MHH: So, at one time there were churches in Loveland, Isabel, Leola, and Forbes, correct?
AR: Isabel and Leola were always separate from Loveland.
MHH: But there was a total of four German churches at one time?
AR: No, Leola became the Forbes congregation.
PR: By that time Leola was out of the picture.
MHH: Maybe I should say it this way: There was a Protestant Reformed Church in Loveland and in Isabel; for a while in Leola, but that folded into the Forbes congregation? Is that correct?
AR: But Leola never became Protestant Reformed. We were sitting under Mensch’s preaching while we were there yet, but we really had no officebearers. Rev. Lubbers drew up an Affirmation, or something like that, that we signed that we would support him (Mensch) because at that time, it looked like everything was going to fall apart, that everybody was going to go their own way. Mensch ministered to that group, but without any officebearers. We had voted for officebearers, but then we were instructed by the Protestant Reformed Churches: “Don’t install those officebearers because then you are creating the split.” But then we left shortly after that. I know I signed that document at that time. [Most of this is not clear as to the intricacies involved].
MHH: Would it be fair to say that it was a struggle?
AR: It was a struggle, that’s right.
MHH: Was it worth it?
AR: Yes (laughter), there is no question about that. As far as we are concerned, we haven’t regretted it one bit, and later on when those congregations were organized, we had no hard feelings. I often questioned myself. There was disagreement between Mensch and ministers of the Protestant Reformed Churches; he didn’t think there was any future there. Some felt there was, and that we should organize and get synodical assistance, and in that way afford to have a minister. But Mensch didn’t feel that he wanted to lay that burden upon the Protestant Reformed Churches. It didn’t look like there was much of a future here, and from that point of view, he didn’t think it was well to organize and to go into the Protestant Reformed Churches.
MHH: Explain that to me. He was not in agreement of the idea of organizing small congregations, I understand that.
AR: Congregations here and there, yeah.
MHH: So what happened? What did he do about it or what was the result of the disagreement?
AR: Well, the result of the disagreement was that he finally resigned from Isabel. As far as Leola was concerned, he was suspended from office and the consistory upheld that suspension, so there was no problem there. But as far as Isabel was concerned, they were an organized congregation, and they said he laid down his office by resigning, and therefore he could not be a minister in the Protestant Reformed Churches. But it was his intent to get in the ministry. But, in all fairness, he had been warned: Don’t resign, because if you do, you’re done with the ministry. But he did it anyway. On the one hand I could understand that. In fact, I even at one time tried to protest on his behalf, which never works because, you become a busybody in other men’s matters and so forth. But he couldn’t become a minister, so after awhile he moved again to South Dakota and was going to get this cleared up. He probably felt he was called to the ministry and could preach some place. But when he did, that still didn’t work out, so he came back to Michigan again at that time. Then I asked him, What are you going to do about church? He said he didn’t know. The next thing we knew, why, they were members of Hanley Christian Reformed Church, which was contrary to what he had taught us, but nevertheless, bitterness developed and because of that, he went there. But he was never fully happy there. He also developed heart problems. We didn’t talk too much about it after that. But I have respect for what he taught us. He taught us the truth, and he taught it to us in a way that we, who could understand hardly anything, could understand it. But, I could not go along with it [his leaving the PRCA]. In other words, he couldn’t live here and be a member in the Protestant Reformed Churches rather than to go someplace else: “If I can’t be a minister there, I don’t belong there.” I don’t want to put those words in his mouth, but that was his actions, which I didn’t think was right because he had taught us earlier that if you ever have any disagreements, you protest to the greatest assembly. If your protest isn’t upheld then you humbly submit and you let God be the judge of the matter. But when it came to his own case, he didn’t do it.
MHH: Do you think that he was correct in his attitude that nothing would ever come of the Dakota churches?
AR: Yes, I do. I do believe that the handwriting on the wall for the future didn’t look good to us. Later on they were organized into churches and into the Protestant Reformed Churches. I could sit in their midst and worship with them whenever we came out to vacation there, but as far as I was concerned, we didn’t want to go back, although we could have because we had our farm for quite a while yet. Later we sold it to Florence and Madeline [Alvin’s brother-in-law and sister-in-law].
The first public event that we took in when we came to Michigan in the Protestant Reformed Churches was the all-school program of the Hope Protestant Reformed Christian School. And at that time, we thought, if this is what our children are going to learn here, this is where we want to stay and find our church home. We did, and have never regretted it.
MHH: (laughter) That was going to be my next question (more laughter). But do you think it’s fair to say that through the work of Lubbers and Mensch, even though the churches in the long run turned out not to be viable, yet many were gathered?
AR: Yes. Many were gathered through that work and also the word was proclaimed, and it never returns void. Those who lived in the area that knew about it and still would not unite themselves with it, they stand answerable for that. We rest content with that. But we could never see a future there.
MHH: Mr. Rau, I want to follow up a little more on the issue of the viability of the churches in the Dakotas. You have made it clear that Rev. Mensch was a bit skeptical about the future. The part that I don’t quite understand is, who was pushing for the continuation of those churches?
