in these amazing bodies to clearly experience pleasure—because there are biological parts that were made clearly, explicitly, only for pleasure! If God created us this way, then I just believe that it is our responsibility to figure out how to be good stewards of our bodies, reconciling what we believe the Bible says and what we hear Sunday in and Sunday out.
So my faith really goes to say, “I know God created me, and the scriptures say that I was created in God’s image, and God said that it was good. And if it was good, then that means that everything about me is good.” When [people are] having challenges about whether or not [they] should be sexually active, or if I am talking with a young woman trying to figure out decisions around birth control or abortion, it goes back to, “What does your faith say? How do you understand scriptures?”
For me, faith is a natural part of the decision-making process. And that comes out … in the way in which I talk with people and how I teach. Many times, particularly within the African American community, church and religion are a major part of how we do things and how we understand ourselves. Whether we go to church every Sunday or not, the whole “God concept” is there. In talking to people, you usually hear negative language, “Well, you know, I know I am not supposed to be doing this. I know I don’t go to the church all the time, so I know I am not really right with God,” or those types of comments. If I am teaching a sexual health class, I bring in the fact that we actually are in relationship with God and that impacts our decision making. That can come when talking to young people about using condoms. It comes out with adults as to the decision of whether or not to live with somebody, whether or not to engage in sexually activity. OK, what is it that you believe? And even though you might not go to church every Sunday, what is your relationship with God?
Sometimes you do not need to have explicit religious language—it can just be: “What do you believe and how are you being led by the spirit to do particular things?” It intersperses throughout conversations, teaching, and relationship building.
SS: Is some of what you say surprising to people in that it feels different from what they have heard in church or what they expect to hear?
LC: Oh, absolutely! I mean, I am not breaking any news stories by saying that the theological perspective of the black church and living in the black community is quite conservative. And there are some historical reasons for that.
So when people find out that I am a minister and realize that I can talk quite openly and liberally about sex and sexuality, they are shocked. I believe some of the shock comes from, number one, the brush that [paints] the black church as conservative. But I also think it is about how clergypersons are viewed. When somebody knows that I am a minister, they are like, “Oh, I need to stop cussing! Oh, I need to stop drinking!” And I am like, “No! I am a regular person! There’s nothing different between you and me!”
Once people realize that, they are a lot more relaxed. And I’ve found that with my work, with young people especially, they know they can come to me about anything. That is, to me, a blessing. It is good that they know there is a minister who can say, “Yeah, that’s real, what’re you going to do about it? Let’s deal with it.”
SS: I want to go back to one of the first things you said when you talked about wholeness. You were talking about some of the church’s theology being rather conservative, but there’s also the lived reality of people in the pews—all the challenges people face and decisions they make. They need to bring their whole selves into church and sometimes feel they cannot do that. How do you connect more-conservative teachings with the need for people to feel accepted when they go to church?
LC: One of the primary foundational lessons that I’ve learned from Pastors Dennis and Christine Wiley at my church is that we do not leave our mind at the door—we do not leave any parts of ourselves when we enter the church house. In fact, the scripture says, “Love the Lord your God with all your mind, your heart, your soul, and your strength.” So it really is about [getting] people to recognize that when you come to church, you are bring your whole self to the church.
There are numerous reasons why, when people get in church, they want to get lost in the emotionalism and ecstatic worship. Because sometimes it is easier and does make us feel better—it relieves the stress of the week.
Sometimes the reconciling is difficult and messy. God is not as clean cut as we have been taught to believe. So when you do face the reality that God cannot be placed in a box, then that frees us up to say, “OK, let me just come and clearly God knows who I am because God created me. The person that was outside the church house last night doing whatever they were doing is the same person that enters the door on Sunday morning.” I do believe that it is about how leadership—pastors, ministers—are able to bridge our lived experience with who we are in God and say that it is OK to bring all of who you are before God.
SS: You are working with a number of programs that involve young people and one of them is Camp Diva. The way Camp Diva is described is as “a new approach to building a woman—one girl at a time.” Tell us how you do that.
LC: Camp Diva is an African American—or girls of African descent or girls of color—empowerment program. That vision statement simply means that we take seriously how to work with each individual girl. How do we build one-on-one personal relationships with them? How do we offer opportunities to experience new things in a group? How do we get them to embrace their heritage and who they are as young women of color?
We partner with Girls for Change and help girls identify social issues in their communities. We give them the tools they need to come up with a project on an issue they care about—drugs are wrong, discrimination is wrong, whatever issue they feel it is. During the summertime they come together five days a week. We plan programming that engages them. There’s doll making. We talk about sexual health, etiquette, and careers that are underrepresented by gender—so science, technology, engineering, and math. We take them on the African Slave Trail here in Richmond. What does it mean to be a descendent of slaves that were brought to this country?
