Prioritizing good: Get Your Spirit in Shape

Early in his faith journey, the Rev. Rudy Rasmus learned to prioritize good, a tenet that still guides his ministry today. Before meeting Jesus, other things like self and money had been at the top of his list. Today, St. John's United Methodist Church in Houston, Texas, the congregation he co-pastors with the Rev. Juanita Rasmus, his wife, is prioritizing good throughout their community. Their membership, which includes Beyoncé and Solange Knowles, ministers in remarkable ways with their neighbors who are suffering from poverty.

Hear how Rudy's faith was shaped by an aunt, grew under the tutelage of a United Methodist pastor and continues to inspire him to live openly, honestly and transparently every day.

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Get Your Spirit in Shape features conversations to help us keep our souls as healthy as our bodies. Logo by Sara Schork, United Methodist Communications.

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This episode posted on March 15, 2019.

Transcript

Prologue:

Welcome to Get Your Spirit in Shape, United Methodist Communications and UMC.org’s podcast that helps us keep our souls as healthy as our bodies. I’m Joe Iovino.

My guest today is the Rev. Rudy Rasmus, who copastors St. John’s United Methodist Church in Houston, Texas with the Rev. Juanita Rasmus, his wife. Their membership includes a couple of names you might know: Beyonce and Solange Knowles.

Under the leadership of the Rasmuses, leadership, St. John’s United Methodist Church has been a force for change in their community. Their ministries include Bread of Life that serves hot meals to homeless men and women in the sanctuary of the church, and Temenos that provides affordable housing, support, and employment resources to those suffering from poverty. They currently have 3 apartment buildings where they house those who were formerly homeless.

In this conversation, Rudy talks about how his faith journey has been characterized by “prioritizing good.” It’s a phrase that continues to guide his call, even as he ponders what might be next for him when the time comes to retire.

Rudy and I had a lively conversation before the mics were turned on, while we were recording, and after the microphones were turned off. It was enjoyable, but it also led to a vague section of the podcast conversation that I want to clarify. When Rudy talks about his conversion to Christianity, you’ll hear him reference a business that he had been running with his father that his new faith caused him to leave. It’s a little unclear, but he’s talking about a hotel where he and his dad knew there were some illegal activities going on.

I know you are going to enjoy Rudy’s story, his ministry, and his passion for prioritizing good.

Our conversation

Joe Iovino: I’m in the studio today with United Methodist pastor Rudy Rasmus. Rudy, welcome to Get Your Spirit in Shape.

Rudy Rasmus: It’s good to be here with you.

Joe: When you think of the people who helped form you spiritually, who are some of the people that come to mind?

Rudy: Well, first my journey to religion was an interesting journey.

As a kid I grew up in a little Baptist Church. That little church was home. It was family. The people there were all nurturing. They all loved me. They loved my family. So my early church experience was really church as family. My encounters at the Greater Mt. Zion Missionary Baptist Church on 23rd Street in Houston, Texas were… I had fond memories there. The kids that I interacted with were all my neighborhood peers and it was just really cool.

I had an aunt. Her name was Hattie Mae Allen. She was a phenomenal person. She also kind of doubled as my grandmother. She was really my dad’s sister, but she raised my dad from his early childhood. So she became my grandmother, too. She loved my dad. She loved me. And she was a real church lady. I mean the quintessential church lady. And my idea around this religion, this faith, Christianity was really in many cases shaped and formed around her actions and interactions.

My aunt, I called her MaeMae, owned and operated a grocery store in my old neighborhood. Now, if you own a grocery store in a black neighborhood in the ‘60s, you are not only queen, but you are also mayor and president because you have food when food insecurity is real. And food insecurity has been real in those communities for a long time.

Well, I used to watch my Aunt MaeMae give people food who didn’t have money. I used to see her extend credit to people who had jobs, but didn’t have money to buy food that particular week. And then I watched her be very kind to the people who were drunk in and around her store. You know, those folk always smell really bad and had some really, really rough behavior. But she never treated any of those customers differently. So my early formation in and around this faith was watching her.

Joe: Did you put those two pieces together? Like you said, she was the quintessential church lady and she was the one who treated people well in her store. Did you know that those two things went together at that time?

Rudy: I did, but I also like to categorize her as a hybrid between Mother Teresa and Al Capone. She was tough. On one extreme, she was extremely compassionate, and on the other extreme, and in between she was what, as I envisioned a Christian in those days — a church person. I would say she was the rock. She formed my early impressions of the faith based on her actions.

Joe: Are there others that as you grew, started to influence you?

Rudy: Yeah. I’m gonna give you a quick run of my journey.

So I’m rolling through 12-, 13-years-old. My parents leave Houston, Texas for Dallas. I get left with an aunt and her kids for about a year and a half or so.

