Editor’s Notes: These first five years spent in First PRC of Grand Rapids were years of adjustment for the Hankos. They had to adjust to city living, a busier lifestyle and a far larger and busier congregation. Nevertheless, these years would have been enjoyable, if not for the trouble that was brewing in the churches at this time.
So the time came in late May of 1948, that we had to bid good bye to the congregation of Manhattan and take up lodging on Bates Street in Grand Rapids. The consistory of First Church had sent me money for moving, suggesting that I might want to dispose of much of my furniture that had been moved so often. So the Doezemas helped us buy new furniture at a greatly reduced price in Michigan.1
The house on Bates Street was very commodious and pleasant, but I missed the view of the mountains that I had from the study window in Montana. Yet I could enjoy the whole row of windows on the south side of the house, over the porch. Besides the study, there were three good-sized bedrooms upstairs, and one downstairs. Also the living room with a fireplace, dining room and a den were downstairs. Both floors had a full bath. The kitchen, with a small breakfast nook, was possibly the most pleasant of all. The house had been completely cleaned and redecorated, which made it very easy for us to get settled.
Soon after we arrived, there was a welcome program, an installation, an inaugural sermon and the matter of getting acquainted in a new environment. I had grown up in this congregation, but while I was absent for the 19 years of my previous ministry, a new generation had arisen.
Mom did not fancy becoming a part of a large congregation of over 500 families, but did enjoy the fact that now our family was together again, without the threat of some leaving home. Also her relatives were near by. She seemed to adjust quite well, although we had a busy life, which soon took its toll.
After each Sunday morning service, while the kids were in Sunday School, my wife’s sister and her husband, Pete and Nell Reitsma, came over for coffee. It did not take long before Herm had made friends with young men of the church, who visited together in their various homes from week to week. Fred also fit in quite readily.
Elaine had made her friends in Manhattan congregation, felt at home there and now had to make another adjustment. From the small school in Montana, she had to go to Christian High in Grand Rapids. But she did find friends in Grand Rapids, Jean Faber (now Mrs. Jason Kortering) being one of her closest ones. Elaine graduated from the eighth grade in Manhattan, and graduated again from the ninth grade in Baxter School in Grand Rapids. Thereupon she went to Christian High. Although she had made up her mind that she had no intention of going to college, she did take the college preparatory course, as the best course offered there. In her last year, she received all A’s, so she did not have to take the examinations. She also wrote a paper on nursing, on which the teacher made the comment that she would make a good nurse. But Lans had no desire to take up any more schooling. She obtained a job with Alice Kooienga at Southwest Ice and Fuel Company, where she was trained for office work.
In the same year that Elaine graduated from Baxter School, Herm graduated from Grand Rapids Christian High. I was impressed by the fact that the class came into the Fountain Street Church auditorium singing, “Holy, holy, holy!” Herm started Calvin College in the fall, in preparation for the ministry.
In his spare time Herm worked for Veldman’s Grocery, where Fred worked later. Herm also worked for Rolly Vander Ploeg, who sold vegetables. Later, he spent a summer working in cement.
Allie went to Baxter School. There were two disadvantages there for her. There were far more children in Baxter School than in Manhattan. Besides, there were a lot of steps, both inside the school and out. Allie dreaded the thought of going to school. Sometimes the teacher would call to ask whether Allie was sick, because she was not in school. One time, I went out to look for her and found her sitting on Fuller Avenue. So one noon I drove to the school at the time when the classes would be coming out. I waited until I saw Allie. Then I noticed that when she tried to go down the steps the boys pushed her, so that she would fall. Tenaciously she clung to the railing, waiting for the boys to leave. Kids can be so very cruel.2
Things did not go well at all while she was in Baxter, so it was a great relief when our own school, Adams Street Christian, opened in September of 1950. Allie had Mrs. Slomp for a teacher, who had years of experience with children, and all went well. I had told her when Allie entered her class, that if she had difficulty, to send her home at noon. She was certain that there would be no problem, and there was none.
