Reconciliation Through The Lens of Diversity
“We need to have a life, a contemplative life with God for the long haul. We need a life of interior examination, not just to name the systems that are complicit with injustice, but to name our own narratives and stories in our own ways that have been formed.” –Rich Villodas
“Lots of churches are multi-ethnic, but they’re not multicultural because there’s just a particular way we’re going to do it. And in our context, part of that is reflected in a number of things: who’s in power in our congregation, who’s making decisions.” –Rich Villodas
“Our ultimate hope is in Jesus Christ, not in the good works that we’re doing – as profoundly good as they are… And the word of wisdom that flows out of that is because Christ is holding it all together, I don’t have to. ” –Rich Villodas
“Do the work, be involved, and at the same time, create a rhythm where you can step away from the work, to be replenished, to be renewed, and to be reminded that we’re not holding it together, Christ is. ” –Rich Villodas
About Rich Villodas
Rich Villodas is the Brooklyn-born lead pastor of New Life Fellowship, a large, multiracial church with more than seventy-five countries represented in Elmhurst, Queens. He is also a key speaker for Emotionally Healthy Discipleship—a movement that has touched hundreds of thousands of people. Rich graduated with a BA in pastoral ministry and theology from Nyack College. He went on to complete his master of divinity from Alliance Theological Seminary. He enjoys reading widely, and preaching and writing on contemplative spirituality, justice-related issues, and the art of preaching. He and his wife, Rosie, have two beautiful children and reside in Queens.
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The full episode transcript is below.
You are listening to the Be the Bridge podcast with Latasha Morrison.
Latasha Morrison 0:07
How are you guys doing today? It’s exciting
Each week Be the Bridge podcast tackles subjects related to race and culture with a goal to bring understanding,
Latasha Morrison 0:16
but I’m going to do it in the spirit of love.
We believe understanding can move us toward racial healing, racial equity, and racial unity. Latasha Morrison is the founder of Be The Bridge, which is an organization responding to racial brokenness and systemic injustice in our world. This podcast is an extension of our vision to make sure people are no longer conditioned by a racialized society but grounded in truth. If you have not hit the subscribe button, please do so now. Without further ado, let’s begin today’s podcast. Oh, and stick around for some important information at the end.
Rich Villodas 0:54
verses 10 through verses 17. But I want to give you my translation of 2020 Translation what Paul is saying this is what he’s saying. My brothers and sisters, someone from Chloe’s crib, have DM me on Facebook telling me that there are quarrels among you. What I mean is this. One of you says I follow Trump, another I follow Biden, another I follow Bernie; still another I follow Christ. Is Christ divided? Was Trump crucified?
Latasha Morrison 1:23
That snippet reminds me of Paul’s instruction to Titus about selecting leaders. Paul says in Titus chapter one, verse nine. And this is the contemporary English translation, “they must stick to the true message they were taught so that their good teaching can help others and correct everyone who opposes it. Rich is a Brooklyn born lead pastor of New Life Fellowship Church, which happens to be a large multiracial church with more than 75 countries represented in the Elmhurst neighborhood of Queens, New York. Rich holds a Master of Divinity from Alliance Theological Seminary; we are so alike in our love for reading, writing, and speaking about the intersectionality of faith, race, and justice-related matters. This husband of 13 years, shout out to Rosie, and the father of two wrote the awesome book, The Deeply Formed Life: Transformative Values To Root Us In The Way of Jesus. We’re going to start our discussion by dealing with spiritual formation. But through the lens of a pastor, who just happens to be Puerto Rican, I want to say shout out to all my Puerto Rican brothers and sisters. Rich is the leader of a multi-ethnic and multicultural church. Listen.
