"Rich Villodas on The Deeply Formed Life and Anti-Racist Pastoring" Transcript
Season 1, Episode 2
[00:00:00] Rich Villodas: The gospel for me is not about a transaction. The gospel for me is about a person; it's about Jesus Christ and what he has done for us. And so, ultimately it's about his lordship, his kingship of which salvation is a beautiful and primary fruit, but not just the salvation of our individual lives, the salvation of the cosmos, the salvation of the world.
And so I think if we begin from that place, the gospel moves from being anthropocentric, human-centered, me-centered, moves from being transactional. It moves from being relegated to an atonement theory, relegated to a post-mortem existence. The good news is about Jesus Christ. And if we begin there, with he is our good news and his kingdom is our good news, at that point we can find ourselves living faithfully in the world.
[The song “Citizens” by Jon Guerra fades in. Lyrics: “I need to know there is justice/That it will roll in abundance/ And that you’re building a city/ Where we arrive as immigrants/ And you call us citizens/ And you welcome us as children home.” The song fades out.]
[00:01:00] Suzie Lahoud: Welcome to Shake the Dust, leaving colonized faith for the Kingdom of God. A podcast of KTF Press. I'm Suzie Lahoud, here with Jonathan Walton and Sy Hoekstra.
Sy Hoekstra: Today, we have an interview with Rich Villodas, who is the Brooklyn- born lead pastor of New Life Fellowship, a large multi-racial church in Elmhurst Queens in New York city.
He is also a key speaker for the movement, Emotionally Healthy Discipleship. He has a BA in pastoral ministry from Nyack college, and an MDiv from Alliance Theological Seminary. His award-winning book, The Deeply Formed Life, was released in September of 2020.
So just due to some last-minute, scheduling conflicts, Suzie was not able to make the interview, but Jonathan and I, in this interview, we discuss that book, The Deeply Formed Life, what it's like pastoring an extremely diverse community out of white supremacy, the relationship between [00:02:00] emotional health and discipleship and so much more.
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Suzie Lahoud: So now that that's over with, let's get to our interview with Rich Villodas, Jonathan, and Sy.
Sy Hoekstra: Pastor Rich, thank you so much for joining us on Shake the Dust today.
Rich Villodas: Thanks guys for having me. I look [00:03:00] forward to a good conversation.
Sy Hoekstra: Us too. So, we're talking about, or at least part of this conversation will be about your book. It's called The Deeply Formed Life, and you discuss the importance of spiritual disciplines rooted in emotional health, and it kind of goes through several specific practices that have been useful to you and that you think would be useful to readers. And then the book takes what I think some people might find a bit of a hard turn or, maybe a bit of a jarring turn into discussing race and racism. And so I think we would like to know why your book makes that pivot, and what is the relationship between racial justice, emotional health, and spiritual disciplines in your mind?
Rich Villodas: At the core of what we're doing, what I was trying to do in the book, really flows out of the life of our congregation with our five values and the first value being contemplative rhythms. And for me, that first value and the [00:04:00] practices that flow out of that really serves as the foundation to witness to the gospel and witness to the Kingdom of God in ways that address matters like race. And so for me, first of all, the foundation is a life of prayerful union with Jesus, a life of silence, a life of contemplation, a life where we are moving beyond dualistic thinking, either/or thinking, black or white thinking, into a way that's marked by compassion and love and justice and forgiveness. All things that are often competing interests within us that find union in the contemplative life.
And so it's out of that place where we're addressing some of the, well, I'm addressing some of the more complicated divisive issues of our day. And it just so happens that that second theme or value that I talk about as it pertains to racial justice and reconciliation comes after that. Namely because our congregation is so diverse, [00:05:00] racially, ethnically, generationally and so I wanted to just dive right into it. So that's the flow in our context at New Life, and I wanted it to be somewhat consistent with that.
After a number of months that the book has been out, if I was going to make one change, I would consider though having the contemplative rhythms as the first theme that I addressed and then interior examination as the second, which then positions us to really address matters of race a little bit more effectively. But that gives you, uh, in terms of the thinking of what went behind it.
Sy Hoekstra: Totally. And I definitely did not mean to suggest that the book was poorly edited or in the wrong order [Rich, Jonathan, and Sy laugh]. I just, I was more just trying to highlight: I do not think that that's a connection that a lot of people make, right. Spiritual disciplines and racial justice- like so many people separate out those things.
