History of Hope PRC, Walker, Michigan

Ninety years ago the area west of Grand Rapids, Michigan was a farming community quite isolated by the Grand River wending its way from south to north. People of Reformed persuasion living within its confines had to travel some miles north to the area of Walker or take a ferry west across the river to satisfy their need for spiritual nourishment on the Sabbath Day. Travel was slow and arduous in those days of horse and buggy or sleigh, and with no nearby bridge as yet, crossing the river was often not a practical option. These conditions prompted the Dutch farmers in the area to meet for a midweek service at the home of Mr. Richard Newhouse on January 23, 1916.

Twenty-one people gathered to hear a sermon by Rev. J. R. Brink. After the service these church fathers unanimously voted to form a Christian Reformed mission station in the Riverbend area. Only four and a half months later on June 8, 1916, with two elders, one deacon, and truly memorable joy, five families and five individuals organized as the congregation of Hope Christian Reformed Church. Thus began another church of Jesus Christ which by His grace would fill the spiritual needs of many of His children to His glory.

The group continued to meet at the Newhouse home as well as the Riverbend schoolhouse. In fair summer weather they gathered under a large tree in the Newhouse yard for the afternoon service in Dutch. Although the body of Hope mainly consisted of poor farmers at this time, they were industrious folk. Before the next year was out, these words concerning them appeared in The Banner:

December 5 will long be remembered by the members…

Upon the evening of that day a goodly number of people gathered to commemorate the goodness and mercy of God, “the Giver of all good and perfect gifts,” to dedicate their new house of worship…

The Banner, Dec. 13, 1917

Written by Rev. Brink who helped the fledgling congregation of Hope to organize, the article goes on to commend the neat and sturdy cement block construction of the edifice, complete with stables and opera chairs, along with its commendable price (even for those days) only about $2000. With much of this expense already donated, including a used pulpit from La Grave Avenue CRC and a communion set from First Kalamazoo, it was “not a bad record for a church only a year and a half old.” The grateful members of Hope CRC completed the dedication of their building with cake and chocolate milk.

Dutch thriftiness contributed to their ability to build a sanctuary in a relatively short time, but supporting a minister on a regular basis was another matter. They were content with a supply of seminary students and visiting ministers until they were able to accept this responsibility too. Finally almost six years later Candidate George M. Ophoff came over to help them. He was installed in January, 1922.

Although the congregation now consisted of twenty-four families and was happy to receive the Word from their own preacher, they soon would be sorely tested. The Christian Reformed decision of 1924 to embrace the doctrine of common grace loomed close at hand. Rev. Ophoff had become convinced of the error of the three points of common grace already while in seminary. His position was no secret as he joined Rev H. Hoeksema in the editorship of a new publication, The Standard Bearer, a paper dedicated to promoting this view. Rev. Ophoff would faithfully, boldly, and zealously lead his little flock into greener pastures if need be.

The need came.

On January 19, 1925 a special consistory meeting was held in the little cement block church at Riverbend. In the hands of the consistory lay an ultimatum from Classis Grand Rapids West. Would Rev. Ophoff “…declare himself unequivocally whether he is in full agreement, yes or no, with the three points of the Synod of Kalamazoo.” Classis demanded an answer in less than forty-eight hours from the time the consistory meeting would be held, but not even twenty-four were necessary. With firm resolve Rev. Ophoff expressed his negative answer. He would not subscribe to the three points of common grace, and, except for two deacons, his consistory would stand with him. Classis was informed. One week later a special meeting was held at the parsonage to inform the congregation of the consistory’s actions. At this meeting the decision was made to promote the continuation of the true church of Christ at Hope in opposition to the doctrine of common grace. Two new deacons were elected to replace the two that stayed with the CRC.

Thus the little church of Hope joined the ranks of First Kalamazoo and the largest CRC congregation, Eastern Avenue of Grand Rapids, as they had also refused to accept the doctrine of common grace. All three were promptly expelled from the CRC by their respective classes and their office bearers were deposed. Together these outcast churches organized as the Protesting Christian Reformed Churches. As such, they appealed to the next available CRC Synod in 1926, but their appeal was rejected. Now the break was complete and in November of 1926 a new denomination was officially formed—the Protestant Reformed Churches of America. Rev. Ophoff and the consistory of Hope took an active part in these events.

The comely little cement block building and parsonage of Hope was lost to the members who stayed with the CRC, but not without strife, as the following incident that occurred shortly after the split attests. Rev. Ophoff had already begun to deliver his Sunday morning sermon when two men appeared in the sanctuary and marched down the center aisle towards the pulpit with an obvious intent to disrupt the service and take the church. The men involved were two elders from Alpine Avenue CRC and a CRC minister from Jenison. The members of Hope who had stayed with the CRC had appealed to Alpine for help—thus the plan to seize the church. Nevertheless, in the power of the Word, Rev. Ophoff continued to preach without pause. The men stopped, turned around, and left. The CRC group met instead at the home of one of their members for the next five months.

In the meantime, the Protestant Reformed members of Eastern Avenue lost their sanctuary to the CRC. With this precedent, Hope CRC would not be so easily put off. “Possession is nine points of the law,” a lawyer advised the CRC group. Several men entered and camped out in the basement of the locked church in an effort to establish this possession, which they achieved. A sheriff informed each Protestant Reformed household that the church was no longer theirs.

