Surviving Massive Change
In 1893 Hartog put his fourth son Sake, age 19 on a ship out of Rotterdam to New York City. He would make his way through immigration at Ellis Island and travel to West Michigan to join the immigrants looking for a future. After a few years Hartog would come directly to Spring Lake Michigan with more of the family and they would begin their new lives.
The Vander Klays were Dutch Jews disconnected from their Jewish roots and now their Dutch setting that had been theirs for at least 3 generations. I don’t know why they left the Jewish community. It might have been love. It might have been conflict, but only Hartog and his children would leave. English would supplant Frisian and Dutch just as American would supply Dutchness supplanted Jewishness. Sake changed the names of his oldest two sons from the old Jewish patronymic system when the courthouse burned down destroying their birth certificates. Young Hartog and Heiman would become Harm and Hiram. They could pass for Americans.
Now being the parent of young adult children I have a newfound respect for Hartog’s decision to put Sake on a boat to a strange land. We don’t whether Sake as a 19 year old thought his trip to America was an adventure or a terrifying experience. I just came into possession of his American citizenship declaration that was worn by years of being folded up in his pocket.
Young Hiram would get an education at the Christian school, go to Calvin prep and Calvin Seminary. Calvin Seminary didn’t allow its students to be married so when he got his first call he planned to wed Grace and leave the next day for Vesper Wisconson. To further complicate his wedding day his father had a stroke so they called off the big ceremony, had a small one, and Hiram sat up with his dying father Sake that night. Hartog Senior would outlive the son he had sent on his immigrant adventure. The next day he and his young bride would head out to CRC churches on the prairies to have their own children, preach, teach catechism, and try to keep body and soul together on whatever the Depression era farmers could tithe.
In the span of 40 years three generations of a family would change continents, switch languages, change names, change religions, identities, nationalities, and cultures all in the struggle to survive and hopefully, finally flourish.
In the midst of such enormous change how do people keep from being overwhelmed? They embrace a limited set of ultimate beliefs to practices and hold to them doggedly while everything else around them is in flux.
Practice, Faith and Complexity
To be Christian Reformed meant holding tightly to a limited list of doable things
- Go to church twice on Sunday. If you didn’t you would be visited by stern elders and possibly threatened with censure and discipline
- Limit your activities on Sunday to church attendance and passive, contemplative pursuits like napping and reading. Cooking, shopping, entertainment, sports, and other recreational activities were not in keeping with the Lord’s Day.
- Send your kids to Christian school if possible and commit your time and money to the institutions of your religious/ethnic community. People’s lives were live in limited circles. Friends at school were friends at church. Marry only those within your church. Do not be unequally yoked. An RCA parter is about as far as you dare stray.
- Worldly amusements were to be rejected and sound doctrine promoted and guarded. Other churches and doctrines were seen as dangerous as well as secular diversions such as card playing and movies. The broader world was best interacted with via reading and usually through the filters of sanctioned community leaders with whom you have known church and family ties.
When you say “church is family” for the immigrants this was increasingly true. The CRCs institutions and language helped us always know what who is “us” and “them”. How did these people, often desperately poor and harried deal with overwhelming complexity and threat? By massively simplifying their world by creating a huge family network of practices, institutions and traditions.
Jordan Peterson and Managing Complexity and Disruption
I’ve been listening to a lot of Jordan Peterson lately and learning a bit of developmental theory. Peterson notes that we live in a world of near infinite complexity and the only way we can navigate this complex world is to develop filters through which to organize it, interpret it and then interact with it. The only way to manage the massive, nested changes necessary for survival is to lay footings stable enough to construct a life. For the wave of immigrants who came to America for new beginnings the Christian Reformed church became a new family through which the massive complexities of changing lands, changing jobs, changing languages, changing religions, changing names and changing identities could be managed. People are deeply social and need to be nested within a community of others for their sanity. Within that community they need to learn to trust and together they can define themselves and construct their worlds.
This filtering, bonding and construction is not so much a theoretical thing as it is a practical and experiential thing. We learn to trust each other first by small positive exchanges and experiences. If I smile will they smile? If I lend to them will they lend to me? Will they keep their promises to me or betray me?
Initially racial, theological, geographical and language commonalities reduce the bandwidth necessary to pursue larger, longer term commitments and bit by bit just as food is exchanged, ideas are shared, money is pooled, institutions are built.
When we find trustworthy partners we can start to rely on each other for larger, deeper institutions which expand the network of trust beyond our face to face relationships. To be known as CRC means to be part of the family, a family that will take you in, give you a meal and maybe even a job.