Rich Villodas: Well, yeah, absolutely. And one of the tasks that I was trying to do in, I mean, just holding these values together is [00:06:00] to resist what I call formational compartmentalization in which we fragment and separate aspects of discipleship, aspects of life in Christ, aspects of spiritual formation, that need to belong together but for whatever reason are often separated and compartmentalized. So that was my way of also saying no, these things belong together, not in different books, but really in one book in this way.
Sy Hoekstra: So you mentioned the diversity of your church along a couple of different axes, but one of them that I think some people might be interested in is that you have political diversity. You have both pro- and anti-Trumpers that have been in your pews. And I think a lot of pastors would be interested to know how it is that you preach about discipling people out of white supremacy and Christian nationalism in that context, without, frankly, losing the Trump supporters. [00:07:00] So could you tell us what your approach is when you're doing that?
Rich Villodas: Um, who said I wasn't losing Trump supporters? [chuckles]
Sy Hoekstra: Without losing all the Trump supporters.
Rich Villodas: That's right. I'm not losing all of them because there's plenty that remain, and there are some who have left, which has made 2020 very difficult for me pastorally and relationally and emotionally. You know, on one level, my addressing of the gospel and politics in such a diverse political space- now I've not done this kind of research to get empirical data on this- but my hunch, my pastoral hunch, is that 30% of our church, give or take, voted for Trump; 30% of our church, give or take, voted for Biden; 20 or so percent of our church abstained; and another 20% probably [00:08:00] wrote someone else in. And so that gives you kind of a bit of the spectrum of where people are at in our congregation.
For me, I've tried to do a couple of things. I have not done this all successfully. I mean, I think I've had some good days and I've had some things that I've done that could be done differently. But at the core of it, I'm trying to, number one, be faithful to my understanding of what the gospel is. And so that is the foundation of everything I'm doing. And my working definition of the gospel is that the gospel is the good news that the Kingdom of God has come near in Jesus Christ and in his life, death, resurrection, and enthronement the powers of sin and death no longer have the last word.
And so wherever there are manifestations of sin and death, I am here to announce that those things are no match for the gospel and we want to now witness to that, which means [00:09:00] speaking against those powers of sin and death. And so for me, it's a matter of gospel faithfulness. It's also a matter of pastoral conscience and conviction where I want to live from that place, yet at the same time, I want to be emotionally connected to the people in my congregation.
So what people do not see- they see the sermons, but they don't see the Zoom conversations. They see the tweets, but they don't see the phone calls I'm making to people who I know see the world very differently than I do. And at the same time, I'm trying to ask questions and be curious and understand why they vote for who they vote for in the way that they do.
At the same time, we have lost people who have supported Donald Trump. And so I don't know that there's any easy way around it, except normalizing the difficulty of it and trying to remain close to myself and my own conscience as the pastoral and spiritual leader of our [00:10:00] congregation. While at the same time, doing my best to remain emotionally close to people.
So it's a very difficult, delicate, emotionally draining dance. And I don't know if there's any other way to do it, but to go down that route.
So I'll just say lastly here in response to this question, family systems theory has been very important to me in my own development as a as a husband, as a father, and as a pastor. And at the core of family systems is self-differentiation, which is exactly what I just said, remaining close to myself and remaining close to others in times of high anxiety, and resisting the polar opposite poles of cutting people off or being enmeshed in them. I have to do that hard work consistently so as to preach in a way that my conscience is clear, and at the same time, I'm doing my best to remain emotionally close to people I love
Jonathan Walton: Full disclosure, Pastor Rich is my pastor when I say “Pastor Rich.” So I [00:11:00] was just going to be straight up [laughs]. So I am biased that I deeply respect the leadership and what you do as a pastor and a leader and as a shepherd of a diverse group of sheep. And so I'm wondering, as you were talking about, you know, holding onto yourself while remaining close to people emotionally, while communicating across difference, what does that look like when you're trying to stay emotionally close to someone, but going across difference, but communicating this is an issue of salvation, an issue of the gospel, and something at the core of our faith?
Rich Villodas: On a day to day, what I experience, I mean, the only thing I can control is what I say and how I say it. Which means at certain points, I'm going to maybe be perceived as saying things that are insensitive, judgmental, [00:12:00] blaming. So whenever I, for example, whenever I say the phrase “white supremacy” or “whiteness” or “white normativity,” the number of emails that I get from people in our church… And just to be clear, there are not a lot of white people in our church. So I mean, I would say, you know, 12% maybe of our church is white. New Life has changed significantly over the years. So I'm getting emails from Puerto Rican's, I'm getting emails from Chinese Americans, I'm getting emails from first and second generation Koreans, you know? So it's not the simple black and white thing.