After the final transfer of property to the CRC, however, there was another attempt of transfer that was far more serious. Under the preaching of the truth Hope PRC grew and flourished while Hope CRC did not. Their membership dwindled to the point of near disbandment. Rev. Vande Kieft had taken up residence in the former parsonage occupied by Rev. Ophoff. Rev. Vande Kieft tried to help his little CRC group by attempting to persuade the young catechumens of Hope PRC to come over to them instead. While Rev. Ophoff taught his catechism class in the Riverbend schoolhouse one day, in knowledge of this and in great concern that the young people of his flock understand the issues of the split in their church clearly and properly, he spontaneously decided to set forth the situation “straight from the horse’s mouth.” He called the class to stand up and he marched them across the road to his former parsonage. Rev. Vande Kieft was entertaining guests at the time so there was no place in the living room for them to sit, but no matter. Rev. Vande Kieft welcomed them into his home while Rev. Ophoff told his young people to sit down on the floor. The ministers then debated the issues in front of the catechism class and the guests. No transfers of membership occurred at that time.

The small faithful group of Hope PRC continued to meet in the Riverbend schoolhouse for the next four and a half years, a stone’s throw away from their former sanctuary, until they built another church in 1930 on Wilson Avenue near Riverbend. The congregation continued to flourish in this edifice under the blessing of God and the faithful pastors He sent them. These early undershepherds who served after Rev. Ophoff’s faithful labors in Hope were the Reverends Hubert DeWolf, John Heys, and Herman Hanko. This second building would also see the final discontinuation of Dutch services in 1931, an offering of clothes and money to impoverished brethren in the Netherlands in 1948, and in 1952 the use of individual communion cups instead of one larger one partaken of by all—a sampling of indications of their growth and the changing times. But this neat little white church building would also know controversy and division as well as did the first sanctuary of Hope.

On December 18, 1950, continuing its steadfast hold on the truth of Scripture, the consistory of Hope formally approved the Declaration of Principles in order to combat the lie of a conditional promise in baptism. Nevertheless, the ensuing schism in the Protestant Reformed denomination over this issue had a significant impact on the congregation. From a membership of forty families in early 1953, fifteen families had left by early 1954. Despite the congregation’s smaller size and the resulting difficulties between families and friends, the grace of God was evident in the preservation of His true church as manifested at Hope. The Lord used the faithful labors of Rev. Heys to lead them through these troublous times, as well as the distinctive preaching of Rev. H. Hanko, which served to build up the congregation after the split and keep the members from being negatively influenced by those who had left.

Throughout the history of Hope God has graciously shown His covenant faithfulness to His people there, as the following highlights testify. First, the Lord has continued to bless the congregation with sound and edifying proclamation of the Word in also sending them these men to labor among them: the Reverends Herman Veldman, Jason Kortering, Ronald Van Overloop, Richard Flikkema, James Slopsema, Russell Dykstra, and
James Laning.

Secondly, God has granted Hope with continuous growth, primarily internal. By 1963 fifty-five families belonged to Hope. A third edifice needed to be built in 1965 to hold the burgeoning membership, and this building is their place of worship today. But the growth continued beyond this structure. Three daughter congregations were also formed: Faith PRC in 1973, Grandville PRC in 1984, and Grace PRC in 1995. The 2005 directory lists 446 souls as comprising the congregation of Hope.

In the third place, the Lord has privileged Hope to be involved in missions. In 1958 a pamphlet publication and distribution effort began and developed into the Reformed Witness Committee. The RWC continues to mail sermon tapes and PRC literature to several foreign countries and to many places in the US. In 1974 Hope was named the calling church for home missionary. Rev. R. Harbach accepted the call to labor in Texas and then in British Columbia. In 1978 elder Dewey Engelsma assisted with mission labors in Singapore. From December 1977 to August 1978 Rev. R. Van Overloop labored in the OPC of New Zealand. In 1979 Rev. S. Houck began to labor in the Lansing, Michigan area and in 1992 Rev. Kortering began to serve as associate pastor in Singapore until his emeritus, and Rev. A. den Hartog served there from 2001 to 2005. The labors of these brethren have given the Hope congregation a clearer understanding of the meaning of the confession, “I believe an holy catholic church.”

Finally, God’s covenant faithfulness is evident from the Lord’s calling of many sons of Hope to the gospel ministry. The late seventies and early eighties saw the “old guard” of faithful ministers of the Word leaving full, active service and a new generation of young men taking their place. In the same period five young men from Hope entered the ministry and another one prior to that time. They are the Reverends David Engelsma, Kenneth Koole, Ronald Hanko, Kenneth Hanko, Russell Dykstra, and Charles Terpstra. In the 1990s another son of the congregation, Doug Kuiper, along with two newer members, James Laning and Daniel Kleyn, entered the ministry, later followed by David Overway and William Langerak.

At present Hope is being fed spiritually by means of the faithful labors of Rev. James Laning, a 1997 seminary graduate. Hope rejoices that the pure Word is preached by her pastor, the sacraments and church discipline are faithfully administered, the children of the covenant are given sound catechism instruction, and the societies enjoy growth in their understanding of the Scriptures.

Surely, we as saints of the church universal may lift up our voices in praise to our God and express, “It is of the LORD’s mercies that we are not consumed, because His compassions fail not. They are new each morning: great is thy faithfulness” (Lam. 3:22, 23).