Interview With Pastor Greg Rhodes Of RiverLife Church

By Nancy Lee

I’ve noticed that to many Hmong families here in America that no longer follow the traditional Hmong religion of Shamanism or Buddhism. With this in mind, I decided to embrace the difference and interview the Pastor of RiverLife Church in St. Paul, MN. When I went in for this interview, I expected the typical, “Everyone should be Christian,” but Pastor Greg and his wife Pangfoua surprised me with a warm welcome and open arms. They want the choice to be sincerely made by the believer, not have it be forced onto them. They are amazing and wonderful. Check out the interview I had with them below!

Pastor Greg of RiverLife Church grew up in Southern California with many different careers. Pastor Greg has been a high school math teacher, swim coach, web programmer, seminary instructor, and then finally Pastor at RiverLife Church. He started off with part-time ministry volunteering. Pastor Greg also loved every one of his previous careers.

What inspired you to start RiverLife Church?

Last year at seminary, he wondered, “What comes next?” Being involved in Hmong churches, Pastor Greg came to the realization of young children struggling to connect to God, specifically, the second generation Hmong. RiverLife Church started as non-profit, and morphed into a church. Pastor Greg then wondered, “What would it look like to build up a church for second and third generation Hmong?” Keeping in mind the language barrier, relationships, age gap, hurt from misunderstandings, he couldn’t bare to just watch, so he acted.

What was the main goal?

Pastor Greg’s church is geared towards second and third generation Hmong, focusing on hope and healing. Although RiverLife does welcome everyone in need of a connection to God.

What are some opportunities that someone who is not part of your church can have here at RiverLife?

The website has three years’ worth of sermons, a photo gallery, location of the church, and how to contact the RiverLife Team on it. The website will help you get a feel and vibe. Events are also available – service projects, picnics. The website and app are options for those who are not quite ready for preaching and singing. Pastor Greg also notices that it’s a big deal. Joining in on preaching and singing can be too much for someone to do right away, and Pastor Greg understands that. 

What keeps you motivated?

The Mission, to see that hope and healing actually happen, helping struggling people to find hope, finding solutions in life, being part of life/care groups, and see them heal. This keeps Pastor Greg motivated in the giving of hope and healing to second and third generation Hmong. He wants RiverLife to be a safe place and a place for people to connect with God. Greg also enjoys, laughing, having friends, the great times at church, and that people come to join RiverLife because they want to, not because they feel they need to. As stated by Pastor Greg, “I love a church of people that love their church.” 

What are some of the most important ideas and practices that you think cultivate health in a local church?

A welcoming environment is most important. In reality, someone who doesn’t have a good experience with church will not have good relation with God. Someone with an unpleasant experience has a bad time knowing God. Teaching, preaching, and reading the Bible should be relevant to everyday lives. It should not be just a bunch of rules that one must attend to. The follower should talk about things that connect to problems of people. The Bible should speak to their identity, complex relationship, and issues with friends of different lifestyles. The church should give them the ability to be able to talk about these differences. Being part of a church should make a difference. To attend a church for 10 years and still be the same person means the church has not made a difference. The church should able to make a difference in the community and outside of building.

How did your church team come together?

It started with Pangfoua (Pastor Greg’s wife), the help of the Christian church denomination approval, and a person he didn’t know, Johan, (who is now a strong member of the church). God started bringing people to Pastor Greg and Pangfoua. People they’ve known for over the years, mentored, and shared previous churches with. They all identified themselves with the same vision. As said by Pastor Greg, “We didn’t recruit you, God should move you. This is something that you, yourself should have been called to help and reach out to.” Greg and Pangfoua did not appoint any of their team members. Instead, they volunteered to help.

In your opinion what qualities should a pastor have?

Love God and love people. You can even get away with love God, and like people (sarcasm). In reply Pastor Greg said, “Shepard, a person who cares for sheep, feeds them, protects them, and leads them to good grazing land.” A pastor is caring-orientation, diverse and unique. He brings different skill sets. Pastors do not have to fit a certain personality style, but should be the principle to staff your weakness. Greg is organized, technically oriented, and a good communicator. Pastor Greg said, “Preaching is the thing that your people mostly interact with you on, being a top quality communicator of God’s truth. A pastor should also be emotionally healthy. Without ability to be healthy, he will be unable to lead people. A pastor should also continually grow. Growing is walking with God, having accountability of peers to be able to speak to their lives to stray away from isolation.”

Who has been the most inspiring or influential to you and why?

Youth Pastor in Southern California Doug Fields. This is where Pastor Greg had his first experience with God and the Bible. He had people with a good maturity. Doug’s team had such a powerful impact on Pastor Greg. Philosophy of ministry has shaped Greg more than any other individual, which he learned from Doug Fields.

What do you enjoy most about being a pastor? What have you learned?

Pastor Greg loves teaching and particularly taking complex things from the bible and making them simple for the people. He loves the opportunity to be able to make others understand things. “Bring it down to Earth, live it in ways that make sense to them,” he said.