So what does this look like on a daily basis? I can control what I say, what I tweet, but there are a lot of very challenging conversations that I'm having with people. I think Jonathan, for me, I mean, the only thing I could say is this is the expansive view of the gospel that I [00:13:00] have. Which for me transcends, you know, matters of just personal salvation, matters of atonement theory, matters of a post-mortem existence when we die. The Kingdom of God has come in Jesus Christ.
What does it look like? It looks like lots of anxiety. What does it look like? It looks like lots of me disappointing a lot of people. What does it look like? It looks like people leaving the church, and I find out three to four months later through somebody else. I can only pay attention to what I believe God has entrusted me with as the shepherd of this congregation.
Jonathan Walton: The thing that I deeply would like for parishioners to understand and for lay people to understand, cause the way that Christianity in America is set up is that there's one person playing and we're all spectating, right? And it sets up that type of like spiritual consumption, but then also the subsequent judgment of the product that I've just received, [00:14:00] right. And what I would hope to do in this conversation, in podcasts, in the way that we lead- and I think you model this and other leaders as well- is that your people engage as whole people with other broken people trying to follow a perfect Jesus, right.
And the follow-up question would be are there any tangible costs or situations that you can point to that we just don't see that could maybe inspire compassion, could maybe inspire understanding and empathy for that person who's sitting in the church about to send that snarky email to say, “I'm actually emailing a human”?
Rich Villodas: The cost that I, I mean here's a few of them: having many different moments in a given year, sometimes weeks, where I cannot catch a satisfying breath because of the level of anxiety that I'm carrying because of [00:15:00] so many people who are, uh, who see the world different than I do, and are saying harsh things, or judgmental things, or making lots of assumptions about who I am.
For example, I mean, there was a number of churches that organized a prayer protest after George Floyd's murder. And, you know, New Life was one of them. And I, you know, I prayed at the event. I marched down Queens Boulevard and to get email- you know, there was a picture where my kids had a Black Lives Matter sign that they were holding on to- and to get emails from a couple of congregants who were now roping in my children in their comments that they were holding on, holding up Black Lives Matter signs and now they have something to say about my children. You know, people don't see that.
People don't see the level of [00:16:00] assumptions that people have that, because I might say one thing they have now interpreted that as this is what you mean across the board. And much of the- which might be strange for people who are outside of our context- much of the biggest points of stress are, is around racism at New Life Fellowship Church for me as the lead pastor.
Which you would think, “Wow, you guys are 75 nations represented. There's so much diversity. The diversity is reflected on every level of the church. Wow, you guys must be having a great time!” Not really [chuckles]. And so, and I love the congregation. I love the beauty of our church, but when you start, when you start talking about powers and principalities, like matters of white supremacy, the demons are going to manifest and the struggle is going to intensify, and the anxiety is going to persist. And so what's the cost that I pay? Well, there are times where I cannot find a satisfying [00:17:00] breath in a given week because my physiology now has now been impacted because of my anxiety.
So that's what lots of people don't see, but those are some of the costs, minimal costs, you know, at least that I experience on a month-to-month basis, depending on what's happening in the life of our country and our nation.
Jonathan Walton: Thank you for being willing to expound and engage on that. I really appreciate it and I, I'm hoping that it's not more costly for you to talk about it. And then also, I hope it's helpful for people to, to actually hear that making these decisions is costly, not performative.
Rich Villodas: Right. Yeah.
I wish I could just preach a sermon on, what? Uh, John chapter three, and just talk about Nicodemus [Rich and Jonathan chuckle] the whole time and not have to worry about what's happening in the… I wish I could just do that. That would be [00:18:00] awesome. I mean, I'd get less emails. It'd be wonderful. And at the same time, I feel like God has entrusted me with a particular context and congregation, and I need to steward the gospel in that way. But boy, I wish I could just talk about Nicodemus and nothing else. That'd be nice.
Sy Hoekstra: Well, one other thing I wanted to say, I don't want us, I don't want to flatten or ignore, or move past the ways that these things are so difficult for you, but I also just keep thinking, like, that's how Jesus did his ministry. It was not easy. It was a huge mess. He lost tons of people in the process, pretty much everyone. And, you know, ended up to the point where he was, you know, sweating blood in the Garden of Gethsemane. Which is not to say, I don't want to like glorify suffering or anything like that, right. I just, I'm sitting here thinking just how much more like Jesus could the church have looked over the [00:19:00] last five years
Rich Villodas: Yes.