Mrs. Slomp did seem to think that we did not know how to handle Allie. She mentioned occasionally that she would like to have Allie stay with her at her home. So when we decided to go to Florida in January of 1953, we suggested that Allie stay with Mrs. Slomp. She agreed to that, but the very first evening Mrs. Slomp brought Allie back to our house on Bates Street to be with her siblings. She admitted that she knew how to be a teacher, but not a mother.
After Allie finished Mrs. Slomp’s class, we decided to send her to Children’s Retreat.3 At 18 years of age, she went into a supervised workshop for a few years.
At the end of August, 1948, we took a short vacation at Green Lake with Otto and Corrie Vander Woude, my sister and her husband. There, mother had her first epileptic seizure. The doctor who was vacationing there thought it was a heart attack and sent her to St. Mary’s hospital. It was only later that Dr. Avery discovered her problem.
In the summer of 1950, we were invited to spend four weeks in Bellflower, CA while Rev. Doezema was on vacation.4 Mother, Fred, Elaine and I went by car. They had rented an apartment for us and had it well supplied with food. We were treated royally and taken to various scenic places. There we met Mr. and Mrs. De Groot. She was formerly Dorothy Jansma from our Hull congregation. We found them to be a very congenial couple with whom we spent considerable time. A few times we went to the ocean with their family to ride the waves.
It was toward the end of our stay in Bellflower that Mother had a spell early in the morning. Whenever she did get a spell, it was in the early morning hours. Once we were back home, and another spell occurred, we called Dr. Avery, who sat by her for two hours, watching her reactions. Then he came down and told me that he wanted her in the hospital for a brain scan. For a while she continued to have occasional spells, but when the Dilantin, a seizure medication, took effect, she had her problem solved. She took this the rest of her life.
In the summer of 1951 I spent considerable time working among the Liberated in Canada, first in the Hamilton area and later in the Chatham area. Two churches were organized in Canada, but soon after, when they felt they did not need us and could be on their own, they left us. They also differed with us significantly on the doctrine of the covenant.
It soon became evident that there was a lot of work to be done in First PRC. There was always a large number of sick and shut-ins, who had to be visited at regular intervals; some almost every day, some once a week, some every two weeks, and many once a month. Since this was one task that had been sorely neglected in the past, the consistory insisted that a complete record be kept of every visit, and that these visits be regularly reported on the weekly bulletin.
The most difficult visits were to those people in mental institutions who could not respond. Whatever message was to be brought to them had to be prepared in advance, in order not to appear to hesitate, wondering what to say. Among these calls were also the wildly confused patients, whom I tried to reach with the Word of God and penetrate, as it were, into the darkness of their confusion to awaken evidence of the grace of God. I was convinced that the Holy Spirit still operated also in those saints, and response could be obtained with a bit of effort. That proved to be true in all cases, except one, who left the impression that there was no spiritual life present.
In August, just before going on vacation, we were handed a stack of cards for family visitation. This first year there was a total of 250 calls. That meant sandwiching these calls between sick visits, catechisms, society meetings and other activities. Since this involved using every spare moment to fit in a family visit, extending from September until April, the consistory decided to cut down this number of calls to 125 per year. It would have been nice if we could have visited every family in the congregation in three years, but this taxed us beyond capacity. One hundred and twenty five calls still took the entire winter season. And so, each family had visitation once every four to five years.
To tell the truth, when I accepted the call to First, these sick calls and numerous family visitations troubled me the most. I feared that they would become very wearisome. True, the first summer, these sick calls were very depressing. I seemed to carry all these problems with me day and night. But after the other activities were under way, I began to enjoy that part of the work even more than the rest. Preaching for such a huge audience never had a special appeal. The people seemed too distant from me. After the Split of 1953, that was much better.