I went to church with them, but by the time I was 13 or 14 I had exited church. So as a teenager I didn’t really have much to do with church. And it was really…my predicament.

I was kind of self-managing in those days and didn’t have to go. So I didn’t.

I ended up in college very early. I finished high school when I was 16. So I ended up in college at the University of North Texas. There I met a guy who was Buddhist, and man, this guy really turned me on to Buddhist practices. So during college, I’m kind of a marginal Buddhist. Not really a religious person per se. I’d become maybe an early version of spiritual but not religious. This was 1973, 1974 version of that.

I did that for a while and then I tried Islam for a while, after college. I finished college when I was 19. So I was basically entered the work world and started interacting with other folk of other faiths. Then ultimately became relatively agnostic as a young adult, and kind of hung out around that space of not really being connected to religion at all for quite a few years.

In the mid-‘80s, 85, I meet and marry Juanita. My deal with Juanita was, “Okay, I’m going to church with you,” And that’s how I found my way to my first church experience as an adult and that was at a Methodist Church.

Joe: Tell me more about that…

Rudy: So we married and I went to church with her. It was Windsor Village United Methodist in Houston, Texas. At the time it was a church led by a very charismatic, young, former stockbroker turned pastor named Kirbyjon Caldwell. Kirbyjon, the guy was just energetic, charismatic, and immediately I said, “If I’m going to do church, I can do it here.”

So I started hanging out there. And I sat on the pew for 5 years as a non-believer, but really being in the environment, really loving the people that I was interacting with. And ultimately in ’90, 5 years after I started attending, became a Christian.

Joe: You mentioned during college being in the Buddhist tradition a little bit, and then after college Islam. Do any of those practices that you learned in that inform your faith today? Do you still meditate, maybe, as you did? Any of that still carry over?

Rudy: Here’s a fact: You don’t unlearn anything. You know what I mean? Any experience that you have just gathered along the way becomes ultimately part of your narrative, who you are, how you respond to the world around you. And I’m gonna tell you, all of those things ultimately flattened the earth for me. I’m a flat-earth guy. I believe that we as human beings — not human doings but human beings — have a common place on this planet. We might have different paths that we ultimately get to the creator, but I’m proselytizing Jesus every day. Every day.

Joe: Okay, your aunt was really influential when you were young. Then I hear your wife kind of brought you to church, and the Rev. Kirbyjon Caldwell was a part of that as well. Is there someone else you can talk about?

Rudy: If we look at churches network marketing, I’m part of my wife’s downline. Then we became part of Kirbyjon’s downline.

So along the way, I tell you…. So in ’90 when I became a Christian immediately I had a crisis of conscience. So in becoming a Christian the first thing I had to do was to divorce myself from my economic practices. So the business that I was running with my dad… I had to stop taking revenue from that business, which immediately created an economic crisis for my wife and I. Because we were making great money in those days in what I call darkness.

So yeah, that immediate change, I had to literally step away from the business. And while stepping away from the business I accepted a call to ministry. Think about how all of these experiences intersect when we ultimately go to work for God. I went to work for God. I’m not gonna say who I worked for before. But, yeah, horns and a tail. But, you know, in going to work for God I had to prioritize good. Okay? So in prioritizing good my goal was always to think, “Okay, what is good in this moment? What would be good to do in this moment?” So, I’m re-programming. Remember, I’ve been doing some terrible business for a long time.

Joe: At that point would you say you were prioritizing money?

Rudy: Yeah, money is a god to a lot of people. And to de-prioritize money as god and to begin to prioritize good as God, that became my work. So as an early Christian, in ’90-’91, I’m trying to find every area of good I can. I’m still running this business, though. So good looked like this.

I had a customer come in with a certain woman of the morning, noon and night, every week around the same time, several times a week. And that guy was a preacher. All right? Which a lot of my customers were preachers. All right? So I didn’t necessarily have a very high opinion of clergy. But he would come in, and I remember one day… to protect the guilty I’m gonna call him Reverend Jones. Rev. Jones came in one day with a woman of the morning, noon and night. And I pulled him off to the side. I said, “Rev. Jones, why are you doing this?” The way he looked at me. All right? In that moment I knew that boy….

Here’s another situation. I went to church one Sunday after this revival of the heart, and a guy that worked for me at the place was also one of my childhood friends, who knew me really well. We met in kindergarten. I came home from church that day and this childhood friend, Danny, I got out of the car from church. My wife and I got out of the car and I was walking into the building and Danny said, “Hey, man, what happened to you today?” I said, “Man, nothing happened to me.” Danny said, “No, man. Something happened to you today.”

See, really, I knew something had happened to me. My heart had started changing. And then from my heart changing it began to literally manifest on the outside. People who knew me well knew that something about me had begun to evolve. So I ended up answering a call to ministry. And that’s when this next series of instructors or guides crossed my path.