AR: Rev. Lubbers was of a different opinion. You could organize as Protestant Reformed Churches, a small group, and you could get synodical assistance so that you would be able to afford to support a minister, because that was a big question at the time. How were we going to afford supporting a minister with just a couple of families here (two families with their children)? We could get synodical assistance? Well, I really don’t know how to put that right now. Anyway, we didn’t feel that we ought to. When it comes right down to it, for the truth’s sake we forsake all. And we simply go and trust in the Lord. We had never even been to Grand Rapids when we moved here. All we did was hear about them from Mensch—this is what these churches teach: sovereignty of God. But, we thought, if this is what they teach, this is where we are going to find a church home, this is where we will feel at home. And we did. As I mentioned earlier, that first school program that we went to was an eye-opener for us because we had never in all of our education—of course, we didn’t go to a Christian school—it was public school—envisioned anything like that, that you could instill within the minds of little children Psalter numbers and teach them to recite Bible verses. And these children knew it. That was amazing to us. That strengthened us and, hey, we’re going to stay here. We’ll find a job.I had shoveled manure and had pitched hay, so I was willing to do anything as far as that goes. But the economy was slow right then here. I had a hard time to even get a job. But the Lord did provide. And we didn’t even have to go to the diaconate and say, we have to have some assistance. That was one fear that we did have—that we probably would have to. We didn’t.
MHH: Nevertheless, that must have been a difficult decision because, isn’t it true that you and others were tied to the land?
AR: We were. We were. And that’s the only work we knew was farming.
MHH: And you owned your own farm?
AR: Yeah, we owned our own farm; we weren’t getting rich, but we were making the farm payments. One of my brothers said at that time that he was sure that we had just simply gone bankrupt and that’s why we were selling out. But it wasn’t so. It was the poorest time to sell out. We were selling hogs for nine and ten cents a pound. And there were farm sales galore, so equipment didn’t bring a whole lot. Cattle prices were pretty good yet. But anyway, when we got to Michigan, nobody was hiring anybody. Sam Reitsma was doing janitor work in the East Grand Rapids schools. He was also a landscaper, and this fit in good with his landscaping over the winter months. But spring was coming and he knew I wanted a job. So he said, “Well, you come with me and I’ll tell them that I am going to be quitting for the summer, but that here’s a man who just came from South Dakota, he’s got a family and he needs a job.” And it worked. They hired me (laughter). First it was night duty. Then of course you hardly ever saw your family, so this isn’t very good at all, after growing up out there on the farm, being your own boss, and now you’re going to work nights and hardly see your family. So I asked to get on days, and I did. But then I got under a different foreman. But I couldn’t agree with the language that he used, and it was impossible to please him. Then I went to Keeler Brass and asked there. I had applied there earlier and said, “It isn’t working out where I’m at right now.” They said that as soon as they got an opening, they will give me a call. And they did. In July I started working there. It was about three months that I worked at East Grand Rapids public schools.
MHH: And meanwhile, what happened to your farm?
AR: Well, at that time they had a farm program called “the soil bank.” You signed up your farm ground into that [land put into the soil bank could not be farmed, but had to lie fallow]. We signed a ten-year lease into that soil bank program, which paid enough money to make the land payments, pay the taxes, and keep up the insurance on the buildings. That way, whatever I earned we had to live on. But it was a change from being your own boss to working for somebody else, subjecting yourself to somebody else, and even if you see a better way of doing somthing, because the boss said this is how you’re going to do it, this is how it’s done. That was hard for me, for a while.
MHH: You apparently had to pay the price for moving here (laughter).
AR: Keeping the job kept the bills paid, it kept the tuition paid. For a while, it was church and tuition, and then what was left over, that was for groceries. And if one of the children needed shoes, well, if there was enough left over, fine. If not, that was put on the back burner until the other two weeks were up and you got your next paycheck. We lived from paycheck to paycheck (laughter).
MHH: Apparently. Are there any events, particularly while you were living in the Dakotas, that stand out in your mind?
AR: Oh, yeah. I did miss farming when we moved here. What would you call it? The quietness of it and just the simple that way of life. And you worked with your family. That I missed very much when we came here. And here it was busy, busy, busy. The roads were busier and everything else. But compared to the hours that we used to work when we were farming, hey, this was great. Went to work at Keeler, started at seven o’clock in the morning, so that meant that we had to get up about six in the morning. When you were farming, sometimes you would get up at five in the morning, and you would work until dark. Here, at four o’clock/four-thirty, the whistle blew and we went home and you had the whole evening (laughter) to do things. So that was a different way of life. But I did miss the farming part for awhile. Very much so, in fact. Especially in the spring of the year—you came out of the shop at the end of the day and somebody would say, “Boy, it was a nice day.” And all you could say was, “It must have been. I didn’t see a bit of it.” (laughter).
MHH: Did the issue of church membership in the Dakotas have any effect, in the sense that it divided families or communities? Were there difficulties connected with this or was everything peaceful? What is your memory of that?
AR: The German Reformed church, you mean there?
AR: Well, I never heard of families being divided because of church matters. I remember one neighbor who was married to a Roman Catholic. He didn’t go to church at all, but he didn’t go with his wife. She went to the Cathoic church, and I imagine the children were baptized there. There were a few divided families like that. But, other than that, I never heard of a family being split up because the one wanted to go for truth and the other wanted to go for error. But I could see where it would make division in families.
MHH: So you personally didn’t have hard feelings within your own family?
AR: Well, folks went back to the German Reformed church for a little while before we moved, and then they came back to that group in Leola. There was some misunderstanding there too. But yet, later on in life, they were talking of moving to Michigan too.
MHH: That is going to conclude our conversation. Mr. Rau has given us the history and the background of how the German churches came to be in existence and how they were integrated, at least for a number of years, into the Protestant Reformed Churches. His personal knowledge and participation ended in 1957 when he moved to the Grand Rapids area.