Rich Villodas 2:45
You know what, what I was trying to do. And as I was writing it, and when I was done, I realized, Oh, I think I know what I’m doing after I wrote it. And it came to me like, this is an ambitious reframing of spiritual formation. And it’s often the case that spiritual formation. And I’ve learned so much from the, you know, authors of this kind of area of you know, Richard Richard Foster’s, the Dallas Willards, the Ruth Haley Barton, it’s often white people who have written about spiritual formation and such. And when it’s done, although it’s really incredibly done, I have found that much of spiritual formation emphasizes our personal life with God, the various spiritual disciplines, the practices, what I wanted to do was say, I want to retain those things. At the same time, I want to broaden our vision of spiritual formation so that we see particular areas of our lives informational ways. And so how do we address matters of race, informationally? How do we address sexuality informationally? How do we address matters of mission and justice informationally? And using, you know, the contemplative rhythms and this call to interior examination, what I was just attempting at doing is saying, I think we can broaden it. And so you know, I write about these five values. And these five values are often not held together in various ways. And so I’m saying no, I think these need to be held together. So I read about contemplative rhythms, racial justice, interior examination, sexual wholeness, and missional presence. And what my argument is, each value needs the other. And so for example, to talk about race and racial justice and racial reconciliation. We need to have a life, a contemplative life with God for the long haul. We need a life of interior examination, not just to name the systems that are complicit with injustice, but to name our own narratives and stories in our own ways that we’ve been formed; it takes interior examination to do that—the same with justice and, you know, mission. So I’m saying, this is a comprehensive vision of what spiritual formation can be in this day and age.
Latasha Morrison 5:15
Growing up in the south, and in southern churches, often diversity is framed around issues surrounding black and white, or in other words, those that are part of the African diaspora and those that are of European descent. But a church that is truly diverse should be framed more broadly. And with that in mind, I asked Rich this question, And I know you’ve had to do this because you preach in a diverse neighborhood, and a lot of people want a diverse church. And so a lot of times, I’m always asking people, you know, why do you want this? You know, why is it like, is it to look good? Or, like, Are you willing to do the work of it? Like, you know, do you want a diverse church? Or do you want to reconcile church because there’s a difference? And so you know, what, and for you teaching in a diverse neighborhood, and multi-ethnic church, this also multicultural, that comes with a lot of challenges.
Rich Villodas 6:16
So many challenges and to give your listeners a sense as to my context, you know, Queens 50% of Queens is foreign-born. And so there’s it’s the most international of the boroughs of New York City. We have 75 nations represented in our church 123 languages spoken at the nearby hospital to take out, you know, money at the ATM on Queens Boulevard, which, by the way, side note, our church building is in coming to America. And so when you see Eddie Murphy and Arsenio Hall at McDowell’s, sweeping outside our church building is one block away you.
Cleo McDowell (Coming To America) 6:56
see it they’re, McDonald’s. I’m McDowell’s; they got the golden arches. Mine is the golden arcs.
Latasha Morrison 7:09
I’m telling you, we will become friends because this is one of my all-time favorite movies.
Rich Villodas 7:16
So we’re in it, I like to say we’re in coming to America. And so our churches, incredibly diverse,
Latasha Morrison 7:23
Rich Villodas 7:23
and, and because of that, it’s incredibly challenging. And, you know, but because we’re trying to move beyond what I like to call just being a sanctified subway car. In New York City, subway cars are very diverse. And so, you know, but a subway car is really a crowd of anonymous people in close proximity, a diverse crowd of anonymous people in close proximity. And it’s easy for church to be that way, and the church has to be more than a sanctified subway car; we are the new family of God, you know, made, you know, new in Christ. But, but it is a challenge for sure to preach in this environment. There, there are plenty of gifts and opportunities. And at the same time, there are challenges. And so, you know, in our church, we have, you know, Black Lives Matter activists, and we have Blue Lives Matter, you know, you know, folks as well, sitting next to each other, often unbeknownst to each other. You know, we have, you know, never-Trump and pro-Trump people in our congregation. And so it’s funny. The caricatures of people who support Donald Trump are often seen in one way on social media. But I know in my congregation, which is probably 10 to 12%, white. There are plenty of people for various reasons, fear their one-issue voter, what have you that they support Donald Trump. And these are people who I love and who don’t fit into the standard, stereotypical characters that we often find on social media. But that makes it difficult, incredibly difficult. And in our polarizing society, which is only becoming more polarized. preaching in this context in Queens is it’s quite a challenge.