Actually, that congregation before the split was much too large and cumbersome, even for three ministers.5 Rev. Hoeksema took the pulpit on Sunday morning. The Dutch service in the afternoon and the evening service were shared by Rev. De Wolf and me. The two of us took every other wedding and funeral service. The age groups in the catechism classes were split in two, but that still left classes of forty and fifty.
Besides the routine work in the congregation, there were also many family problems that had to be solved. Often on Sunday or late at night, I would be called out for some family trouble.
One night especially stands out in my memory. A lady called that her husband had left the house to commit suicide. So I went to the home, and then accompanied her to Reeds Lake, where she thought he had gone. Arriving there, we saw him in a boat on the lake. After a bit, he came to shore and said that he did not want to talk to that “So-and-so,” referring to his wife, but he would talk to me if I joined him in the boat. I knew that he was drunk, but I ventured into the boat anyway. His wife took their car home, and I sat out on the lake in the dead of night trying to talk some sense into a half-drunken man. About midnight he suggested that it would be no effort at all for him to “dump the boat.” I assured him that I did not doubt that. But I added, “I know where I am going, but where are you going?” The Lord marvelously preserved us, for the man rowed to shore and went home with almost nothing more to say.
Another incident worth mentioning involved a lady who was not a member of our churches, but whom I was asked to visit in Pine Rest. She was there for the third time, because of her suicidal tendencies.
When I approached her carrying my Bible, she told me that the doctors did not allow reading the Bible to the patients. I told her that the doctors could not give me orders. She should listen, and if the Bible spoke about her, she should nod, and if not, she could shake her head, meaning no. I read Psalm 77. By the time I had reached the third verse, “I remembered God, and was troubled: I complained and my spirit was overwhelmed,” she was nodding, and soon after said, “That’s me.” When I finished, the dam broke. She poured out her soul about the sins she had committed since leaving home as a girl of 17. I visited her as long as she stayed in the hospital.
It was some time later, on a Tuesday morning, that she called and said that she was ready to end her own life. I would find the back door open. I told her to wait at least until I got there. When I arrived, I saw that her kitchen was set up so that she could put her head in the oven, turn on the gas and die. She was in the living room. I asked her, “Where would you be now if you had carried through?” Coldly she answered, “In hell.” After I talked and prayed with her, she agreed to clean up the things in the kitchen. A few years later I happened to meet her, a changed woman, who assured me that she had found peace with God.
At the close of each society season, there were so many banquets and parties, that I would surely have developed an ulcer if I did not already have one. This ulcer problem, which had been there since my student days, worsened steadily. One time, when Mom and I were all ready to leave for Randolph for a preaching assignment, I could feel the ulcer break. I hoped that the bleeding would not be too bad, so decided to go anyway. This was very foolish, for when we arrived in Waupun, I was bleeding so badly that I had to give up the idea of preaching the next Sunday. Herm came to drive us home.
Then there was the unforgettable Thanksgiving Day, 1952. Mom was in the hospital on account of her heart. I had started bleeding a few days before Thanksgiving. On the day before Thanksgiving, I was walking from Butterworth Hospital when I felt the blood spurting from the ulcer. By the time I came home, I felt weak enough to lie down. It was a good thing that I did not have to preach the next day. During the night I began to vomit blood, so that on Thanksgiving morning I was taken by ambulance to Blodgett hospital. When Mom heard that I was hospitalized, she came to see me and then decided to come home. I had three days that I barely knew I was alive, since Dr. Avery kept me on the brink of consciousness.
At the first council meeting that was held after my arrival in First it already became evident that trouble was brewing. There was a strange tension, caused mainly by the deacons, which was hard to analyze, but could be felt very keenly.
At the first consistory meeting that I led shortly after my arrival, the matter of a different home for Rev. Hoeksema was brought up. I had to appoint a committee to visit Rev. Hoeksema to ask him whether he would be willing to move to a different home. The reason for this was that Rev. De Wolf wanted to live in the parsonage next to the church. Naively, I chose two men, Mr. Jim Kok and Mr. Gerard Koster, who had always been good friends of Rev. Hoeksema. Afterward, I was told that I could not have made a worse choice, because these were two of the worst opponents of Rev. Hoeksema.
