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Rev. C. Hanko – Chapter 24: First Church – 1953-1964

Editor’s Notes—As the story continues in this chapter, the reader will get a sense that as the pastor’s family had come to maturity, so had the churches. The churches started their first foreign mission field on the island of Jamaica. And while the churches mourned the deaths of their two leaders, Rev. Hoeksema and Rev. Ophoff, as related in this chapter, they were able to continue their work of being salt and light.

Throughout the entire conflict of the last few years our family stood firm and united as one man. For that I could be very thankful. The struggle was very painful, since my closest friends had now turned against us. Thus it was comforting and encouraging that at home we had peace and harmony. In the Adams School Mothers’ Club, Mother left the meeting when the opposition tried to take over, followed by a number of women who immediately reorganized as the true continuation of the Mothers’ Club. Later, the opposition pulled out of the school as one man, hoping thereby to make it impossible for the school to continue. But in spite of them the work carried on. There were fewer students but better harmony.

Now the question came up concerning the Beacon Lights, which had not been published since the Split. Two committee members came to me and asked my opinion about starting Beacon Lights again. I asked them “Do you have any money?” They admitted they had none. But they were determined to go out and seek donations. So, as soon as there was enough money for publishing an issue, they went to print. Soon Beacon Lights was coming to our homes right on schedule.

In May of 1953, Herm married Wilma Knoper. Theirs was the last wedding ceremony in First Church before we temporarily lost the property.

In August of 1953, we held the young people’s convention in First Church. On Tuesday afternoon, Elaine and Jean Faber sat all afternoon on the church lawn, waiting for delegates to register. No one came. It appeared as if there would be no convention. Yet the evening meeting was well attended. The delegates had waited until the evening to find out about their lodging. All went well until the banquet night. The committee figured the meal for the delegates and a few others. But many of the De Wolf group stormed in and acted as if they belonged there. The committee went out scouting for food, and all ended quite well.

Herm entered the seminary in the fall of 1953 under Revs. Herman Hoeksema and George Ophoff. Little did he realize that, because of the shortage of ministers after 1953, he would soon be out in the churches. The next year he was sent to Edgerton, Minnesota to work there. Herm and Wilma were blessed with their first child, Ronald Herman, on August 30, 1954.

Fred had been going to Calvin College for the past three years, but was weary of their erroneous teachings. In the fall of 1953, he had an opportunity to start teaching in a Christian School in Kalamazoo. This kept him occupied for the next two years.

In May of 1955, Elaine went with the Pastoors to Europe for six weeks. They took an ocean liner across the Atlantic. She and Thelma Pastoor enjoyed the leisurely trip both ways. They spent about three weeks in the Netherlands and then traveled south into France, Switzerland and Germany.

On August 11, 1955 Fred and Ruth Miersma were joined in the bond of holy matrimony and took up residence in an upstairs apartment on Franklin Street. Fred took up teaching in Adams School. A few years later, in 1957, Fred and Ruth purchased a house on Adams Street, not far from the school.

At the June Synod 1955, Herm was made candidate for the ministry. I remember the occasion very vividly, because I was so deeply impressed, even a bit shaken, by the fact that he also would spend his life in the ministry in our churches. I felt somewhat as David did when he heard that Solomon would succeed him on the throne; he said, “Who am I, O Lord God, and what is my house that Thou hast brought me hitherto?”

Herm received and accepted a call to our Hope Church in Walker, Michigan, and soon he and his family were settled there.

Nineteen fifty-six was the year of the tornado that swept through Hudsonville and Standale. Herm and Wilma came to our house on Bates Street. I was in the church. Although I knew that a storm had passed through between 7 and 8 o’clock, I was not aware of the severity of the storm, nor of the damage that it had done, until I came home at 10 o’clock. Herm and Wilma had tried to get back to their home, but were barred by the National Guard. Especially in Hudsonville and in Standale, there was considerable damage and there were also a number of deaths. The day after the tornado, April 4, 1956, Wilma gave birth to her second son, Cornelius.

In August Mother, Allie and I accompanied Herm, Wilma and Ron to the Upper Peninsula. Since Neal was a small baby, he was left behind with relatives. Herm preached in Grand Haven on Sunday. On Monday we started out with a rented trailer to Northern Michigan. It was a relaxing, pleasant week of sight seeing, but there was one big drawback—it rained every day that we were up there. This was not so bad for us, but it was far worse for families in tents with little kids. Can you imagine keeping kids in a small tent rainy day after rainy day? The novelty of such an experience soon wears thin. Little Ron kept us entertained on that trip. At Tahquamenon Falls his little feet moved in the direction of every puddle of water along the way.