All of this becomes nested layers of relationships and institutions through which individuals invest their hopes that the ferocious complexity of the world can be tamed and a future of stability and prosperity may be brought forth for themselves, their children and their children’s children. For immigrants lacking the networks and skills already required by established public institutions the CRC provided a private network of nested practices and institutions within which you could live your whole life. You were baptized into it. Schooled by it on Sunday and during the week. You got your jobs through it. Retired into homes run by the children of our beloved community.
Hartog and Sake could not have picked a better group to associate with. Ditch the synagogue, learn the catechism, take American names (especially from the Bible), take brides from this tribe and make your way into a new land through it.
Chaos and Opportunity
Stan would follow Hiram in Christian school, Calvin College and Calvin Seminary. He wound up in New Jersey so his bride of Frisian descent wouldn’t be too far from her Whitinsville roots. Stan grew up among Dutch farmers in rural communities. It’s likely the first African American he ever saw was a porter on a train. Now this guy, whiter than white would hitch his wagon to a sliver of New Jersey Dutchmen who had a crazy idea that the African American migrants moving up to fill the Paterson NJ workers housing needed some help and maybe even some of their “Reformed accent” their tribe was so proud of. This would bring changes into Stan’s life like he could never have imagined.
Jordan Peterson would describe this story as one of entering into chaos where there is both danger and opportunity. If the Dutch immigrants had really wanted to stay perfectly safe they should have probably looked for a God who takes fewer risks. The religion which Hartog embraced for whatever reason possessed not only the Jewish ethos of isolation but also the Christian ethos of mission.
Stan I imagine knew almost nothing about the descendants of African slaves who were looking for liberation away from the twilight of slavery known as Jim Crow. They were new to Paterson and he was new to them. How they found each other was in a sense mutual need. He learned he could trust them. They learned they could trust him, and together they began to find a way to both fit in this strange Dutch denomination. Other intrepid souls from New Jersey would join him creating an alternate space making 11am on Sunday morning a little bit less segregated than Doctor King had declared it.
Northside Chapel wasn’t really built simply on some vision or ideal of racial reconciliation or equality. It was forged through the scary, personal, practical exchange of real things in real time. “Can I trust you? Will you hurt me? Will you be true to your word?”
To their delight and surprise the answer was mostly yes. The space where the “yes” was found became attached and its conceptualization articulated in words, songs, creeds and beliefs. These phrases became signals to others that they are us, even if their skin is brown and their food a bit more spicy.
“Black and White” is Flooded by Globalization
I tell the story of Hartog, Sake and Stanley to illustrate on a small scale the story that is exploding around us. In the 60s and 70s when Stan and Doug (pictured above) were wrestling with racial reconciliation in the body of Christ the math was fairly binary. It was “black and white”. Today many of the children of the black migrants who moved up are moving back down south and their houses are filled with “arabs” or Dominicans or Indians from India or immigrants from China. Many of the descendants of Dutch immigrants with their white skin could more easily assimilate into social mobility where Dutchness just became an interesting subgroup of whiteness. Koreans are the largest ethnic subgroup in the CRC after Dutch descendants and Hispanics continue to reclaim lands taken in the Mexican American war. Hotel rooms can no longer be named Cabot or Columbus unselfconciously. Post-modernity suggests that any story that claims to be the final story must simply be a ploy of whatever group managed to claim power and privilege at the expense of all other comers.
For years many in the “urban missions” faction of the CRC were asking “when will diversity start” but now being faced with the seeming overwhelming complexity of globalization others are crying “when will it end?!”
For those who have acheived a level of status, comfort and stability diverity becomes like the curry we pour over rice. It is a sauce that makes regular food a bit more interesting. We like our chaos to come in controlled packages available on call. We hope that our car doors or our airplane tickets or our gated communities can keep chaos available while preserving our baseline stability and security.
Can the CRC have a Second Chapter?
The old CRC of Hiram’s generation lived through its practices and believed in its brand. Anything with the CRC imprimature could be trusted. Anything without ought to be treated with suspicion. Ministry shares were paid. Missionaries were fully supported. Church plant locations were identified by the Dutch names in the phone book. If you went into a CRC on Sunday you know exactly what you would find if not who you would find. Dutch bingo was a sacrament of sorts that showed that the gathered congregations where often quite literally brothers and sisters, even for Jews passing for Dutchmen trying to become Americans.
Along the way to post-modernity part of that world has come to be regarded with disgust. Somehow from the inside the immigrant complexity-reduction project was so successful subculture status became synonymous with filthy privilege and bigotry. The isolation was so complete the group forgot they were, after all, just another tiny ethnic archipelago in a world of archipelagos. In a strange twist on old CRC sectarianism which quite often imagined that the bossom of Abraham would mostly be filled with the disciples of Bavinck and Kuyper somehow the vision of Revelation 7:9 must be true of our churches too.
