Nikki Toyama-Szeto chats with Pastor Rich Villodas about being a non-anxious presence in anxious times. Rich Villodas is pastor of New Life Fellowship Church in Queens, NYC, and is the author of The Deeply Formed Life.
Learn more about him at https://www.richvillodas.com/
You can find him on social media @richvillodas.
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Nikki Toyama-Szeto (00:11):
Thank you for joining us today on 20 Minute Takes. My name is Nikki Toyama-Szeto. I'm the executive director for Christians for Social Action. Today I’m talking with pastor Rich Villodas of New Life Fellowship in New York City, as well as the author of The Deeply Formed Life. He is going to be talking to us about the prophetic nature of responding in non-anxious ways in anxious times. Pastor Rich, thank you so much for joining this conversation.
Rich Villodas (00:43):
Nikki, so good to be with you again.
Nikki Toyama-Szeto (00:46):
I think one of the things that happened for me in the midst of the pandemic was I remember opening up the newspaper and seeing a picture of Elmhurst Hospital as you all were at the forefront of the pandemic. That's the community in which your church is located, is that right?
Rich Villodas (01:03):
Yeah, we're about one mile away from Elmhurst Hospital. So, it was a very real thing for us.
Nikki Toyama-Szeto (01:11):
Can you tell me a little bit of what was it like to pastor in the midst of a global pandemic that everyone was just beginning to learn about?
Rich Villodas (01:20):
Incredibly disorienting on one level. I remember the first time Elmhurst Hospital was featured in the New York Times and CNN. I look up and go, that's our neighborhood, what are we doing here?
And hearing about stories from local congregants and families. At New Life, we didn't personally get touched, but we had one of our older congregants in his eighties who died early on because of COVID - someone who was beloved in our congregation. For the most part, the people who were dying were family members of congregants. I'd say in April and May there were instances where I'd be on a call with someone and I'd get on another call right after that. And then another one, right after that hearing about who was on a ventilator, who was dying. It was incredibly disorienting. In addition to that, I live two miles from Elmhurst Hospital. On Queens Boulevard, which is a major boulevard in Queens, hearing the sound of sirens nonstop that would fade into the background.
And it wasn't for months on end, but probably for a good three, four weeks where nonstop it became the background noise of our daily existence. That was incredibly disorienting. We made tons of phone calls to try to shepherd our congregation well and see how people were doing and all that. But it was disorienting. I think that is a word that fits not just my experience, but everyone's experience. Having this level of proximity to the Elmhurst Hospital and what was happening here, it was quite a crazy existence.
Nikki Toyama-Szeto (03:07):
Wow. How has that experience shaped, changed, informed either your approach as a pastor or your church's understanding of being a part of that community? Any reflections about the intensity of that ti me, and what you're kind of carrying away from that?
Rich Villodas (03:27):
What's unique about the intensity is that it's hard to silo COVID and the pandemic from the other realities of our world. The language that I've been using is we were in a CPR existence where our hearts are failing and our breathing has been impacted. And by CPR, I'm talking about living in a COVID politically hostile racially unjust world. When you look at the convergence of those three realities, which was our reality in 2020 and remains our reality, it makes it that much more intense. And so having to navigate the political terrain and the anxiety of people, I think the biggest lesson for me as a pastor has been, and I think as a Christian for that matter, has been my most important task is to, by God's grace, remain as a non anxious presence. The only thing that's more transmissible than COVID is anxiety.
If my anxiety is through the roof, everybody else is going to experience that. So I knew my task, and I was telling our leaders and our pastors that, we need to have a life with God. We need to engage in the very practical realities of serving poor families and underserved families in our community as we always have, and especially in time, but our biggest task is to remain a non anxious presence. I think that has been the most important learning besides the fact that, when things don't work out - the zoom doesn't work, the service doesn't stream, we lost internet connection last week during a Sunday service. I'm still using that that phrase, “we're in a pandemic.” It just puts everything in perspective when the zoom goes wrong. It's just like, whatever we're in a pandemic. I don't know how, when I need to stop using that phrase and when that phrase expires, but I'm still using it as much as I can.
Nikki Toyama-Szeto (05:45):
Wow - the prophetic presence of the non anxious presence. I don't know that I've heard many people sort of say that is our faithfulness task in this moment. How do you feed that non anxious presence in the midst of a world that is feeling very uncertain, and in the midst of communities that are fragile and in the midst of some things that are truly worrying.
Rich Villodas (06:22):
To say non anxious presence, to clarify some of what I mean, it's not that anxiety doesn't touch me.
Nikki Toyama-Szeto (06:32):
It's not that you're all zen, all the time.