First it was Kirbyjon. So what he did was…. In this first step after telling him that I’m answering a call to ministry he was being given a second campus location by the conference.

So he gave me the keys to that church in downtown Houston and said, “Hey, you know, we need to get it cleaned up. If you can decide on some ministry opportunities there, let’s go on and create a church there.” So he gives me the keys. I’m not licensed. Hadn’t been to seminary. But here’s the deal: I loved Jesus, which meant I loved the people connected to Jesus in every way. And those who weren’t as well.

So I just started loving people, man. And with the keys to that building I began to think about what good can happen here. Because good, as an early believer, was an expression of God.

So that’s when I began to encounter these new teachers.

I met with him every week for breakfast, for a year, my first year of ministry. And once a month for lunch in my second year of ministry. And that was my seminary. So he was my first.

Next, he gave me a book. The book was entitled No Hiding Place by Reverend Cecil Williams, who was a pastor at Glide Memorial United Methodist Church in San Francisco, California. Glide was a church in the downtown…the hardest district in downtown San Francisco—the Tenderloin District. Kirbyjon gave me the book and said, “Read this book and do what Cecil did.” Those were my instructions. You know, I’m in downtown Houston. The church is in downtown Houston. Take Cecil’s book, really a kind of a research project on his church in downtown San Francisco, and replicate. And so that’s what I did.

Joe: What did that mean? What kind of things did you get from the book that you were replicating?

Rudy: One: Love people. Period. That was it.

Number two: if they’re hungry, feed ‘em.

Number three: If they’re sick, give ‘em some extra love. If they’re naked, find some clothes and try to put ‘em on. If they’re in prison, give ‘em some extra love, too. Okay? And if they’re coming home from prison, make sure they find home in your church.

So, you know, it’s uncanny. It is very similar to something Jesus told some friends of him when they said, you know, “Lord, when were you hanging out with us?” He said, “When I was hungry you fed me and when I was sick and in prison you visited me. When I was naked you clothed me. When I thirsty you gave me something to drink.” And they said, “When did we do all of that?” He said, “Whenever we do it for one of the least we did it also for Jesus” (see Matthew 25).

So that was our model. Cecil’s church in San Francisco was doing all of that. They were feeding a million people a year a hot meal. They were providing medical services, outreach services to people with AIDS. They were doing all this amazing work. And what I set out to do was the same in downtown Houston.

Joe: You have done the same in a lot of ways, right? Tell me a little about the ministries at Saint John’s.

Rudy: Well, you know, over the last 26 years…. I’ve been there 26 years now. …we’ve have had about 22,000 people join. People come and go, you know. So we track 5 or 6,000 people a year as what we call members. But, it’s a very fluid experience. Church is not the same anymore. People don’t commit in the same way to houses of worship in the way they did in the past.

I think we have an engaging experience focused on social justice. Really focused on social justice. Whereas we used to provide 500 hot meals a day and related services to chronically homeless people, about 10 years ago we wanted to be a solution to the problem and started building housing for that same demographic. So today we operate 3 apartment buildings for 132 people that we provide extensive care for. That’s 132 people no longer homeless. They have a door, a key.

But when we look at this congregation I think our primary work has been to purvey hope to a very challenged and in many cases hopeless demographic.

Joe: That’s a wonderful ministry that I see so much about, and the wonderful things that you guys are doing there.

Rudy: You know, it’s cool and exhausting at the same time. I think as it relates to the ministry of the pulpit and church management, that part is starting to come to an end for me. But I see the possibilities of doing even more connected to the church, but being able to really exploit the opportunities to help people in even more expanded ways.

Joe: Is there a particular vision that you have right now?

Rudy: Yeah, I do. I’m finishing up a Doctorate of Ministry at United Seminary right now, and my primary research has been with black millennials. What I’m finding is there’s no commitment for institutional survival amongst that demographic, but there’s a great desire for spiritual development amongst that demographic as well.

I’ve met very few people born since 1980 that don’t have a connection with God. Very few. But, unlike my generation as a Boomer, they don’t need the institutional framework to express that relationship with God, like my generation did. So part of my work is in finding new gathering imperatives that will provide a, let’s say, a place where people younger than me can gather, find community, encourage one another to hope and at the same time do the things that that particular group feels important to do. Something I found through my research and many conversations with that demographic is a great interest in issues surrounding social justice. But not just social justice, but how do you engage and enmesh creativity with addressing social justice issues? And how do you engage building community, and how do you address personal and social transformation? And how do you raise accountability in that context? And these are all things people are asking for. My generation called it church. We don’t have to call it church anymore. Once we get free from institutional survival.

Joe: If you were talking to parent or grandparent who is worried about their young adult child—the young adult person in their life who feels disconnected from the church—and they’re having this anxiety about, “Shouldn’t they be going to church?” How would you bring them some comfort that this may be okay? Or what are some things that we can do to help make sure they stay connected, not necessarily to the church, but to a relationship with Jesus?

