Faith isn't believing in something in spite of the evidence, it is living for something in spite of the consequences. ~ Rev. Laurence Cross
Northbrae Community Church’s second minister, Laurence L. Cross, was a remarkable man. He was born April 13, 1892 in Gastonburg, Alabama, and never lost his southern accent. He was the second of three sons born to Rev. Luther B. Cross and Lillian (Matthews) Cross, and all three sons became Presbyterian ministers, like their father. A nephew, Frank Moore Cross, Jr., became a professor at Harvard University and was noted for his work on the interpretation of the Dead Sea Scrolls.
Like many other members of his family, Laurence Cross graduated from Maryville College in Tennessee. He then went on to Lane Theological Seminary, a Presbyterian divinity school in Cincinnati, Ohio. He began his career at a church in Portsmouth, Ohio, but then moved to Los Angeles before 1920 and was pastor of the Euclid Heights Presbyterian Church.
Family tradition says that Rev. Cross traveled to Oakland to hear a speech by Norman Thomas, an ordained Presbyterian minister who later ran for president several times on the Socialist ticket. In Oakland, he met a young parish worker employed by the San Francisco Presbytery named Erma Gilbert, whose family lived in Berkeley. During the summer of 1920 she was transferred to the Los Angeles Presbytery, and by December the two were engaged. On December 29, 1920, the young couple was married — at Northbrae Community Church!
Rev. Cross and his bride returned to Los Angeles, but in 1924, when Rev. Frank Brush retired, the Pastoral Nomination Committee unanimously voted to call Rev. Cross as Northbrae’s second minister. The young couple, with their two oldest children, moved to Berkeley in October. For the next four decades they lived in Northbrae’s “manse” at 2064 Los Angeles Street, which was later sold in 1986. Four more children were born in Berkeley.
Rev. Cross was liberal and a free-thinker. During the Scopes “Monkey” Trial in 1925, he preached several sermons in favor of the theory of evolution. He had an abiding interest in the reconciliation of science and religion. A noted orator, his sermons were so well attended that by the late 1930s, special services such as Mother’s Day, Christmas Eve, and other occasions were held at the nearby Oaks Theater on upper Solano Avenue. Rev. Cross was always interested in the most minute details, down to the choice and placement of flowers on the stage. Such special services were very well attended, until impacted by competition from the Golden Gate International Exposition on Treasure Island in 1939-1940, and then rationing of gasoline and tires during World War II.
For about ten years, from 1928 to 1938, Rev. Cross had a daily radio show that was broadcast on NBC stations all over the U.S., called “Cross Cuts From the Log of the Day.” Sound effects which opened each program included the singing of live birds, and the sound of sawing a log with a crosscut saw. Most of the program was not religious, but consisted of commentary on the daily news, and often featured songs performed by a gospel quartet.
Rev. Cross ran for Mayor of Berkeley after World War II and was supported by the League of Women Voters; he won, and served two terms, from 1947 to 1955, which coincided with the “McCarthy era” in U.S. politics. In 1952, the famous actor and singer Paul Robeson was denied permission to perform in San Francisco and Oakland due to his open friendships with leftists and even known communists. When Robeson requested a venue in Berkeley, Mayor Cross cast a tie-breaking vote to allow him to perform in the Berkeley Community Theater on the Berkeley High School campus.
Rev. Cross was extensively quoted by Jessica Mitford in her famous work, The American Way of Death, published in 1963, which exposed the predatory practices of the funeral industry at that time.
Laurence Cross was deeply involved in the plans for the design of the Chapel which was dedicated in January 1958 and now bears his name. Among other things, he was primarily responsible for the ideas which are expressed in the stained glass windows. The Torchbearer windows, illustrating the progress of human spiritual development, meant that many worthy scholars and leaders had to be left out for lack of space. As Erma Cross told it, “…after the sanctuary had been completed, a gentleman from India studied our Procession of Torchbearers and felt very hurt that modern India was not represented in the windows. At once Mr. Cross directed the artist to redesign a spot and Mahatma Gandhi’s name was added.” A reliable informant says that as a result, a stained glass window intended for the demoted John Wesley resides in a closet in Haver Hall.
Rev. Cross later ran for the California Democratic Party’s nomination for Governor in 1954, but he was so honest that he could not be counted on to do what the party leaders wanted, so in spite of his popularity he lost the nomination. (The incumbent Governor, Republican Goodwin Knight, was re-elected.) Two years later Rev. Cross was nominated as a candidate for Congress, but the district was heavily gerrymandered to favor conservative candidates. Nevertheless, Cross polled over 47% of the vote.
Laurence L. Cross died in 1966 following what should have been a fairly routine medical procedure. People who still remember him with great fondness have passed along the memory of a man who seems to have been larger than life.
By Barbara Hill, with special thanks to Richmond Cross and the Berkeley Historical Society.
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