Rich Villodas (06:35):
It's that I am not being driven by reactivity, which I think is an important nuance here. To be human is to be anxious. But anxiety is an automatic response to a real or perceived threat. We're acting out of our emotionality, not out of our reflection, contemplation, thoughtfulness, or prudence. It's the amygdala at work. It's the lizard brain at work. We are now bound by reactivity. To say non anxious presence is not to say I don't experience it. Over the past year, I've experienced significant points of anxiety- people leaving the church, people wondering why we are wearing masks, why haven't we opened up yet. But for me, the task has been, how do I remain connected to God in prayer, in particular for me and my own rhythms in contemplative prayer.
And how do I have a commitment to interior examination where I am focusing on my own reaction, my own difficult emotions and how that now shapes the way I show up in the world as a pastor, as a husband, as a father, as a friend. I don't know if any of this happens without the level of contemplative rhythms, as well as a commitment to interior examination. This is not easy work. I don't want to paint a picture like this is so wonderful when I get up in the morning and my coffee is already brewed and I pray to God. It's commitment. I don't know if we can get to a place where we are joining a prophetic non anxious presence in this moment without that commitment to prayer and interior examination.
Nikki Toyama-Szeto (08:26):
You are in one of the most intense and looked upon cities in the world. You pastor a large church; that's a significant part of your community. You've got children and responsibilities. Can you give us a morsel of what some of those places for self-reflection or prayer looks like? You're not hanging out in a setting that makes that super easy for you. So can you give us a little bit of what does that commitment look like? How do you jam that into your schedule?
Rich Villodas (09:05):
It's true. There are no mountains or monasteries situated behind me. I have subways. I have fire trucks, and there are very tall buildings around me. That's my New York existence. When I think about my own rhythms, whenever I talk about how I try to cultivate a life with God in this way, that allows me to withstand some of the pressures of being in the context I'm in, I think it begins with a commitment to Sabbath. My family and I, we keep Sabbath on Friday nights at 6:00 PM to Saturday night 6:00 PM, a 24 hour period, where I stop all my paid and unpaid work, giving my myself to rest and reflection and recreation with our family.
For me that is the pillar of the week in terms of what informs the rest of my days. It is that Sabbath where it's a clean break from the rest of the week. For me to stop the work that I do, I'm fully cognizant that the work doesn't stop, that needs don't end. For me, it's a recognition that I'm not holding all these things together - Christ is. Colossians 1:17 He's before all things and in him, all things hold together. That is not an excuse for lack of planning and delegating appropriately. But it's the deeper reality of my heart of who's in charge here. The Sabbath for me, I think is the starting point. I recognize that I'm a pastor, and your listeners might not be, so this might not be a total parallel here in terms of my vocation and their vocation. But as a pastor in our culture at New Life I get paid to pray. Yesterday was my 13th anniversary working.
Nikki Toyama-Szeto (11:15):
Congratulations, happy anniversary.
Rich Villodas (11:17):
I didn't even know! Our treasurer sent me an email that said, “congratulations, Rich.” I was like, “for what?” And she's like, “you made 13 years here.” When I got hired, my predecessor essentially said before I became the lead pastor that if my life is not committed to rhythms and Sabbath and prayer, I'm not going to make it long here. I would not have a life deep enough to sustain the work I'm doing. It's in the air that we breathe, the water that we drink, that I must mark out time, whether it's five minutes, whether it's 20 minutes, whether it's 30 minutes for that level of reflection, prayer, examination. Whether it comes in the morning, whether it comes midday, whether it comes before I go to bed, not every day is the same.
The principle is, am I intentionally getting that kind of slow down time with God on a regular basis? At the end of the day, I have no excuses, as much as I'm on social media, as much as I'm scrolling through my phone, there is no excuse about where do I find the time. There's plenty of time to be found with all of that time wasted on other things. It's kind of prioritizing, if I don't do this, my soul is in trouble. And those that I lead are in trouble as well.
Nikki Toyama-Szeto (12:49):
That's fantastic. When I think of the things that are distinctive about New Life community, I think about the integration of spiritual formation with the life of the church. And I also think about the commitment to racial justice and reconciliation, and how both of those two things, as well as deep engagement with the local community. Those seem to really mark or feel distinctive about the church community that you're a part of and that you lead. Can you comment just a little bit about how those things work together? Can you unpack a bit about what does racial justice look like lived out in the practices of your church?
Rich Villodas (13:29):
I've been here for 13 years, but our church has been in existence since 1987. We're our 34th year. Over the years, I would say, this has inductively unfolded. It's not like we started and said, these are five particular values that we want our congregation to be identified by. It was in the trial and error. It is in the crises and pain that we began to discover what are the theological and formational commitments that we want to give ourselves to. This has unfolded, which I think is the normal, natural way of just being human, that things unfold. We don't have the answers ahead of time. We learn as we go, but it is that reality that life unfolds. One of my favorite Kirkegard quotes is, “Life is lit forward, but understood backwards.”