Rudy: First of all we’re gonna have to suspend our need to control. When we think about our need to control—and when I say ‘our’ I’m thinking about the generation in charge right now—old cats like myself. What we are always thinking about are our buildings and our budgets, our paychecks, our pension. How does this revenue play in the big picture? We’re always thinking about that, as church leaders of an older generation.

I think we need to begin to re-evaluate the use of our assets. How can a church building be repurposed for meaning in this community? What does that look like? There are churches in every community. They sit empty and idle like a big pink Cadillac on a driveway waiting for a Sunday drive at 11 o’clock on Sunday morning every week. That’s a waste of a great asset. So what can we do to take these assets and begin to apply the assets to the needs that exist in this community? How can we do it?

Well, contrary to popular belief we don’t have to sell them, first. How about putting some energy and some intention around their re-purposing.

I’m gonna tell you, we can have a goal of proselytization, you know. Every other global faith experience does without shame. We can turn that big sanctuary into a great yoga practice on Tuesday morning and Wednesday afternoon, and somewhere along the way create enough relationships. Relationships are the key to talk about Jesus.

Joe: As you think through these things, who are you learning from today? Are there those that are mentoring you in that role today?

Rudy: I’m a student of culture. All right? I’m an old hippie, okay? And as a matter of fact I went to San Francisco last week and paid homage to Haight-Asbury. But as an old hippie and a student of culture, I learn from people, not scholars exclusively, not dead prophets exclusively. I learn from people, man. I think everybody I encounter has got something to teach me. And that’s where I live and learn.

Joe: That’s a great example, a great way to look at life and to find teachers just about everywhere.

Rudy: Yeah, there are teachers everywhere. Shakespeare said there are sermons in stones (As You Like It Act 2 Scene1). We’re always waiting on that profound, prophetic moment that comes out of some person with a big head and a larger ego. But the reality, I have learned some critical lessons from homeless people with everything that they own on their back.

Joe: Just because we’re getting up against the time, there’s one last question that I like to ask everyone who is a guest on Get Your Spirit in Shape, which is a shift from what we’ve been talking about. But, what’s something that you do that helps you grow as a Christian?

Rudy: That’s a good question. And for me it’s really simple. I tell the truth every day.

Joe: Can you say more about that?

Rudy: I live with extreme transparency. Okay? And I live with even more extreme accountability. So I’m living truthfully, okay? I’m living openly. And I’m living freely. So what does that mean?

That means I can’t be manipulated by power and I can’t be controlled by money. All right? And in doing so, I live every day as though I’m living the only day I’ve got.

Auntie MaeMae, in closing, taught me how to live my eulogy every day.

When she was dying from cancer I’d watched her live some years at that point. All right? I was 30 years old at this time, and my wife and I moved in with her in the last year of her life, as cancer just took her out. And one night we were talking about her funeral arrangements. And she said, “Baby, don’t have no people standing up lying about how much they loved me and what they did for me or what I did for them.” And she said, “Baby, because I live my eulogy every day. Don’t have some preacher standing up there, you know, talking about what a great person I was,” she said, “because everybody that needed to know that I was a good person knew it. And everybody I needed to encounter had an encounter with me, and they could see from those encounters who I was or what I stood for.”

So from my Auntie MaeMae’s experience, I live my eulogy every day. I’m not waiting until that moment when I die for my good deeds to roll up into a list of ‘what a good boy was Rudy.’ I want to do right by the person in front of me. And I think that person when I’m dead will remember me, which is the essence of eugolia, which is, at the end of the day, my eulogy.

Joe: I so deeply respect and admire your work and all the things that you’re doing, and that goal of living your eulogy everyday openly, honestly and transparently. That’s pretty amazing. Thank you so much for your time today.

Rudy: Thanks for having me. It was cool.

Epilogue

Joe: That was the Rev. Rudy Rasmus, the co-pastor of St. John’s United Methodist Church in Houston, Texas with the Rev. Juanita Rasmus, his wife. To learn more about Rudy and St. John’s United Methodist Church, go to UMC.org/podcasts and look for this episode of Get Your Spirit in Shape. We’ve put links on the page to help you explore all that is happening in Rudy’s life and ministry.

As you search the page, you’ll also see a link to more episodes of Get Your Spirit in Shape, a page of other podcasts by United Methodists that you might enjoy, and my email address so you can share your thoughts and conversations suggestions for Get Your Spirit in Shape.

And if you have some time, I would love if you would go over to Apple Podcasts and give us a review. Good reviews move us up on searches and make it easier for people to find us.

Thank you so much for listening downloading and subscribing. I’ll be back soon with another conversation to help us keep our souls as healthy as our bodies. I’m Joe Iovino. Peace.