Latasha Morrison 9:17
So really doing community in the context of a truly diverse environment has its own attributes that can be rewarding and challenging at the same time. I’m sure you may be like me and wonder from not only a parishioner’s perspective, but what this environment is like from a leadership perspective, especially as a pastor and teacher; what Rich says here is great. Check this out.
Rich Villodas 9:41
I’ve learned primarily that the gospel truly is good news for all people. You know, I’m meeting with again, people, our churches, not just racially ethnically diverse, it’s generationally diverse. We have, you know, folks in their 70s and 80s. And we have young families, and young singles and a career spans that, you know, people who are coming from all kinds of educational and academic backgrounds. And, you know, in our church, we have folks who are film directors and hedge fund managers and then down the block from us, we have a homeless shelter. You know, but and with all of that diversity, I’ve learned that the gospel is good news for all people. That’s the first thing I’ve learned about preaching in this setting. I’ve also learned the power of story. There are many people who don’t speak English as their first language because of just again the International nature of our congregation and Queens, but they really connect with the story. And so my sermons are often, you know, teaching and such, but I’m always trying to tell stories because there’s something about a story that unites hearts and joins us in our common humanity. I’ve also learned about the complexity of language, and why, you know, the simplicity of language, where there are certain things that I shouldn’t say because my goal is to connect with people, not to come across a particular way. And I’ve learned the necessity of having other voices within the community speak so as to connect with those in our congregation. Again, I’m a Puerto Rican New Yorker. And our congregation is incredibly diverse. So we have a preaching team. And our preaching team is made up of a biracial man, a black, white man of African American woman, a Korean American, and an Indian American woman, a Filipino brother. And that’s, you know, that’s our preaching team. Whenever someone preaches, you know, they’re bringing with them part of their own ethnic history and culture that the congregation needs to hear, because I can’t speak to all people, we need a team to do it. So those are some of the things that I’ve learned about preaching in this context.
Latasha Morrison 12:07
Diversity is nuanced and layered, which led me to this question a lot of times, um, you know, there are a lot of churches that are multi-ethnic, but they’re not multicultural. How do you work on being? Both?
Rich Villodas 12:25
Yeah, yeah, it’s intraday. Corey Edwards, Dr. Corey Edward’s work, wrote a book on the elusive dream.
Latasha Morrison 12:30
I like her stuff; she has some good,
Rich Villodas 12:33
Latasha Morrison 12:34
great stuff out there.
Rich Villodas 12:36
And the premise of her book was in, you know, majority of these multi-ethnic churches, it takes on a particular white dominant culture,
Latasha Morrison 12:45
Rich Villodas 12:46
And so, lots of churches are multi-ethnic, but they’re not multicultural because there’s just a particular way we’re going to do it. And in our context, part of that is reflected in a number of things, who’s in power in our congregation, who’s making decisions, in terms of the board in terms of the staff is the staff representative of it, and not just the staff representative in terms of, you know, people coming from different ethnic backgrounds, but generational backgrounds, I mean, we have, you know, some first-generation South Americans in our on our staff who have a heavy accent when they speak, and that for me, it’s a value for us, that everyone’s not going to speak with the same, you know, American accent or whatever you want to call it.
Latasha Morrison 13:36
Rich Villodas 13:37
This is a multicultural thing, in terms of expression of worship, this is something that for me, I’ve had to repeatedly disciple our congregation in, and that there is no culturally preferred way of engaging in the worship service. And so for some people, you know, this shouting and dancing for others, they reserved for other good, you know, a flag on the side that they’re waiving. And which can be a bit confusing in our context. But what we’re saying is.
Latasha Morrison 14:11
I want to see that; I have to see the flag.