In August of 1957, we went with the Pastoors to a couple of secluded cabins on Traverse Bay. This was an ideal place to relax. Actually we were not far from the main road, but a very narrow, winding trail through a dense woods led down to the cabins at the water’s edge.

We continued to go up there for a few years. Most of the time, Don and Jess Rietema also accompanied the Pastoors and stayed with them in their cabin. We had some very pleasant times together there. The first week the men would do a lot of fishing, as if our life depended on it. The next week I began to relax. Getting up in the morning, we would have breakfast and I would sit down to read. Soon I was sleeping. At noon we had lunch and again I took a long nap. In the late afternoon and evening we visited, but we went early to bed.

One year Herm and Wilma, Fred and Ruth, and their kids stayed in tents near Lake Michigan. But this was a rainy week, so they packed up their wet belongings and came to our cabin. The Pastoors were going home on Saturday, so we rented their cabin for a week, and all of us stayed there. As I recall, it was a chilly week. It was cold on the lake fishing, and fishing was not too good. We felt comfortable near the heater.

One year while we were at the cabin, Mother had a problem with her heart. She was filling with fluid and was very uncomfortable. On Thursday we decided to go home. I called Dr. Avery, our doctor, and he came at once. On Friday he came again. I asked him whether I should get help in the house for the meals. He answered, “Today we do nothing. Tomorrow we will see again.” He had tried to relieve her of the fluid, but had failed. On Saturday he came back and was much relieved. She had gotten rid of a lot of fluid and felt much more comfortable.

My stomach ulcer was still plaguing me, so my doctor planned stomach surgery for the summer of 1958. Dr. Carpenter was recommended, and he took away about seventy percent of my stomach. Before the surgery he reminded me that we were in the hands of the Almighty, and afterward, when I wanted to thank him, he said, “Don’t thank me, thank our God.” He was a Lutheran, but seemed to be very sincere about his religion.

I had expected that after the surgery, from which it took about six weeks to recover, I would henceforth be a semi-invalid. The opposite was true. I never felt better. Now I could eat food that I could not touch before.

On January 10, 1959, Elaine married Richard Bos. Fred and Ruth had moved to Adams Street, so Rich and Elaine moved into their house on Franklin. Elaine had a small home wedding, including only the family and a few of our closest friends. She did not want an ostentatious display in public. We were confronted with the problem of where we should draw the line if we began inviting the congregation. To this day I am still sorry that she did not have a bigger wedding. She is our only daughter who married, and we should have given her a better send off. But it was a nice wedding. Ed Kooienga had arranged to furnish the music. They came down the stairs and spoke their vows in front of the fireplace in the living room. Grandpa Griffioen wore a tie that had been in style many years ago.

Our summer vacations shifted from Grand Traverse Bay to Clyde and Reka in Wisconsin. Reka always welcomed our coming, and Clyde was a pleasant fishing companion. Although we explored other fishing lakes, we were always directed back to that little lake where Clyde had his cottage. It was for us an annual event to float down one of the rivers in the area. About 7 o’clock in the morning the women would take us to a place where we launched the boat. At 3 o’clock in the afternoon they picked us up some miles down the river. We did very little fishing, but we had a good time just drifting along as the river twisted and turned through fields and hills.

We also stayed at Fox Lake, near Randolph. There we were entertained at night by the crickets.

In the summer of 1962, we went to Loveland for a few weeks. Don and Jess Rietema went along. They had hardly ever, if ever, been out of Michigan. Therefore they enjoyed seeing the open prairie and the herds of cattle.

On the way home we returned by way of the Black Hills. Both Don and Jess enjoyed the high rocky cliffs, the faces of Mt. Rushmore, and the scenery in general. We sat by the lake to eat our lunch. The time had come for us to set the car in the direction of Michigan.

In 1963 Herm accepted a call to Doon, Iowa. Here is where Herm and Wilma’s boys had a good taste of farm life in the Midwest. They enjoyed the open country and the trips to the Rock River. Whatever else they experienced, they will not forget the years spent in the little town of Doon. Two years later, in 1965, Herm accepted the call to the seminary and took up residence first in our old house on Bates Street, and later in Walker, Michigan.