Sy Hoekstra: if every pastor in America was thinking this way? Like it's just, it's sort of mind-boggling and I'm just glad that you're doing it.
Rich Villodas: No, absolutely. And I get it. When I think about what I am attempting to do and what many other pastors have done better than I have. I mean, Dallas Willard said, you know, when Jesus died on the cross, he didn't do it so we didn't have to, he did it so we could join him.
Sy Hoekstra: Yeah.
Rich Villodas: And so, when I think about the lack of satisfying breaths that I get and the anxiety that I have that, “Oh, I gotta have another conversation with someone in our congregation this week about this matter here.” For me, I recognize, I believe I'm being faithful to the way of Jesus and his Kingdom, which in turn means I'm going to experience some of the things that Jesus experienced.
I want to be, I don't know if I've been able to get to the point like Paul, where Paul, the Apostle Paul says that I count it all joy or a [00:20:00] privilege to suffer like Christ has, or James says count it all joy when you fall into all kinds of tests. I don't know if I've gotten to that point, but that is definitely on my mind when I think about some of these things.
Sy Hoekstra: Yeah. Can I ask, was there a moment at some point in the last several years where you realized that you, as a leader, had to step out and lead in this kind of anti-racist way, despite what it might and did cost you?
Rich Villodas: Oh yeah. The point for me was after Ferguson. That was the, that was the point for me that something shifted in my, so we're talking now 2014, I believe? 2015. Where, you know, the shooting of Michael Brown, the killing of Michael Brown, the Ferguson riots and such and protest. [00:21:00] That was the moment for me, where something awakened pastorally.
Now, you have to understand my seminary education exposed me to theology that was not just evangelical. I mean, I was reading James Cone. I was reading Gustavo Gutiérrez. I was reading liberation theology. I was reading and exposing myself to all kinds of theologies of justice. At the same time, so that stuff was in me, but then something happened, and after Ferguson- where I think it happened for a lot of people actually- where something was awakened in me.
And I said, I need to begin to address this. And then there was one, it might've been 2015, I preached a sermon on- I came back from a sabbatical, you know, being away for a summer, for a month- and I preached a sermon on justice. And there was a different tone and tenor to my sermon. I just knew something had clicked in my preaching that day [00:22:00] that has changed ever since. But that's the time that for me, marks a shift in my thinking, in my pastoring, in how I was going to apply the theology that I had come to believe in.
Jonathan Walton: In the midst of those changes happening for you, what were some of the spiritual practices, some of the things that brought you joy, that kept you in Christ and not in the world?
Rich Villodas: Yeah, I think of probably three to four kinds of relationships, more than anything else, that kept me grounded. You know, being able to, I think there was a shift in me in which I began to externalize some of my own anxiety to my wife, Rosie, in ways that I hadn't done before, inviting her into my interior world. And that, that came at the advice of a [00:23:00] therapist that I have seen over the last few years, seasonally. I tend to go whenever I get criticized, whenever I'm in a difficult season, I very easily go into what I term “the hole.” And in order to get out of the hole, what I've discovered is I need to learn how to externalize certain things. And so Rosie being the first relationship and relating to her differently than I had in previous years was really important.
Additionally, I reached out to three other pastor friends of mine in similar contexts, leading similar sized churches around the country, and I just knew I needed a monthly space of 90 minutes, and they needed it as well, to talk about the pain, to talk about the anxiety, the challenges, the questions. In 2020, we usually began our monthly meeting with, “So who left your church this month?” You know, so having [00:24:00] a space to process with them was, it was really important.
You know, and third, you know, if you're looking at it in concentric circles, you know, my wife is in the middle, I have a close network of three other friends that I meet with for 90 minutes each month, a therapist, a spiritual director. These are the relationships that have sustained my joy, ultimately, and over the years.
And then prior to the pandemic, I remember my therapist telling me, “Rich, what are the life-giving activities that you love?” And for me, I love sports. I love basketball and I never forgot the day when I said, “Basketball.” He goes, “Well, when was the last time you played ball?” I said, “Well, it's been a long time.” He said, “Well, why don't you, once a week, middle of the day, especially if it's nice outside, go to the nearby, the nearest court you can find and play.” And I thought, “I can't do that.” Now, I manage my own schedule. I do whatever I want with my schedule. And for whatever reason, I was like, “No, I can't do [00:25:00] that. No way.” And he said, “Well, give it a shot.” And I began to do that just every Thursday or so, it was, middle of the day, got my ball and my trunks, I'm going to go for an hour and shoot some hoops. And it was amazing how the simplicity of that little activity brought me great joy that allowed me to lead and preach and live from a different place.
