Amid ongoing conversations about the harm caused by a “purity” ethic taught within mostly evangelical churches in the 1990s-2000s (and for some, still today), a number of ethicists, theologians, pastors, and educators have been quietly shaping a new ethic — some for years.
Rev. Lacette (Rev. L) Cross is the pastor of Restoration Fellowship in Richmond, Va., and leads a ministry called Will You Be Whole, which focuses on creating healthy conversations around sex and faith, particularly in the black church. She also serves as the director of volunteers and outreach for the LGBTQ+ youth organization Side by Side. She has been engaging in the work of sex and faith for the past five years and previously worked as a youth sexuality educator.
Rev. L spoke to Sojourners about the ways engaging in deep conversations about holistic sexuality and sexual ethics is unique within the black church.
This conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Sandi Villarreal, Sojourners: Tell me a little bit about the work that you do in Richmond around this topic.
Rev. Lacette (Rev. L) Cross: So I have the business called Will You Be Whole, a ministry, and I do work around sex and faith with the black women and LGBTQ folks and those who love them, and mostly my work is around bringing together sex and faith from the perspective of developing one's sexual ethic and what is the work that we need to do to develop that ethic. I also pastor a church. So the beauty that I get to use my church as kind of experimentation space.
So we have done some, you know, sex-positive spirituality parables. We do a bimonthly, essentially similar to Linda [Kay Klein's Break Free Together] dinner, but we call it Chat and Chew, and we do it in the community and we have a conversation. I do workshops and do a lot of different kinds of presentations at conferences around building a sexual ethic: ‘Can I love God and sex too — is that possible? What are some barriers, but also what are some skills or some tips or tools to be able to do that work?'
Villarreal: When you talk about developing an individual's sexual ethic, do you kind of have your own guidelines for how you see a biblical sexual ethic or is it very individualized for each person in developing their own?
Rev. L: Because I am an ethicist, a womanist theological ethicist, I have a model that I offer: Explore, deconstruct, and reconstruct.
And I think that when I go across the country presenting that model … lots of times folks get stuck on exploring your messages. So I do an activity called 'exploring sexuality messages.' It’s the whole unlearning and deconstructing of like: 'Who told you that? ... What was their benefit to telling you that? What is the benefit in telling women to wait to have sex — who benefits from that?' And then providing folks with some resources to reconstruct: 'What does it now mean for you to do this?'
And for some folks that means giving biblical verses that match where they are on that, that are supportive and healthy ... . That have a social cultural context to them — it's not a biblical literalist perspective.
And then there are folks who are like, 'I don't know about the Bible,' but I offer some tools around journaling and around your own narrative to figure out what that looks like and to look at these choices for yourself.
Villarreal: You mentioned one [barrier] is in the deconstruction process. I'm curious, for people who were raised in the church, what do you find as the biggest hindrance to some of that work coming out of that background?
Rev. L: The Bible. People can't get past that.
Villarreal: Is it a certain interpretation of the Bible that was given to them? Would you say that exploring a new sexual ethic requires a different interpretation of those scriptures?
Rev. L: It is an interpretation of scriptures, but before you can get to that, it is giving yourself permission to see those scriptures differently, and to see yourself in the scripture differently. It is about letting go of that dogma — and, you know, the average person doesn't walk around saying, 'yeah I've got religious dogma,’ we don't necessarily name it that. I’ve got too many theological degrees, which is why I can name it that.
I think that people walk around with: 'This what my mom said,' 'this is what my grandma said,' 'This is what the women in my church say,' — 'This is what people that I love and that I value and the people that I call my people — these are [the things] they leaned on.'
OK, so what does that mean for me to disconnect from this aspect of a wisdom that's passed down from your people without negating your people? And I'm speaking as a black woman, so when I use the language of 'people,' I just mean from a cultural perspective that there is very deep roots to understanding that black folks arrived at a particular way to survive in this country, right? So therefore, if your mama told you, 'don't say this, don't do this, don't wear that,' it wasn't just because she wanted to make sure that you stayed chaste and pure until you were married. It was also a matter of life or death. It was also a matter of a violation that nobody could protect from you.
… So what I do is sometimes say, 'Listen, I'm giving you permission. I'm a pastor. You can trust me.'
Villarreal: You said that you use to use your church for experimentation. I'm just curious how you suggest that other pastors to get this conversation started. I know for a lot of folks, it's just really scary.
Rev. L: Tell all the pastors to just call me and I'm happy to advise them.
I think they're scared to be advised because they might think I'm going to tell them something crazy, but I really just thing that the best advice is to be honest — first, honest with yourself. You have to reckon with your own sexual experience. … Something about being able to know that when you enter the conversation with your people that you have to be ready to lead them, and you're going to lead them sometimes by example and sometimes just by grace.
It’s not about being concerned about what you say or don't say. I do think that pastors need to know what they believe. They need to be clear about what they believe. I also think pastors need to know how to create space and help congregants think for themselves and then be prepared as pastors to know the extent to which our training and our love for the people can only go to a certain place, to where we need to hand them off to a professional person.
… Our sexual education is woefully inadequate both in and out of the church. But what the church does is continue to reinforce the silence. We know that can definitely damage plenty of people as the #metoo and #churchtoo movements are demonstrating.
Villarreal: I think the other piece, too, is that the shame that comes from that silence or inability to articulate a healthy form of sexuality. So when there is some sort of violation, or even just a breaking of the ethic and they were brought up with, even if they've moved past it, maybe they still have that embedded shame. The common thread of a lot of the stories that I've heard is, even if there's trauma, there's this shame that comes with it that is the biggest piece to undo.
Rev. L: There is. But when a pastor openly talks about it in the church space, that is a huge dismantling of that shame, especially a male pastor. And I hate to say that as a woman, but our patriarchal society is what it is.
So when the men really start standing up for healthy sexuality conversations, it totally changes things.