Testimony Spotlight: Zach Richards

I hate coffee.  

I am a tea snob. I am the kind of person who will not order tea at a restaurant, not because I don’t like tea, but because I know that people do not serve any sort of decent tea at a restaurant. I am that kind of person. I have about 14 kinds of tea in my apartment, and the tea has its own rack. I judge people based on what kind of tea they like, if any. I often have to order my tea online, because stores don’t carry the tea I like.

I have a problem. I know. 

But I know that I love tea. That is one thing in my life that I am very secure in. And as I’ve gotten older, and had more experiences, the list of things that I am secure in has grown. But that wasn’t always the case.

For a long period in my life, I was often incredibly anxious in social situations, and very insecure with myself as a friend, as a brother, and ultimately, as a person and a son of God. I can very vividly remember a moment when I was a sophomore in high school.  I was riding with my youth group to Washington D.C. for the March for Life in January, and looking out of the window of the bus, I saw a bright, blue, full moon looking back at me, and I found myself wondering if anyone would ever notice if I was gone; would anybody really care if I wasn’t around the next day?

I didn’t know, and was afraid of, what other people thought of me, because ultimately I didn’t know what I thought of me. 

It obviously didn’t start there.

I was born as a baby (this is my subtle humor. Feel free to chuckle), baptized Zachary Joseph Richards. I grew up in an… exciting part of St. Paul. I remember we would have weekly visits from the St. Paul Police Department to our block. On one occasion, the K-9 units tore apart our flower garden in search of a handgun possibly dropped by a young man who had run through our yard. My neighbor and I could very easily identify the smell of Marijuana, which seemed to always be seeping out of the windows of our mutual neighbor’s house, which often had serious gang fights and activity on the street. Eventually, a SWAT team came and cleaned house, but not after several years of having very exuberant neighbors.

This never stopped us.  

In my neighborhood, there were about ten young kids who would hang out and spend copious amounts of time together outside, playing street football, cowboys and Indians, cops and robbers, any other stereotypical kids’ street games. These people very quickly became some of my closest friends, as we would spend weeks together during the summer months.

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However, I never felt like I fit completely in with them. I had been born into a strong Catholic family, and my parents were very encouraging in our faith formation, and my brothers and I received their teaching willingly, and even eagerly. I liked being Catholic. Sue me. Actually, don’t sue me. My car just died, so I need to buy a new car. My fellow members of the “Robie Street Gang” didn’t share my views of faith, and certainly didn’t share my views on morality; they often just did whatever they wanted with no interest on the implications their actions may have on their moral souls. It didn’t lead to much conflict, as we were all content to just respect each other’s opinions, but I couldn’t help but think to myself.

“What do they think of me? Do they think of me as a weird church kid? Do I really matter to any of them?” 

Eventually, when I was 14, my closest friend came to me and confided to me that he and his girlfriend had been spending time together, and ended up having sex. My world flipped upside down. Here was one of my best friends, who I had grown close to, and was becoming more and more like, however hesitant I was to admit it, and he was telling me this information, not out of desperation, or in search of healing, but to brag! I was disgusted. I was confused. I was hurt.

So I stopped spending time with him. I realized where I was heading, and wanted out. There was an experiment conducted one time on frogs. In the experiment, a frog was placed in a pot of boiling water, and naturally, the frog jumped out. Duh. But then they put cool water in a pot, and placed the frog in the water, and began to heat the water. This time, the frog didn’t jump out, but slowly became accustomed to the water, and eventually died, because the water was too hot.

I was the frog! 

So I jumped out of the pot. 

 

So I started hanging out with kids that shared my faith background. I started going to youth group. But everything that I knew about myself, everything that I was secure in, was violently lost. I didn’t know who I was anymore. I had gone from leader of a group of neighborhood kids to an absolute nobody in a group of people that had spent their entire lives together. And I didn’t know who I was. I felt like every word I said was part of a big test to prove myself to others, and I would often play different scenarios in my head, to help me figure out what to say if anyone spoke to me.

I was too afraid to say a thing, but I didn’t want people to ever think I was incapable of interacting with others.

To put it in perspective, if you have ever felt nervous or anxious about giving a speech, or had your palms get sweaty before getting up in front of a large crowd, that is how I felt whenever I spent time with anyone.

People often describe the feeling of butterflies fluttering in their stomach. I feel that a much more accurate description is a gallon of bouncy balls bouncing around in your innards.

I “lived” like this. I longed to be more, but found myself surviving for several years of my life.

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Enter DLITE (Dunrovin Leadership Intensive Training Experience).

My first week of camp occurred after my freshman year of high school. I had heard a substantial amount of praise for a new program, and my curiosity was prodded. (I’m not a cow, just so everyone is on the same page) I signed up for a week of camp, which went pretty uneventfully, aside from two main take-aways.

First, I was listened to. 

 While most DLITE teams we have now are no more than 10 people, my first DLITE team consisted of 15. And all but one were in classes above me. Going into the week, I thought I had no hope. I thought that I was going to be shoved into a corner and ignored for a week. I thought this week of camp was going to be much like the rest of my life. Ha. Little did I know….In the first activity, our team was really struggling to get the task finished, when all of a sudden, the senior on our team looked me dead in the eye, and said, “Well, what do you think we should do?”

“Wha…?” 

This was one of the first times anyone had given me a chance to voice my thoughts, uninhibited, unopposed. And I solved it. I figured it out. And that set the stage for the rest of the week, and really, the rest of my life. I saw in myself value, and that I had things worth sharing. That week, people cared what I had to say, which allowed me to be more of myself.

Second, my potential was seen. 

Up until my first week of DLITE, I never saw myself as a leader. Heck, I was just trying to be seen. It’s pretty sad, but I just wanted friends. I never saw myself as someone who would lead others anywhere. but obviously, one of the main focuses of DLITE is training young people to become leaders. As the week went on, I started to open up to the idea of becoming a peer leader. “I won’t be up front, but maybe I can lead the people around me by example.”

I was getting pretty excited about that. I liked that idea. All of a sudden, I had a purpose; not just to be better, but to be better to help others be better. I started to like myself more.

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During a discussion with the entire team, I don’t recall exactly how the topic came up, but I was talking about leadership, (even just that was huge. Me, talking? With 15 people listening? I was on top of the world!) and one of the other team members, sort of offhandedly responded and said, “Yea, I could see you as a leader,” and the discussion went on. BUT HOLY WHAT??!!! Someone thought I could be a leader! “What does he see in me?! What does he think I have that I don’t see?” That one sentence changed how I carried myself. That one line changed how I thought of myself. Someone thought highly of me. Someone saw potential in me to be greater than myself.

So I wanted to be more.

After that week, my life didn’t do a 180 degree turn. But it planted a seed, a seed which continued to grow, and eventually allowed me to see myself the way that God the Father sees me; as a beloved son, capable of so much. My team saw me as a leader, which propelled me to become more of a leader. But God sees me as a saint, and every day I am driven to become more of a saint. People often ask me when I gave my life to the Lord, or what my conversion story is. Every day is a day for conversion, and every day is the day I give my life to the Lord.

– Zach