Rich Villodas 14:11
You got to see the flag, but I mean, at one point, there were flags all over there, kind of now, on the side of the front of the room now, on the side, but, you know, there are moments when I preach, and I remember a black woman come up to me, she said, Pastor rich, you know, you would just preach in today. And I just wanted to say, Amen, and shout and stand up. I said, Why didn’t you? As you know, I don’t want to, so I got up the next Sunday, and said, Listen, first of all, this is going to help me as a preacher, is some of y’all just stand up and say, Amen, and, and just stare at me as I’m preaching here. That’s gonna really help. But I had but going back as a pastor; I have to say repeatedly, there is no you know, one normative expression of worship. Bring who you are. Remember this; this Kenyan woman came to our church she was visiting. And I was greeting people in the lobby. And after the service, I said, you know, my sister, how are you great to have you back her name she was visiting. And she said this was a wonderful service. But why wasn’t there more dancing? I say that’s a good I say, I say, well, you should have led the way for us. I know you’re visiting for the first time. But if you come again, you know, give expression to what you are doing inside of here. But I think for me as the lead pastor; I have to encourage that, that there’s no typical way of just, you know, we bring our ourselves to worship, and that’s part of the gift and part of the complexity of gathering together in this kind of way.
Latasha Morrison 15:48
Okay, so how do we deal with discipleship in this context? Hmm.
Rich Villodas 15:53
You know, when I think about discipleship and race, I have a paradigm that I tend to draw from and in terms of the various layers that we need to consider to have a comprehensive, robust, meaningful conversations. And so when I, when I think about discipling others and creating a formational framework, I think about six layers, I think about a theological layer, historical layer, a sociological layer, a formational layer, and an ecclesiological layer, and the political layer. And for me, you, I mean, if you want to add a psychological layer on that as well, you can make it seven. But for me, formation needs to happen along those lines if we’re going to have a meaningful conversation about what it means to be the people of God in our in whatever setting we’re in. And so it’s often the case that people just look to the Bible and say, Where do you see this in the Bible? And of course, that’s helpful; we need to start there. But there are other areas of discipleship. And so for us, I have used that framework too, to do a few things every year, we have a gospel and race conference. And, you know, you have been on my list, Latasha; I mean, we’ve had some amazing people there the last number of years. And so we were supposed to have something this year. And obviously, this got with COVID. And we’re wondering about what we’re going to do next year. But one of the ways that we’ve discipled, particularly our leaders, is every year we’re inviting some world-class practitioners and experts in this field and addressing those areas of formation. Additionally, one of the things that we do, I mean, I just led a training back before COVID happened in the pandemic with 100 of our leaders. And the goal is to help them think through the ways that they’ve been formed, honestly, and so you talked about Peter Scazzero and Jena Graham. And, you know, I’ve learned much from family systems theory, and part of the book, I’m trying to connect elements of family systems theory into the conversation on race. Because, you know, we say at New Life, you know, Jesus lives in your heart, but grandpa lives in your bones. And what that means is, we all have positive legacies from previous generations. But we also have negative legacies from previous generations. And to the degree that we’re able to name those legacies, we’re going to have a hard time actually naming current reality and allowing the gospel to transform our hearts and the ways that we live in the world. And so one of the things that we do on a regular basis, whenever we teach about race and justice and reconciliation is can you name the way you’ve been shaped by your family of origin, and ways that were conscious and in ways that were unconscious? And so once one simple exercise that lead people in and you’d be surprised, you probably wouldn’t be surprised. You’re maybe some of your listeners would be surprised by the level of difficulty it is to name the ways we were shaped. And so I put on a form usually, how did your family talk about Black folks? How did your family talk or what were the interpreted messages about, you know, East Asians, Chinese, you know, you know, about Middle Eastern folks about Latinos about Dominicans? And I put this whole list down and say, What are the messages? And I remember one person in our congregation, a South Asian brother, and when it got to the point of what did your family teach about black people, he had the hardest time it not because he didn’t know it. But for him to write it down on paper. This is what I learned about black people was the most difficult, and I had to look at him, write it! Write it, brother! Name it! But our ability to name things is what’s going to lead us to freedom and liberation, our, you know, whatever we can’t name we’re still prison to in prison too and so what So one of the ways he talks about racial self-examination in terms of how we’ve been formed by our founders of origin. You know we’re teaching people lamenting, we’re teaching people you know how to collect the connect the contemplative life to matters of race. And so you know, in the book I made about seven or eight various practices that I try to form people in, but it often begins with not just the habit of looking within but also the habit of looking behind us what where have we been? And how is the residue of racial injustice, racial oppression, still very much present in the world today?