Sy Hoekstra: So if I could just go back to something that we touched on earlier, but I don't think we made entirely explicit. You say in your book that you think of the gospel as including soteriology, but not just being limited to it. Can you talk a little bit more about what you mean by that?
Rich Villodas: Yeah, the gospel for me is not about a transaction. The gospel for me is about a person; it's about Jesus Christ and what he has done for us. And so ultimately it's about his lordship, his kingship, of which salvation is a beautiful and [00:26:00] primary fruit, but not just the salvation of our individual lives, the salvation of the cosmos, the salvation of the world. And so to say the good news, what is the good news? The good news is not a what; the good news is a who. It is a person in Jesus. He is our good news. And I think if we begin from that place, the gospel moves from being anthropocentric, it moves from being human-centered, me-centered, it moves from being transactional, it moves from being relegated to an atonement theory, relegated to a post-mortem existence.
The good news is about Jesus Christ. And if we begin there with he is our good news and his kingdom is our good news, at that point we can find ourselves living faithfully in the world. So I love, listen, I want people, I want as many people to be rescued personally, by the saving love of Jesus. I, you know, I experienced that, some [00:27:00] 22 years ago, not just me, 14 other family members on one night in a storefront Latino Pentecostal church in East New York, Brooklyn, experienced the saving love of Jesus Christ. I want as many people to experience that. And at the same time, I recognize that's not the core of the gospel. The core of the gospel is a person; it's Jesus Christ and everything else flows from that place.
Sy Hoekstra: One of the things, as I was kind of on my own journey away from a hyper doctrinally-focused, abstracted evangelical type of faith was that statement by Jesus when he says, “I am the way, the truth, and the life.” You know, just breaking down the second part of that, someone saying, “I am the truth” makes no sense to a theology that thinks of truth as a propositional statement to which you assent mentally. And I just so resonate with that because that was, I think one of the things that sort of shook me out of my thinking and went well, this makes [00:28:00] no sense with the faith that I have learned. So what do I need to rethink here?
Rich Villodas: Hmm, that's really well said, Sy.
Jonathan Walton: Something actually that stood out to me in the book and I was reminded of as you were talking, is that it's relationships that, that carry us through this nonsense, right. Our relationship with Jesus, our relationship with other people, our relationship towards ourselves. What are some steps that we can take- and when I say we, I mean followers of Jesus, I mean men towards women, women towards men, I mean the sheep of God- to cultivate intimacy, to connect with others in more genuine and authentic ways so that we can actually partner more with each other and with God to participate, as Jon Tyson would say, in the renewal of all things?
Rich Villodas: You know, I tend to root [00:29:00] everything in, you know, theological convictions. And so that, that question for me, really at its core is theological. And I think it begins with, you know, what does it mean to be human? You know, I read something, I think it was yesterday, that said something along the lines of, “You can be strong alone, you can be successful alone, you can persevere alone, but you can't be human alone.” And I think that's true. I think to be human is not simply about, you know, to be made in the image of God is not simply about rationality and having agency and feelings and such. I think that’s part of it. But at the core of being human and developing deeper into my humanity is a recognition that I am part of something bigger than myself, that I [00:30:00] belong to my neighbor, that I am intrinsically connected, that my very human flourishing, and emotional flourishing, and relational flourishing must happen in the context of these life-giving relationships.
So I think if that is the theological starting point, which I believe it is, I think at that point now the question becomes, how do I open myself up to this? Now in order to do that, I do think there is often lots of interior work that must be accomplished before we can move close to people.
Part of the chapters on interior examination is to recognize the ways that we have been wounded, the ways that we are still carrying big “T” trauma and small “t” traumas in our bodies and in our minds that keep us from moving close to others. And so for me, any kind of movement towards people and relationships for the sake of my own health and their own health, I think must begin with some [00:31:00] of the obstacles that get in the way.
What are the messages from our families of origin that have contributed to greater fragmentation and disintegration? And how can I now name those and in the name of Jesus and through the power of the Holy spirit and in the context of supporting relationships begin to move out of this so that I can move close to people and begin to be more vulnerable and more open? But so much of what blocks us are the things beneath the surface that we don't see.
So Jonathan, the long-winded answer for me is I think, I do believe, how do we understand what it means to be human from a theological perspective is really important. And then what are the formational and emotional areas/ blockages that are in the way that must be named and identified so that we can begin to move close to people?