In 1963, Mom and I went to Jamaica. The previous year, Mr. Harry Zwak and Mr. Henry Meulenberg, both of whom still have descendants in the churches, had gone and had come back with a favorable report. Now the Meulenbergs and we were sent to investigate the field.

This work in Jamaica had a rather interesting beginning. In the late 50s and early 60s, our churches had a broadcast to England over Transworld Radio from Monaco. This program came on at 10:30 on a Sunday morning, following the Billy Graham program. It was directed toward England, but could be picked up in Germany, and even beyond, to Curocao and Tasmania down under. This broadcast brought a response of about 75 pieces of mail per year.

Among these letters was one from a Jamaican, who for some reason was in England, and had picked up our message. He wanted to know more about our Confessions, so I sent him a Psalter. He responded that he wanted me to come to England. Since this was impossible, the mission committee offered to him that we would pay his trip to Michigan when he made a return to Jamaica. As a result of this contact, we received a list of the membership of twenty-one congregations in Jamaica, with the request that we assume responsibility for them.

We wrote Rev. Frame, who was mentioned as minister of First Hill Church. He responded that if we believed in holiness we should come. If not, we could forget it. Little did we realize that by holiness he meant Pentacostalism.

It was a rare experience for us to visit this island. I had felt for some time that our churches should reach out in a mission project, yet little did I think that a door would be opened for us in such a strange way in Jamaica. A small house had been rented for us in the town of Luca. Mrs. Frame and another woman were our cooks and housekeepers. They arrived at 5 o’clock in the morning and often stayed until 11 o’clock at night. We practically pushed them to their homes, because we wanted a few moments alone to discuss the experiences of the day. Our beds were old and narrow, but serviceable. The bugs came through the open windows, the watchdog barked most of the night, a donkey brayed just outside our room, and a rooster crowed at dawn. Our meals were skimpy, but they did serve their purpose.

The Sunday services lasted a long time. With Rev. Frame taking the lead and Mrs. Frame in charge of the singing, we could have gone on indefinitely. The enthusiasm was most encouraging.

Although we made the town of Luca our headquarters, we rented a car and tried, as much as possible, to visit the 21 “churches” that had so unceremoniously been made our responsibility. Our first visit was to “Rev.” Thompson, who was also at the airport to meet us. We soon discovered that he had a small group of women in his “church,” that practiced voodoo. But what turned us off completely was his suggestion that, if we would give him $25,000, he would bring us most of the people in town. I told him he was too mercenary for us to deal with him. The sad part was that he also had rented an apartment for us, and we had to tell the landlady that he had not been authorized to do that.

We thought we could make a schedule and by strictly following that we could visit four or five churches in one day. So our first appointment was with a Rev. Davis at 9 o’clock in the morning. We arrived a bit early, but he already had his congregation assembled and the children enthusiastically singing. Their shoes were nicely lined up under their chairs. This singing went on and on. Finally, about 10 o’clock, he reached into his briefcase, pulled out an alarm clock, and studying it carefully decided that it was 9 o’clock. Then, evidently to show his great talent, he stood ranting and raving for awhile. After that, I spoke, explaining to them the purpose of our mission. Since our schedule was ruined already, we allowed two young men to give us a duet on their instruments. This I recorded, and to their utter amazement, if not fear, I played it back for them. From that time on I had repeated requests for that box that spoke.

We decided that the best way to work was to plan nothing but Sunday services. We would arrive at a certain church and give some of the women and children instructions to beat their drums. That was the signal to come to the tabernacle. In about an hour the other women had put on white dresses, the men had cleaned up a bit, and, giving the drummers time to change their clothes, we soon had a service started. Our speeches and sermons were greeted with “Amens” and “Hallelujahs,” but at least that showed they were listening.

We were back in Luca. One morning Mrs. Meulenberg got up and noticed red spots on her arms and legs. She had noticed a few before, but never that bad. She asked Mrs. Frame what she thought about them, and received the simple answer, “Bedbugs.” For a little while we had a revolution going. All three of my companions were ready to pack and go to a motel. When I saw how serious they were, I issued an ultimatum. “You can all go, but I have work to do here. I want to know these people, and to know them, I have to live with them.” That was that. We all stayed.

