My great-great grandparents, Gjalt and Klaaska Heslinga, came from the Netherlands to the U.S. in 1893 under the false promise of good farmland in the San Luis Valley of Colorado. Barely into their twenties, the two left their families and their jobs as a laborer and household servant and entrusted their future to the Holland-American Land and Immigration Company.
The company proved to be corrupt and cheated hundreds of Dutch immigrants, including Gjalt and Klaaska, leaving them in horrible living conditions in an unknown place and with land unfit for farming.
Though many did not survive that first winter, my great-great grandparents managed to make it through and moved to Napesta, Colorado, where Gjalt worked for the railroad as a section hand and the family lived in a sod hut with dirt floors. They eventually made Pella, Iowa their home around the turn of the century, along with many other Dutch Reformed immigrants, and raised their children there.
“[Klaaska] hated Colorado,” wrote my great-aunt, Harriet Stek Brand, “She experienced only hardship and loneliness and poverty there. But she did appreciate the beauty of the prairie in the spring when the cactus were in bloom. Then it was lovely.”
This is one part of my family’s story, my immigration story - a story that intersects with those of many others and is filled with both hope and hardship.
The Christian Reformed Church in North America also has an immigration story. We are an immigrant denomination, and the immigrant experience is a significant part of our story. Though the denomination today consists of congregations of many ethnicities and nationalities, it was originally established by Dutch Reformed immigrants who made their way to North America in the mid-1800s.
In pursuit of better economic opportunities and religious freedom, many immigrants from the Netherlands emigrated to the U.S. and Canada in the mid-1800s. They brought with them Reformed theology, Calvinist doctrines, and a desire for independence from the Reformed Church of the Netherlands, which led to the establishment of the CRCNA in 1857. Immigration from the Netherlands increased dramatically in the latter part of the 19th century, causing the number of CRC churches to multiply across the U.S. and Canada. Many post-war Dutch immigrants found their way to Canada, in part because of Canadian soldiers’ role in liberating the Netherlands from Nazi rule, and joined CRC churches.
Like many immigrant stories, the migration journey for the Dutch was long and difficult, and the challenges did not stop upon arrival: loved ones were left behind, lives were lost at sea, many fell ill. Some were taken advantage of or lied to. Promised opportunities sometimes resulted in dashed hopes and dirt floors. Because of these hardships, CRC churches came together to sponsor and support newly-arriving Dutch immigrants. Like many immigrants today, immigrants from the Netherlands could not make the transition alone, so they supported one another. Immigration was and is our story.
It must be acknowledged, however, that immigration is not everyone’s story. Many Native Americans and African Americans are an integral part of the CRC, and their stories are wrought with trauma, suffering, forced labor, and displacement, often at the hands of Dutch immigrants themselves.
The truth is that we are not all immigrants. The heart-breaking and infuriating truth is that for many CRC congregants today, the story is, “we were enslaved,” “we were trafficked,” “we were forcibly displaced,” “we survived.” We must be honest with ourselves about this history too; we must lament it and do our part in God’s kingdom to ensure that neither systems nor individuals repeat this history.
In light of the largely immigrant history of the CRC and the rhetoric we hear about immigrants today, the Office of Social Justice is launching the “Immigration Is Our Story” audio series to remind us of where many of us came from and to connect us with the identities and experiences of immigrants today. Similar to the format and concept of StoryCorps, you will hear interviews between immigrants or immigrants’ descendants and their loved ones from CRC and RCA churches across North America.
Let’s listen to their stories to be reminded of where we come from and where our stories connect. How do the experiences of Gjalt and Klaaska compare to those who are migrating today? How were they able to get here and was it easier or harder to immigrate legally than it is today? How can their story change the posture of my heart towards today’s immigrants? How is immigration and/or migration a part of my story and how can I steward it today for acting in justice and compassion?
Tune into our biweekly audio series, "Immigration is Our Story," via the Office of Social Justice Facebook page under "Videos."
Melissa Stek is a Justice Mobilization Specialist for the CRCNA Office of Social Justice. As mandated by Synod, the OSJ helps CRC members learn about the root causes of poverty, hunger, and oppression, and empowers the church to call on those in power to improve systems and enact just public policy. Learn more about opportunities to engage in biblical advocacy here.