That is, when I look back I understand. I usually don't understand in the moment. So things need to be subject to change. So over the years, what we've tried to do, and through our learnings, through our failures, through our pain is try to pull together a robust, comprehensive formation and theological framework. The language that I use is our task is to resist formational compartmentalization, which actually says that certain things belong and other things don't. We talk about contemplative rhythms. Well, we also talk about racial justice and reconciliation. We talk about interior examination, and we talk about living justly in the world and missionly in the world. So for us, we want to hold together all these things. We believe that the church must embody these things as a reflection of the kingdom of God. In particular with race, we've worked really hard and have failed much over 34 years. National Geographic called Elmhurst the most diverse zip code in the world. We have 75 nations represented within our community; 123 languages spoken in the neighborhood. I took a picture of the local bank ATM one day when I was taking out $20 on the ATM, and there were about 15 languages on the screen.
This is disorienting. How do I scroll through to English? And maybe if I can't, I'd be fine in Spanish, but my Spanish isn't too great. Our commitment to racial justice has been at its core theological in nature. And we begin the conversation, not just through sociological terms and understandings, but with theological convictions. By theological convictions- it's our understanding of the gospel. What is the gospel? The gospel is not just an individual decision. It's not forgiveness of sins at its core. The gospel is not a postmortem experience. It is not an atonement theory. The gospel is the good news that the kingdom of God has come near in Jesus Christ and that in His life, death, resurrection and enthronement, the powers of sin and death no longer have the last word. If that is the working assumption, presupposition of what the gospel is, that means there has to be significant outworkings of that good news in the world.
And one of the ways that it's outworked is through our commitment to racial justice and reconciliation, which is part and parcel of the gospel. The gospel exists, not just to deal with individuals, but to demonstrate what a new family can look like in name of Jesus, what new structures and systems can look like in the name of Jesus, what new relationships. We're talking individually, interpersonally, institutionally, all these things have to do with the good news of the gospel. When I think about race and all that, it begins theologically. Very practically in terms of how we live this out, so much of the work that I do as a pastor is in defining terms and defining outcomes. We can give all the practices in the world, but if we're not giving a larger framework as to why these practices are important, we're going to miss it. For example, even language like diversity. I love diversity. We love diversity. Our staff, our worship, our elders across the board- there's diversity. And in our context we're talking about male and female, we're talking about ethnic and racial. But diversity's not the end goal of what we're getting at here, because like I tell our congregation, subway cars are diverse.
We're called to be more than just a sanctified subway car. We're called to be a people who are experiencing union, communion, solidarity, the sharing of power. You could have diversity without all of that. How I try to define these things is what is our outcome? It's not diversity. And lots of folks have come to New Life because they want diversity. But when I say that's not our goal, our goal is solidarity. Our goal is love. Our goal is sharing of power. Then people are like, I don't know if I wanna be here anymore because we're gonna talk about some of these dynamics.
Nikki Toyama-Szeto (19:00):
That cost is high.
Rich Villodas (19:02):
Nikki Toyama-Szeto (19:04):
I appreciate how you're able to clarify some of the things that I think we're just very confused on in society that there's just a lot of swirling conversation around. On a little bit of a lighter note, have you ever had anyone quote you back to you? And if so, what's that like? For our folks, Rich is a writer and a speaker and a profound voice on Twitter. So I was just curious, cause I know people quote you to me all the time.
Rich Villodas (19:38):
You know, I have not had that experience of someone quoting me to me. However, my predecessor is a guy named Peter Scazzero who has written a lot of books on emotionally healthy relationships, the spirituality, discipleship, all that stuff there. I get a lot of times people saying, oh, have you read Pete Scazzero’s material or, you would do well to read Emotionally Healthy Spirituality, that unpacks what you're getting at here.
Nikki Toyama-Szeto (20:15):
You’re like, we are the lab that book came from!
Rich Villodas (20:19):
Exactly. You know, jokingly, Pete got some of that from me. I've gotten much from him and he's gotten some from me as well.
Nikki Toyama-Szeto (20:37):
I love it. Well, I feel like this was just an appetizer, Pastor Rich. If folks want to either read your writings or follow you, where would they find you?
Rich Villodas (20:46):
If they went to Twitter or Instagram, it's @richvillodas, that's the handle there. To learn about the book that I've recently written, Deeply Formed Life, and forthcoming books they can go to richvillodas.com
Nikki Toyama-Szeto (21:01):
Pastor Rich, thank you so much for your time. And thank you so much for the work that you're doing. Such an inspiration to me- it always stirs my imagination to chat with you.
Rich Villodas (21:10):
Thanks, Nikki. It is a joy to be here.
Nikki Toyama-Szeto (21:18):
20 Minute Takes is a production of Christians for Social Action. Our music was created by Andre Henry and our show is produced by David de Leon. I'm your host, Nikki Toyama-Szeto. If you want to find out more about our work, visit the website at christiansforsocialaction.org