A few weeks ago, I had the privilege of talking for about an hour with four long-time members of Grace Christian Reformed Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan—Luther Ward, Helen Brent, Tom Hoeksema, and Karl Westerhof—as well as their pastor, Jack Kooreman. This is a brief summary of that fascinating conversation.
From its beginning as a chapel, into its early years as a church, Grace CRC was a predominantly African American congregation. That all changed in the mid- to late-1960’s when a number of white people began to attend. Since then, Grace has grown into a diverse community – diverse in ethnicity, ability, and social class.
In the mid-1960’s those white newcomers came for a variety of reasons. Some saw membership at Grace as their way to make their own small contribution to the civil rights movement. Others came because their families were multi-racial, and they hoped to find greater welcome and acceptance at Grace than in their previous congregations. For example, Tom Hoeksema and his wife, both white, decided they needed to visit Grace when their adopted African American son asked during a communion service at their previous church, “Do black people ever get to serve communion here?”
As this influx of newcomers changed the complexion and culture of Grace, anxiety rose on all sides. Helen Brent, who is African American, said that the African Americans at Grace wondered, “Should we let all these young Dutch kids become part of Grace?” The newcomers worried too. Brent continued, “Even some whites questioned whether they should be there. They thought, if we let too many people from other CRCs here, we whites will dilute Grace as an African American church.” This anxiety did not win the day. Brent explained, “The Grace people said ‘We African Americans were raised as people who extend the good hand of fellowship.'”
That’s just what happened. The first time the Hoeksemas visited Grace, a member who had an intellectual disability walked up to them, reached out his hand in welcome, and said, “Hi, I like you!”
A Commitment to Stretch
The Hoeksemas’ experience was not a random event; hospitality and togetherness were woven into the fabric of Grace’s life. Multiracial families, bi-racial couples, and families with adoptive children of different ethnicity found openness, tolerance, inclusivity, and a wonderful sharing of ideas, all within the context of a bedrock commitment to listen to and follow the teachings of Scripture.
As the years went by, not only did the congregation grow in diversity of ethnicity, but also this commitment to be a welcoming congregation brought a diversity of people with various disabilities and of people from various social classes.
The people of Grace have sought to be involved in their community on a personal basis. One of the ways they practiced that involvement was by connecting with neighbors face to face through neighborhood prayer walks. In addition, they developed relationships with organizations in their community such as the Pleasant Street Home, Alternative Directions, and Grace House.
Pleasant Street Home
The Pleasant Street Home is a group home for men with intellectual disabilities. Their relationship with Grace started because the men came for food at the food pantry. In time, the guys from the home began helping at the food pantry, and started coming to worship. Once again, the hospitality of Grace’s members was stretched. In some instances, behaviors of the men were different than what people were used to. But because the men found acceptance, they kept them coming back. For example, some of them offers the same prayer requests week after week. Instead of growing impatient, Grace’s members decided that the presence of the men there taught them how congregational prayer should be done. Hoeksema explained, “We all have things we are concerned about week after week. These repeated prayer requests remind the rest of us that God is okay with coming back to him again and again with the same things.”
Alternative Directions is a half-way program for men coming out of prison or jail. Pastor Jack leads a weekly Bible Study there, and members of Grace provide transportation each Sunday to all from Alternative Directions who would like to attend worship. Frequently these men help with set-up and take down of events, with the food pantry, and in other ways. Once again, the church had to stretch to accommodate these newest guests to their fellowship. Some purses went missing. Some of the men who ostensibly went to Grace for worship would sneak away during worship services. Instead of asking the men to leave, the congregation developed a protocol for involving people who were recently out of prison, including some who were imprisoned for sex offences.
Brent said, “You have to be honest with people and be truthful in love. It’s tempting to allow certain behaviors that cause harm, and we didn’t want to do that.” One man was showing too much interest in young women at the church. In response, the congregation made sure that another man was present with him at church events to steer him away from this unacceptable behavior.
The Grace House, next door to the church, is a group of people who want to live in community and minister in the neighborhood. Residents of the Grace house usually spend only a year or two at the church, resulting in a revolving door of people coming into church fellowship and leaving quickly. The people at the church had to answer the question anew, “What does it mean to be community when the people from the Grace House come and go?” Church members discovered that this too was another pattern of hospitality that Grace could learn.
As Grace CRC celebrates 50 years since organizing as a church, these long-time members of Grace church expressed their gratitude for the history of their church, and they insisted that they were not exalting themselves but the God who formed them into a community. They also expressed their desire to keep on growing in hospitality and understanding. One of them commented, “We have our issues too. We are not as intentional as we should be. We need to keep finding more opportunities to include people into the life of church, even serving on committees.” They agreed that their default position is to find a way to exercise the same hospitality, and grace, that they received from their Savior to make sure that anyone welcome into God’s kingdom will also be welcome to participate in the life of Grace church.