So for me, that sounds like a [00:32:00] lot of just talk, but I do think that's some of the starting points to… So like, for example, I'll just be very clear: me moving towards three other pastors and saying… for me, came out of a place of vulnerability. My email was, “I recognize how lonely it can be for me as a lead pastor, where a lot of people cannot identify with the various pressures that I have. I need other people in a similar space. Would you be open to meeting once a month?” For me, that's a vulnerable question. And the answer is like, “Yeah, I've been waiting for someone to email me!” you know? So that's what they're saying on their end. But I do believe it starts theologically in naming some of the blockages that often get in the way.
Jonathan Walton: Again, I just appreciate the ability and willingness to name the limitations, call them out, and then the courage to actually deal with those things. Because I think the, um, in the work that I've done, [00:33:00] the amount of spiritual runoff that people have to deal with when we don't do that as leaders, right? So, one of the things that causes me great anxiety and keeps me up at night is conversations that I have with alumni of the work that I do, and they have the same idols that I had, sometimes exponentially more so. And so I had instituted a Sabbath for our two-month residential discipleship program and alumni came by and was like, what are they doing? Why are they resting? And I just looked at him and I was like, “Oh Lord, have mercy.” You know, he didn't get that. He, I hadn't been formed and discipled in a way that made rest a priority and obeyed the fourth commandment, right. Like it was… Yeah. And so the thoughts of that happening cause me great anxiety, and so for someone to express what that looks like to [00:34:00] deal with it, reach out, I think is really helpful for me and I hope encouraging to people who are listening to be able to do similar work.
Rich Villodas: Yeah. Yeah. You know, for me, this is… Jonathan, what you're naming there is for me an ongoing reality that I am facing. You know, I have discovered there's parts of me that I thought were beyond, you know, the stress or anxiety that I'm feeling. I thought, “Why, why am I feeling what I am feeling?” And part of it is there's still lots of residue of areas of brokenness and, and wounding that I still need to address. And so, just a couple of weeks ago, I had, again, another very challenging conversation over zoom with a long-time congregant. And I was very anxious about just the nature of the conversation and found [00:35:00] myself just again, not getting a satisfying breath.
And then I sat down for 45 minutes to do some interior examination, and I discovered what was at the core of what I was feeling. And for me- it sounds so simple, but I think this is some of the work that we're all called to do on some level, especially leaders- there were things that I was believing and in a subterranean kind of level that theologically I know is not true and psychologically and rationally, I know it's not true, but it's been attached to my soul on such a level that it's hard for me to escape. And so I was asking myself, “Why am I so anxious about this conversation? What's going on in me?” And after 45 minutes, I landed on about eight different messages that are in me as I was preparing to have this conversation. And these were the messages, essentially: people disagreeing with me [00:36:00] means I'm a bad leader. Now, I know that's not true. People disagreed with Jesus. Not only did they disagree, they crucified him, and he's the best leader the world has ever seen.
You know, another message: if we're not on the same page, I'm doing something wrong as a leader. You know, not true. Paul and the apostles often didn't see eye to eye, and he's one of the most important leaders of the church. You know, I'm causing division by bringing up delicate issues- that was in my mind. Things will end wrong and it'll be my fault- that was in my mind. I need you to like me for me to be okay- that's in my mind. I need you to agree with me, for me to be okay- that's in my mind. People who leave the church expose my deficiencies in leadership. This is everything I'm carrying into that conversation.
Now, unless I'm able to sit down in the presence of God, and compassionately and curiously search my own soul through the Spirit [00:37:00] to begin to pull out some of these messages, we're going to have a hard time moving forward. So for me, I had to do that work. And that's not one of those stories of, “Oh, 10 years ago, I had to have a hard conversation, and I asked myself these eight questions.” No, it was like two weeks ago, I had to have this conversation and ask myself these questions. So this is the difficult work of following Jesus and being a leader in, you know, in the world.
Sy Hoekstra: I, something that's just occurring to me as I listen to both of you talking about this is, you know, both of you are people who are very focused and have thought a ton about emotional and mental health and spiritual disciplines. And yet, so you're also people who are advocating, speaking very boldly and clearly about idols and things that are wrong and trying to create change in your contexts. And the reason that I point that out is I think there are [00:38:00] probably some listeners who have a, like a little bit of an aversion, even if it's just a lingering one, to trying to implement ideas of emotional health in a community where it requires reaching out consistently and in a way that causes you pain, to people who question your humanity, and you know, that that is sort of a giving into the ideology that you're trying to fight, or it's like dealing with, you know, it could make you like a moderate in the way that Dr. King decried, something like that, right. So I don't know if any of you have, either of you have any thoughts about that, it just, it strikes me that there are some people who might see what you're doing as impossible or just difficult, maybe too difficult. Does that make sense?