This matter of getting the senior pastor out of his house never succeeded. An option was placed on the house on the southeast corner of Fuller and Bates. This was a small house, with no space for any minister’s library, much less for Rev. Hoeksema’s library. He turned that down flat. So did De Wolf and so did I. Suggestions were made to build a house for Rev. and Mrs. Hoeksema, but when he described the size of the library he wanted, the committee realized that they would never be able to sell a house of that sort. So finally, the entire matter was dropped. But the tension between Rev. De Wolf and Rev. Hoeksema was only intensified.
When it was my first turn to lead a consistory meeting, I received a call from the clerk, requesting that I come to his office to discuss the agenda for the evening. I did this, but on my second visit to his office, I discovered that matters on the agenda were discussed, motions were suggested, and some of the consistory members were encouraged to make these motions. And all of this was done while a highly influential man from the congregation, and supporter of Rev. De Wolf was present, even though he was not a consistory member. After that, I refused to take part in these highly irregular conferences.
Two young men, Henry De Raad and Henry De Bolster, fresh from the Liberated Churches in the Netherlands, joined our congregation and attended our seminary. It was not long before they had the brazen audacity to file a protest with the consistory against Rev. Hoeksema and me, objecting to our preaching. Of course, they got nowhere, but it was evident from which direction the wind was blowing.
In January of 1953, Ed Kooienga called on a Monday and told me to ask the consistory for a ten day vacation so that we could accompany him and his wife to Florida, leaving the next day.6 The first order of business that night was my request for a break, which was readily granted. The consistory realized that we were under tremendous pressure and that this would be a good rest. So at recess I called home and told Mother to get ready to go.
This was a very pleasant and relaxing trip. We had gone with the Kooiengas more often on their boat on Lake Michigan. Sometimes, on Wednesday afternoons, we turned our backs on the work and went off to rest in the boat. We would have supper together there and then return home. Now we were in for a bigger trip.
We saw Cypress Gardens and spent some time there. Our original destination was St. Petersburg, where we spent a few days. On Saturday, we took the ferry across to Bradenton, where we attended the chapel on Sunday. The visiting minister was an acquaintance from the Midwest. When he met me after the service, he asked whether we intended to attend the evening service. We told him that we did. That evening he preached a sermon on I Timothy 2:1, in connection with inauguration of President Eisenhower that week. He did well on the first part of the text, but he made verse four refer to all men without exception. As he spoke, he looked at me, even so often that it became embarrassing. After the service a man asked whether I was PR. I told him I was. He said, “I thought so. The preacher was afraid of you.” If that was the preacher’s conviction, why didn’t he come with full force to show me that I was wrong?
On our way home, we went by way of Miami, St. Augustine, and through the cotton fields and estates of Georgia. We arrived home on Saturday, but discovered that De Wolf was very unhappy about my absence. He refused to take his turn preaching the next morning, so I had to work into the night to prepare to preach twice that Sunday. This was just one more indication of the ill wind that was blowing through the congregation and the churches in 1953.
1 The Doezemas owned Mastercraft Furniture, an important furniture manufacturer, when Grand Rapids was the furniture capital of the country. Many relatives are members of various PR congregations yet today.
2 Alyce or “Allie” was brain damaged at birth which left her handicapped. Part of her handicap was a spastic condition which made it difficult for her to keep her balance while walking.
3 Children’s Retreat was a branch of Pine Rest Christian Psychiatric Hospital that educated handicapped children.
4 Rev. Doezema later left the denomination in 1953, as did most of the Bellflower congregation.
5 The 1953 First Church directory lists 437 families and 147 individuals.
6 Ed was a member of First Church and related to the Kooiengas in our various PR congregations.