It is a holistic program. The part I love the most are just those silly times when they can laugh and dance. They say, “Ms. Lacette this is the latest dance!” And I am like, “Oh that’s crazy!” They have the opportunity to just be girls.
When young women are given the opportunity to just be their age, that means that once they get to be a woman, they can say, “I enjoyed my childhood, and I learned about who I am, the community I am a part of, and how I give back.”
SS: Are you seeing amazing things?
LC: Absolutely. We see young people who are going off to college doing amazing things, young women coming back and being camp counselors and coaches. They say, “I am coming back because this was such a major impact in my life and totally changed my life. I don’t know where I would be if it wasn’t for Camp Diva.”
I could go on for probably another hour about all the amazing transformation stories we also hear from parents! They say, “Oh, my daughter, she is really quiet, she’s shy, she doesn’t have a lot of confidence.” By the end of camp, they’re saying, “I don’t know what you all did to her! I don’t know what has happened, but she is a totally different young lady. And we are happy for this program.” So, it’s good.
SS: One of the projects you work on is with gay, lesbian, transgender, queer, and questioning students. Tell us about that.
LC: That’s with ROSMY—Richmond Organization for Sexual Minority Youth. I love telling the story of how I got involved: A good friend of mine—we were in a seminary class on Christian ethics. She is a white, lesbian woman, and we sat next to each other and started engaging in conversation. She said, “Why don’t you come check out ROSMY?” I said, “Well, tell me a little bit about it.” And she did.
I decided [to participate] as a queer-identified woman and a clergy person that understands what it means to have someone that looks like you in that space. I was like, “I am in.”
I volunteered as a facilitator for about 11 months and then, coincidentally, was on a panel for an HIV/AIDS forum with the executive director. Afterward, she invited me to be a part of the board. And it is amazing. I love to be not only a woman color, a woman of faith, in this space with these young people, but I also get to go out in the community and say, “This is the amazing work that this organization is doing.” And be proud of the fact that people who look like me are working with young people from families that cannot handle or are having challenges reconciling what scriptures say and reconciling what they believe or what the church says about LGBTQ concerns.
It is because of my faith that I believe in being a model for other young people. And it is because I know that I can go into other spaces. I have been a youth minister and know how to work with young people. And I say to my colleagues that ROSMY is a resource, regardless of what they believe.
It is important to see what living at the intersection is. You have race, class, gender, sexuality, and religion all in one place. It is, “Yeah, this is what this looks like.” The intersectionality piece is so important because many times I have heard that when you are black or gay or lesbian or queer, you are one or the other. You are always having to choose—and don’t be a person of faith because then you really have to choose!
SS: This gets me to my last question. You are supporting these justice issues because of your faith and not despite it. You are grounded in all of these traditions and intersections; they make your voice stronger. As a leader in our Faith and Reproductive Justice Leadership Institute, you have an incredible platform to speak out on reproductive justice and other justice issues. Why do you think it is so important to have faith voices speaking out for reproductive justice?
LC: It is time to change the narrative. It’s time to change the voice that has been the loudest. It’s important to do that with a diversity of people. If God created us all in God’s image, and if we are to love God and do justice and be a part of this world and to be followers of Christ by showing that we love, then it just makes sense that I would stand up and speak to these issues. It’s a no brainer!
The conservative side—the right, whatever the label we want to use—they have their reasoning and platforms and support. They’re very loud and concise. Then there is us on the more progressive side who love God just as much as those people do, who are have the equal amount of passion that they do. It is OK for us to stand up and say, “I believe in this and I support this.”
One of the biggest lessons I’ve tried to teach and leave with my colleagues is that it is OK for us to disagree on scripture interpretation. What is not OK is for one person to denigrate or marginalize another based on the fact that you believe that your idea of God is the correct one. We can work together. Even if that means to just be at peace with one another. Your voice will be heard, and my voice will be heard, and let the people make the decisions for their lives that are most important for them. That was my motivation for applying for the institute; it continues to be my motivation in the work that I am doing daily.
It is OK to be this voice that is progressive, that loves God, [and] that knows scripture but also believes in the fact that we are called to be whole. You cannot leave one part of yourself outside of the church. We cannot ignore the issues that affect who we are.
SS: I just want to say amen to that! What you’re saying is deeply in the tradition of democracy, which is we all have a right to make our voices heard and let the people decide. It’s time for more of us to make our voices heard. And your voice—as a strong and faithful witness and a compelling presence that helps shift the narrative—is an important voice for us to have and can actually help change people’s views a and bring about more justice in the world. Lacette, congratulations on your new job and thank you so much for talking with us today.
LC: Thank you so much.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Sally Steenland is Director of the Faith and Progressive Policy Initiative at the Center for American Progress. You can learn more about this project here.