Faitth Brooks 20:59
Wow, this is such an incredible conversation. Hey, don’t go anywhere; we’re gonna be right back.
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Faitth Brooks 22:12
Thanks for staying with us. Let’s pick up Latasha’s conversation with today’s guest.
Latasha Morrison 22:17
Now imagine, in this context, Rich as a leader also has to tackle the topic of what it means to be single listen to how he navigates this.
Rich Villodas 22:26
Yeah, our church. And again, in terms of the scope of our churches, probably anywhere between, you know, eight by 1800 to 2000 people who call New Life home. So I would say half of that is are married and half that are singles, in our congregation. And in terms of how we care for singles. I think the first way we care for them is theologically care for them. And by that, I mean, we’re trying we tried to present a theology of singleness that goes beyond classic “don’t do anything stupid” or “wait on the Lord.” That’s typically what singles hear in churches, you know, don’t watch, you know, watch your sexual ethics. And, and wait on Jesus, there’s got to be more than that. And so so first of all, I think how do we theologically frame singleness, where it’s not a stigma? It’s a, you know, it’s a, you know, it’s a, it’s a sacrament, in some ways. It’s a means of grace. Jesus was single, and Jesus was fully human. And I think that’s the starting place to talk about singleness; Jesus Christ is single, Jesus Christ. Never if I can use the language of Marva Dawn, who wrote a book on sexual character, she said there’s a difference between social genital sexuality and social sexuality. And social sexuality is, you know, it’s the ways that we connect with people. You know, just sociologically, General sexuality is, you know, the act of now sexual intimacy, sexual intercourse, and Jesus never experienced that. And yet he lived the fully the fullest human life ever. And so the starting point for any theology on singleness is to look to Jesus. I talked about singleness in terms of how we care for them; we try not to create a hierarchy, but unnecessary division, where singles are always hanging with singles. And so we try to create these gatherings regularly at New Life, where married and singles can get together and be in relationship with one another. And it’s usually the case in churches where the single stay over here, the married stay over there, and we’re saying no, we need to create environments where that kind of classification, ministry classification, you’re not going to find that in the Bible. And so we want to create not just intergenerational spaces, but we want to create these kinds of spaces across your marital or you know, status, or whatever it is. So, and then, you know, we talk about sexuality and spirituality and the connection between that. But we’re not; we’re trying to offer a theology more than just wait on the Lord or don’t do anything sexually stupid. There’s something much more than that,
Latasha Morrison 25:37
As a leader in any context, especially in this context, the concept of self-care is often lost; I can relate to what Rich says here.
Rich Villodas 25:48
For me, what waters my soul is reading waters my soul, and, and so I spend a lot of time reading whether you know, novels or books on theology and formation, those are the things that really water my soul. Also, I mean, contemplative life in terms of rhythms of silence and prayer. Truly waters my soul. And now that basketball hoops are back up in the city, you know, they took out hoops in our playgrounds. And you know, listen, I live in an apartment in Queens, I like I got no backyard with the hoops.
Latasha Morrison 26:26
Rich Villodas 26:27
And so, now that the hoops are back up, just getting out there on the basketball court is water in my soul as well. So those are a few things that have been watering my soul these days,
Latasha Morrison 26:36
Once our soul is watered, where does one find hope? And where does one find peace?