Rich Villodas: Yeah. And you know, for me, I think, Sy, as I understand it, as I hear [00:39:00] you, what I hear is, you know, the reason that I try to, and at New Life, we try to hold these together, and, you know, reject this type of formational compartmentalization is, the reason I give myself to this kind of interiority and emotional health is not simply for the sake of my own self-regulation and for the sake of my own self-awareness. The goal is to be a more loving presence in the world. And whether that love is expressed in intimacy with my wife or children, or whether it's expressed in, you know, naming policies that are causing dehumanization and marginalization in the world, I do these things not just so I can feel better about myself, that’s so I can love more powerfully in the world.
People who tend to view emotional health as simply needing to [00:40:00] sustain the work that I'm doing for the sake of maintaining the status quo, you know, that's not what I'm trying to do here. I'm trying to love in a way that's powerful, that's individual, interpersonal, and institutional. But I can see the gravitational pull where people say these two things cannot coexist in this way.
Sy Hoekstra: It sounds like though, your answer a little bit is there's always going to be an abundance of love in God. It's not a zero-sum game; you put it towards this, you put it towards that. You're trying to cultivate yourself and your heart in a way that you can live in the abundant love of God more fully.
Rich Villodas: Absolutely. In all of its manifestations. That's without question.
Jonathan Walton: I have a forming thought that I rarely say out loud, but I'm just wondering what you guys are thinking. So, as you said that, Sy, I think there are a couple of things that I've experienced pushback about that, that [00:41:00] kind of were sparked by what you said. So, pursuing emotional health and, you know, as I would phrase like emotionally healthy activism; prayerful resistance; sustainable, active love in this world is a sacred work and a holy work. So let's say a white person or a racially assigned Chinese or Korean or Asian American person, like comes up to me and says like, can we have a conversation? I think that is a holy invitation. That's an invitation to discipleship. It's not, I have to educate them about their supremacy or their presuppositions, right.
Sy Hoekstra: Wait, why in this scenario are they coming to talk to you?
Jonathan Walton: Well, I think, you know, I'm a Black American, and so they, you know, when someone says like, “I'm going to go ask my Black friend,” I turn into that Black friend a lot of times. And so [00:42:00] I actually have boundaries around this, whether it's like a personal thing, or a professional thing, or, you know, people from the past. To do this work, you know, for me, second Corinthians chapter five, “We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors as though he was making his appeal through us. I implore you on Christ's behalf, be reconciled to God,” where we want to be ambassadors of, or ministers of reconciliation, if that is my position in this conversation, especially when it comes to racial justice, this is a moment where Jesus is present. It's not a moment for me to be self-preserving or pursue a type of self-actualization through this conversation.
Sy Hoekstra: But you also have boundaries, you just said, around these types of questions. So sometimes it is a moment for self-preservation.
Jonathan Walton: Well, it's actually not self-preservation because it's not about preserving myself. It's about, what would be the word? It's not about self-[00:43:00]protection. I think it's about resisting the urge to hurry, for the sake of what I might believe needs to happen in this conversation.
So for example, I think one of the marks of being an emotionally unhealthy activist and an emotionally unhealthy person who is engaged in consistent resistance work is to do things now. Like if I don't respond to this email or respond to this phone call or meet with this person as soon as they need me to, what is going to happen, right?
And if I believe that I'm the savior in that situation, or I'm the only person that can communicate with them in that situation, or the only one that can be the minister of truth and reconciliation in that moment, then I've stepped into the tomb and taken up something that I'm not supposed to, right. [00:44:00] So I think for me, when I slow down, I'm actually, I have to re-center Jesus and de-center me so that I can come in, on my knees, reliant on Jesus, as opposed to relying on the strategies that I've created or the books that I've read to convince this person of whatever their stuff is. Cause I haven't grounded myself yet.
So it doesn't feel like self-protection. But it does feel like preparation for sure. Like the song, “Lord prepare me to be a sanctuary,” right. So when I sit across from this person there's room for the Holy spirit and not my education, not just my education.
