We headed to Europe to explore roots of flesh and spirit. Today we experienced both in the small town of Nijeveen. It’s located in the province of Drenthe in the Netherlands. Our destination: Gerel Kerk, the Dutch Reformed Church that Garrett’s great-grandfather pastored between 1895 and 1929. As we walked in the prelude was playing and the sanctuary was half full. It is a newer building, not the one that Gerard VanHalsema preached in. The organ led our singing and was played well by a woman who identified herself as being a “young” organist. As in the states the organ is a neglected instrument.
The preacher was a retired pastor who was helping them out in a time of pastoral transition. He could have been plucked up from Nijeveen and put behind a Grand Rapids CRC pulpit and fit right in. Though we don’t speak a word of Dutch, we could follow along with the order of worship. We also followed the example of those near us, standing when prompted and closing our eyes for prayers when others were doing so. It was a musical service with the words projected onto a screen. We followed along as best we could, glad that our voices didn’t stand out from those who actually knew the language! Many of the hymns were in a minor key. Her offertory was “Abide with Me” and the hymn before communion was “Heilig, Heilig, Heilig” or “Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God almighty…” We sang that one with gusto!
When it was time for the sermon the preacher moved to the pulpit. Referring to his notes he began to preach from the book of Job or, as we heard it, Yobe. He was well prepared and spoke with feeling. I’m in the industry so I know it takes prayerful effort to deliver a sermon from which folks will draw nourishment. I had felt a disconnect between the era when Domine Gerard pastored this congregation and our morning worship. But as this interim pastor addressed the flock, I was struck that the roots of Garrett’s great-grandfather were here. Each pastor must faithfully preach the Word to his or her people so that their faith is deepened and they, in turn, will pass it on to the next generation. Pastor Gerard holds the distinction of having served Gerel Kerk longer than any other pastor. His ministry built up this congregation such that we could worship with these people almost 90 years after his retirement. He was so beloved that the street directly behind the church is named after him: Ds VanHalsemastraat. The Ds indicates that he was a pastor.
He and his wife, Willempje are buried in the church graveyard in a gated area behind the building. Their tombstones are tall and announce the significant role these two people played in the life of the congregation. Garrett felt emotional standing before the buried bodies of ancestors who were only a memory by the time he was born. The link to Garrett’s DNA was very evident in this remote Dutch church.
Roots are most often claimed in terms of flesh. But in addition to biological ties, we are defined and united by DNA of the Spirit. Even without understanding the language, we were able to join with these Hollanders from rural Drenthe. My prayer going into the service as complete strangers was that God would show up in some special way. I prayed that our roots journey that had led us to cross an ocean, ride trains, taxis, public transportation and rented cars would be blessed in some unexpected manner. This certainly happened!
We sang a lot throughout the service. That’s one thing Christians do uniquely-we sing together, often carrying home with us the melody and the words. The Psalm of the day was sung, not read: Psalm 34. A few of the words were similar to English so we understood the message of David that ends with these words: “The LORD redeems the life of his servants: none of those who take refuge in him will be condemned.” How many generations have clung to those words of assurance in times of trial? It was a natural pairing with a reading from Job, a man of God whose losses surpass those of anyone. After the sermon there was another prayer. In just a few phrases we recognized it was the Lord’s Prayer. I didn’t have to speak their language to join in. After being on the road for two weeks it was comforting to be in worship with all the familiar components.
It was also a communion Sunday. The usual words were shared, the bread was broken and the cup was poured. Christ’s sacrifice for all of humanity was remembered and celebrated 3,995 miles from my home congregation. We got a goodly swig of Dutch DNA when went forward to share in the common cup. I’m a bit squeamish about that practice but figure folks have survived these germs for 2000 years so I trusted in Christ’s redemptive powers even in this cup!
The most difficult time for visitors is after the service. Will we be noticed? Will people greet us? Folks did and they addressed us in broken English. Our nationality was more evident than we realized! “Kaffe? Downstairs? You come?” One of the gentlemen knew English fairly well. When we made the connection for him of Garrett’s ancestral past, he whisked us into a back room and showed us a framed document that listed all the former pastors which, of course, included Gerard VanHalsema. Our new Dutch friend was excited!
He pulled other parishioners into the project of producing historical documents for us. He led us to the graveyard and took our picture by the tombstones. An elderly couple was getting on their bikes to ride home from church. The husband is the groundskeeper for the church cemetery and was delighted to be able to link a trio of Americans with two tombstones he had faithfully tended over the years. Another woman ran to her home and came back with a souvenir packet of photographs of the original building which was Gerard’s parish. Bert, our volunteer guide, pointed to the empty lawn in front of the church and told us that is where the old church and parsonage had stood. It was in this peaceful space that Garrett’s grandfather, Emo, would have hugged his parents goodbye at the young but courageous age of 18 to set sail for America. The faith that Gerard modeled in that small town would take root in Emo, who became a Christian Reformed minister in the States. Emo’s eldest son became an ordained CRC minister and two of Emo’s grandsons did as well: Clark VanHalsema and Garrett.
The roots of flesh and spirit are richly intertwined. Our tour ended at Bert’s home where a surprised but welcoming wife offered us buns and milk. We broke bread again. To be welcomed as family by our brothers and sisters in Nijeveen was an amazing gift!