Rich Villodas 26:42
Yeah, in terms of hope, I really, I have found great hope in the people of God. And New York, you know, we, we really got hit hard with the pandemic. And, you know, our church is one mile away from Elmhurst hospital, which was featured in you know, prominently in the news in April and May, because we were the epicenter of the pandemic. And so I mean, I would hear the sound of the ambulance sirens just non stop every single day, driving past our, our neighborhood on the way to the hospital, and, and in all that what I, I found incredible hope in the resilience of the people of God, the ways that people were caring for one another, the ways that people were praying for one another, sacrificing for one another, we put together the COVID Relief Fund, and in our congregation, just to serve those who are losing jobs, and are just economically just in very challenging positions, and the amount of generosity that people offer it for me. These are all hopeful things that when challenges and pressure comes, the people of God are going to be the people of God. And so I’ve been most hopeful by just the response I’ve seen, not just from my congregation; I’m in lots of conversation with pastors around New York City, and to see other churches, stepping up to be the hands and feet of Jesus has been something that has brought about lots of hope. In terms of verifying peace, I mean, one of the great gifts in my life is connecting with pastors on a monthly basis as a small group of pastor friends. And I have found great solace and peace in a monthly phone call over zoom just to share about the challenges we’re all experiencing, the questions that we need to discern, the hopes that we hope to step into. And so I have found lots of peace and wisdom through that kind of friendship. I think those are the things that have really not just water my soul but have formed me really well even in the midst of this crazy pandemic.
Latasha Morrison 29:05
Let’s close out with this verse.
Rich Villodas 29:07
Yeah, my, I think my hope and wisdom are found in one verse in Colossians, one which has become my life verse as a pastor. I got this verse really, God gave me this verse, as kind of like my life for some five years ago when I had about tuberculosis in my lymph nodes. And it was a pretty scary season. And the Lord gave me this, this verse where it says, “Jesus Christ is before all things, and in him, all things hold together.” And the hope that I offered to people who are doing the work is Christ is the one who’s holding this world together. And our ultimate hope is in Jesus Christ, not in the good works that we’re doing as profoundly good as they are. We will all die, we will all have our moment to do work, and then we’re going to be with God and that and in a different kind of a way, but Christ is holding it all together. And the word of wisdom that flows out of that is because Christ is holding it all together, I don’t have to. And what that translates into is, I can step away, and rest, and Sabbath and experience rhythms of renewal, because the healing of the world is not on my shoulders, it’s on the shoulders of God. And yes, we are participating. And yes, we are partnering with God and all this, but we have incredible limits. And so my, my encouragement and words of wisdom are, do the work, be involved, and at the same time, create a rhythm where you can step away from the work, to be replenished, to be renewed, and to be reminded that we’re not holding it together, Christ is. We are species of its own kind, the church is. And one of the ways we show the world what’s to come is by putting our trust and confidence in Jesus Christ in Jesus Christ, in Jesus Christ, in Jesus Christ, in Jesus Christ, Christ in Jesus Christ,
Latasha Morrison 31:17
Yep, Jesus Christ is where we put our trust and confidence. For many of you, a very diverse context is merely a way of life. But for some of you, there’s a sense that you have that says, this is a calling. Think about that, though. This is really more than just a calling for some. In this movement of racial reconciliation, this is a calling for all of us; special thanks to Rich Villodas for sharing wisdom and his heart; his book, The Deeply Formed Life: Transformative Values To Route Us In The Way Of Jesus, can be found in stores, and on most platforms where books are sold. That’s all for now. But until next time, let’s build bridges and not walls.
Faitth Brooks 32:03
If you are a member of the Donor’s Table, you get access to today’s unedited episode. Go check it out.
Thanks for listening to the Be the Bridge podcast. To find out more about the beat the bridge organization and or to become a bridge-builder in your community. Go to Be the bridge.com. Again, that’s Be the Bridge.com. If you’ve enjoyed this podcast, remember to rate and review it on this platform and share it with as many people as you possibly can. You can also connect with us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. Today’s show was edited, recorded, and produced by Travon Potts at Integrated Entertainment Studios in Metro Atlanta, Georgia. The host and executive producer is Latasha Morrison. Lauren C. Brown is the senior producer. Travon Potts was our transcriber. Please join us next time. This has been a be the bridge production. Be the bridge be the bridge be the bridge. Be the bridge be the bridge…
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