What you quickly learn is that people themselves are incredible islands of chaos filled with terror and opportunity. All of us have a culture and our cultures matter to all of us. Giving everyone a voice sounds like a wonderful thing until everyone decides to use theirs and a bunch of them are saying things we might not like or think is wrong or dangerous. Suddenly we feel overwhelmed by complexity and we begin looking for ways to reduce it. This is the process by which communities are formed and broken.
What does any of this have to do with Inspire 2017?
Piaget noted that in human development we play games before we know the rules. We practice things before we conceptualize the theology that we think justifies our practices. We appropriate cultures without even knowing we are doing so. I couldn’t help but think about the conversation surrounding cultural appropriation while broad shouldered Dutchmen really worked hard to appropriate the culture of gospel choir in terms of clapping and swaying.
I began this journey to Detroit asking myself “what is this for?”
I wouldn’t have been here if Paula Wigboldy had been a person who could take “no” for an answer. I watched this strange accumulation of the children of Dutch immigrants from Ontario, and hardcore CRC devotees, led by African American musicians with a plenary speaking black preacher try to figure out what it means to be CRC now?
The value of Inspire 2017 I don’t think was in all of the teaching, even though I heard nothing but praise and satisfaction about the content. You won’t gather CRC people together unless you promise to try to teach them something. They are just that way. The real promise of this rather generalist conference was to do the basic exchanges of community building and complexity management. “Can I trust you even if you’re different? Will you hurt me? Can this be right even though it’s new?”
The old CRC was knit together by immigrant necessity and fluid exchanges of language and locality. They looked for, and developed signals of trust that could transcend face to face contact. They built a family of known names and institutions in which they were willing to invest their time, money and children. In a globalized world that project is exponentially more complicated. It isn’t that the Dutch and the African Americans have to figure each other out at a very practical, experiential and relational level. The Koreans are here with the Hispanics and the Aboriginal groups and the Dutch aren’t anything like they were 60 years ago either.
Unless this project is undertaken with great care and savvy (wise as snakes remember) those who knew the old CRC of Hartog and Hiram’s world may look at the new temple of returning exile and weep that it wasn’t like the old one overwhelmed in the flood of Babylonians. What will it take to build institutions of deep trust among not just “black and white” but people of more and greater cultural diversity?
People are learning creatures and that learning isn’t really done cerebrally. It is done in the ways that children learn, through shalomic association, sharing food, learning songs, simple practices. It is in this space that a conference like Inspire has purpose in the building of the new CRC. We are not focused on an agenda like at Synod. We are not isolated by our specialities like many of the other conferences the CRC does. Inspire should be a space where not just office bearers or officials come, but the “kleine luyden” (Kuyper’s “ordinary people”) of the CRC rub shoulders with others, and build memories, and stay in a hotel not staffed by a vibrant, strong African American community.
Inspire doesn’t have the moniker of “multi-cultural” which is a good thing. Once you put that label on an interaction you’ve already segregated it away from “normal”. The CRC if it will grow being being “a Dutch church” even if it remains strangely Dutch haunted will have to figure out what globalization means all the way down to the practical level. This means that it will have to get beyond the transitional phase of being embarrassed or bashful about Dutchness just as it asks that others not be embarrassed or ashamed of blackness or browness or whatever ness the Koreans wish to be associated with.
There will likely never be “post-ethnic” because everyone inhabits some mixture of ethnicity. This won’t be first worked out theoretically but rather practically as we realize that ethnicity itself is the product of generations or practice, much of whose roots have been lost of forgotten. Ethnicity and factionalisms are transcended first face to face and it is only later realized or explained. This is the space in the CRC that Inspire inhabits.
I hope they do this again. I think attendance was inhibited by the “what is it for” question. So often we don’t know what something is for until a while after we’ve been playing with it. It’s like a kid finding a Phillip’s head screwdriver and pondering it until she comes across a Phillip’s head screw. “Oh now I see its value!”
Inspire has the potential to be a general conference in which the CRC plays at community in our globalized world not by practicing policy or polity (we have Synod for that), but by being together, eating together, listening to each other, mixing with each other and along the way discovering the value. Inspire is a space for the CRC to learn to knit itself together at the practical and relational level in this globalized world.
Hartog couldn’t have known where sending Sake across the ocean would bring. Stanley in 1960 had no idea how Paterson would change him or how he would change Paterson. We enter into chaos (sometimes controlled) in order to encounter both threat but also opportunity. Within the confines of the Christian religion there is a very optimistic faith that, as Richard Mouw said, we’ve peeked at the last page, and that gives us the courage to keep reading and wondering how Jason Bourne will get out of his mess.