I don't know what Pastor Rich thinks about that…
Sy Hoekstra: Yeah. Pastor, I guess maybe to what degree do you think there is room to think that way in terms of like, I'm going to disengage with this person, because I know this is going to be an extremely painful conversation and I just need to deal with my own [00:45:00] mental health at this moment?
Rich Villodas: For me as a pastor, I have to wrestle with the various, the spectrum of interest or the level of engagement that people want to have on this. For some people, they come very curious and humble and willing to learn and ask questions. And then for some, they're not there to ask questions. They're there to tell me, you know, how I should be thinking, how I should be preaching, et cetera.
For people who come with humility and a willingness to learn and ask questions- and, you know, and I'm asking questions, they're asking questions, there's a sense of mutuality there- I'm very much open to it. When people are coming to me with very fixed ideas… Now, how do you know sometimes? You don't know that, so sometimes it's a matter of, sure, I'll meet and then go, “I don't think I'm going to meet again with that person,” because it's pretty clear that they have a particular end in mind of my own conversion, namely, [00:46:00] and not in the conversation, right. So I've had to put up plenty of boundaries to say, “Hey Pastor Rich, can we meet again?” and that first meeting was a train wreck, and for me, I'm saying, “No, I don't think so. And here's why…”
Now, I recognize in my context, there's power differentials. I'm the pastor of the church. I hold the most amount of spiritual power in that way. And so I could say, “No, we're not going to do that.” But, the people that I am creating lots of space for are for people who genuinely have questions. Now, you don't really know them until you meet with them. But I've had to, there's plenty of people that I have to say, you know, I don't think I have the margin to have a conversation because what we're having is not a conversation. It's just you telling me how I should be thinking. And so I'm not going to give myself to that.
Sy Hoekstra: We're out of time, unfortunately, but is there anything, Pastor, that you want to plug apart from, obviously, the book, The Deeply [00:47:00] Formed Life, or anywhere that you would like people to follow you?
Rich Villodas: Yeah. If folks are interested in what I'm up to, they can go to richvillodas.com where you could see what's happening with The Deeply Formed Life, as well as future writing projects that I'm currently involved in, as well as on social media. Social media is often where I'm testing out [chuckles] sermon content and seeing what works and what does not. And so @richvillodas on Instagram and on Twitter is usually where I'm hanging out.
Sy Hoekstra: Awesome. Thank you so much for joining us today.
Rich Villodas: Thanks guys. All the best to you with this podcast.
Sy Hoekstra/Jonathan Walton: Thank you!
[“Citizens” by Jon Guerra fades in briefly, then fades out.]
Suzie Lahoud: Thanks so much for joining us. Remember to subscribe to this show and rate and review wherever you're listening from. Our theme song is “Citizens” by Jon Guerra and our podcast art is by Jacqueline Tam. Follow us on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook @KTF Press. Join us [00:48:00] next week for our interview with Sandra Maria Van Opstal.
[“Citizens” by Jon Guerra fades back in. Lyrics: “Where we arrive as immigrants/ And you call us citizens/ And you welcome us as children home/ Where we arrive as immigrants/ And you call us citizens/ And you welcome us as children home.” Song fades out.]
Suzie Lahoud: I'm Suzie Lahoud here with Jonathan Walton and Sy Hookstra.
Sy Hoekstra: Wait, how did you just say my last name? [laughs]
Suzie Lahoud: Isn't it Hookstra?
Sy Hoekstra: Hoekstra.
Jonathan Walton: [laughs]
Suzie Lahoud: I get so confused, Sy…
Sy Hoekstra: Who, who, who. W-H-O. Who-k-stra.
Suzie Lahoud: Oh, cause I, ah, I confused it in my head…
Jonathan Walton: [in hysterics] I’m so sorry. I [stifling a laugh]…You're doing great though!
Sy Hoekstra: Yeah, you are. It all sounds very good.
Suzie Lahoud: Jonathan’s trying not to laugh at me, that’s what Jonathan’s saying… [laughing]
Jonathan Walton: Because I didn't want to like, you know…
Suzie Lahoud: [00:49:00] Maybe it would be easier if I did it in a Russian accent…
Jonathan Walton: [laughs] Do it in a Russian accent just for…
Sy Hoekstra: Yeah, just to like, loosen yourself up.
Suzie Lahoud: Okay. Yalla. I'm going to do it again… I'm Suzie Lahoud here with Jonathan Walton and Sy Hoekstra.
Sy Hoekstra: [in a thick Russian accent] Today we have interview with Rich Villodas.
Jonathan Walton: [laughs loudly]
Sy Hoekstra: No, that was perfect, Suzie. We got it.