Greg has learned that starting a new church is hard. Pastor becomes the “catch all.” Anything that needs to get done, that someone else isn’t doing, is done by Greg. He also learned that the team around him makes all the difference. Without a doubt, this is the best team he has ever worked with. Pastor Greg is incredibly grateful for his passionate team. He says they are the right people in right places. Pastor also learned that spiritual endeavor takes lots of very normal unspiritual things. For example, ordering supplies, accounting, paying bills. These jobs are normal, not extraordinary, spiritual, or supernatural.

What are your thoughts on worship music for the Sunday morning gathering?

Pastor Greg loves it. Music has a way that transports people to somewhere teaching/preaching can’t. Music takes people somewhere else. It gives spiritual experience help. “Music can do something to your heart, it speaks to a different part of our soul.” Music is an essential piece to connecting with God. It’s a critical part to our spiritual experience.

How do you define a “sin,” and how would you help someone who has “sinned?”

Sin from bible is defined as, “Missing the mark and selfishness.” It’s when we start doing things only for ourselves. Hurting people around us. Sinning to people, means sinning to God. The Bible talks about the first step, which is confession. What you’re doing is sin. We work hard to rationalize things when they are wrong. Confession is lining up with how you see your behavior and how God sees it. Next is repent, turning around, changing, praying. Then to ask for forgiveness or confessing to someone, seeking help. Sin can start with a behavior. Will definitely comes out of it, without your will to confess, there will be no confession. Some people have a hard time receiving forgiveness. They think that God won’t accept them back, especially for someone who lives in shame. Jesus has already died for them.

What advice do you have for others out there who are not Christian?

Come check us out, the experience might surprise you. Doesn’t matter your experience, but come join for your own first-hand experience!

Closing words?

The most common question people ask me is, “What is it like being a white Pastor for a Hmong Church?” Pastor Greg loves it, but it’s hard. He knows that he is a cultural outsider. With 15 years in the Hmong community, he has tried to find commonalities and differences. The more he understands his own culture, the more he can understand others. “What does a white guy from Southern California have to offer for these Hmong people?” How can he relate to them?” Answer: “They long for a lot of the same things I long for. We all want to be loved, heard, understood, have friends that love you for who you are. There are things that we deeply want.” After admitting to that, it made ministering cross-culturally easier. Pastor Greg has been married for 23 years, and his cross-cultural marriage has helped survival as a cultural outlier. Pastor Greg does think that without the Hmong parties, gatherings and the earning respect of elders, it would not have been possible without experience.

Questions for Pang Foua (Pastor Greg’s Wife

Please tell us a little about yourself.

I am an immigrant from Laos. I came when I was 5 years old. Pangfoua considers herself fluent in both English and Hmong. “I am bicultural,” she said. She grew up in Iowa. Pangfoua grew up not as connected to the Hmong community, it allowed her to entertain herself with dating someone who is not Hmong. She got married out of college. She only existed in Pastor Greg’s world. For the first seven years of marriage. Then Greg and Pangfoua felt the call for the Hmong community here in Minnesota. Pangfoua is a Licensed Marriage Therapist. She is also an Assistant Professor of Marriage and Family Therapy at Argosy University. Pangfoua does counseling, helping couples grow, and most importantly helping people in marital relationships.

How do you feel being a wife to Pastor Greg?

We have a partnership marriage. We both want the other to be at their full potential. When she thinks of Greg as pastor she thinks about her role. Both of them planted the church. Not just one, but two of them. Their roles are different once church starts. Ownership is shouldered with them, not because she is the pastor’s wife, but it is the nature of their relationship. Pangfoua doesn’t really think of herself as the pastor’s wife. Everyone who leads at church is a pastor. She’s also pastoring, not only him.

What do you enjoy most about being part of the RiverLife?

Pangfoua loves hearing individual stories. At the end of the day, church is the people. Not the building, teaching, or preaching. “The individual lives that God is moving and shaping.” The people remind her what church is all about.

What do you think is your responsibility as the pastor’s wife?

I have a role in prayer and healing, people come ask for prayer. I get the privilege of praying for people in deepest darkest moment of need and able to see the power of God in their lives.

What is the greatest blessing and what is the greatest burden of running your own church?

Greg: Being able to serve along side one another. See people who are far from God then they discover him again.

Pangfoua: Being able to cultivate a rich, warm, welcoming environment, where people can connect to God. And I get to create that from scratch.

Burden: There are more needs than what they can serve, helping people grow spiritually so that they can soon help others for themselves to grow and serve others. The amount of work can be a burden sometimes, especially the burden of being good stewards with funds given to God. The need to be accountable to the people can be a burden. God first, but we need to be accountable to the people who have trusted their finances to the people of the church.

What are some resources that people can use to communicate with RiverLife.

A lot is done on the phones because of the new generation. They have formed a partnership with an app development company. What kind of information should people have? Sermons, events, calendar, privilege to know the past and future. The people can look into small groups, bible study and sign up. This also gives them the ability to be in the palm of your hands. Look into streaming, online or right on the app. The app also has an audio podcast. A question RiverLife wants to be answered with the app is, “What can we do to have other people communicate with us without being here?” This gives RiverLife the ability to communicate 7 days a week.

I’m glad that I was given this wonderful opportunity to interview Pastor Greg and his wife Pangfoua. Hopefully everyone who reads this interview has also gained a great interest in them as I did.