One Thursday we decided to go to Kingston. We wanted to see whether we could obtain a certificate for Rev. Frame, giving him the right to perform weddings. This he greatly desired, and we thought we would do him that favor. We stayed in what might be called a Bed and Breakfast, two upstairs rooms with a “bath,” that is, a spray over a tub. When we decided to retire the landlady said, “I have two dogs and two night boys, but lock your doors and windows.” We had planned to return to Luca on Friday, but were held up by all kinds of technicalities. We were sent to one place, where the doorkeeper wanted to know our business. Politely we were referred to “second floor, third door.” There we once more explained our business. The man listened attentively and decided that we were in the wrong place. We should go so many blocks west, and so many blocks south, and there they could help us. This went on and on, while we perspired along the way. Finally we met a woman of Spanish background. She listened to our tale of woe and told us to give her an hour to work on our problems. When we returned she had everything worked out for us.

But in the meantime the people in Luca thought we had fallen among the thieves and robbers and would never return. Needless to say, they were glad to see us back.

One Sunday night Rev. Frame had planned a service on the soccer grounds in the town. The “Bishop” would speak. We had quite a crowd. But the interesting part was that I had often wondered if something like that would be possible. Now I was confronted with it. I spoke on Matthew 11:28, explaining to them that a white man is just as black inside as anyone of the colored race. There seemed to have been quite a reaction in the town. But we met none of them in the Sunday services.

All too soon our time was up. The morning of our departure dawned. We had failed to report to the airport to check our tickets for our return, so our seats were canceled. But there was a British plane leaving in an hour. We dashed off to the motel, packed our baggage by throwing everything in willy-nilly. Then we had to get rid of our car and report at the plane. They were waiting for us, so we hastily stepped aboard and soon were going almost straight up into the sky. At customs, I warned the inspector that our luggage was a mess. But he opened my suitcase, picked up socks and underwear that had tumbled out, hastily slammed it shut, and refused to open the rest.

A new field had opened. Because showing the pictures of Jamaica attracted interest in Grand Rapids, the Meulenbergs, Mother and I decided to make a trip through the churches by train. We stopped in Doon and saw Herm’s family; then on to Loveland, Redlands and Lynden. On the way to Lynden, Mother developed a cyst in her large bowel. She suffered great agony in San Francisco and in Lynden. We went to a doctor in Sumas, who advised us to return home as soon as possible. We arrived home late on a Thursday evening. The next morning I called the Ferguson hospital. By 2 o’clock in the afternoon, Mother was in surgery.

In 1964, after spending sixteen years in First, we moved to Redlands, California.

* * * * *

The years of hard work, long hours and bitter struggle had taken their toll on Rev. Hoeksema. Especially the latest strife within the church had been extremely painful and difficult. He remarked at one time that ’53 was in some ways worse than ’24, because this conflict was brought about by men whom he had trained, whom he had trusted, and who now turned against him and were out to destroy the church.

He no longer walked with a cane, but his one leg did not come along readily. His arm and hand were impaired so that Homer had to help him in typing his articles for the Standard Bearer. His voice had lost some of its resonance, but was still strong. His cheerfulness that brought a pleasant smile to his face had faded and his former hearty laughter was no longer heard. It was evident to all of us that our pastor was aging. This was especially true when he first came to the pulpit on Sunday morning. Yet as he carried on in the service he seemed to gain energy and when he was preaching he seemed younger, once more filled with enthusiasm and the zeal for the Word. He always enjoyed preaching, possibly more than anything else.

His mind was still clear. There were those in the audience who feared that he might not be able to carry on through the entire service, or that he might become confused. Yet that never happened. In one instance he stated that he wanted to point out six facts. Some among us wondered, will he be able to remember them, will he keep them in logical order? Yet step by step he continued through the six points without hesitation.

He continued to write in the Standard Bearer and also continued to teach in the seminary. Sometimes he had but one student, but he diligently taught and enjoyed the work.

He and I continued to enjoy a good working relationship. On Thursday, I’d call him up for the sermon information for the bulletin and he’d say, “Well you know what I’m going to preach on. Just make a theme and division.” So I would, and he’d usually use that too. Except once he got on the pulpit and said, “Now the bulletin has this theme. But I changed that.” Knowing he was preaching on the catechism and knowing his make up, I could formulate his theme and points. I knew too what line we were on, whether he was emphasizing the covenant, or justification, and I drew up the theme and divisions accordingly. It usually went well.

Some of the older ministers would offer their sermon outlines to the younger ministers, especially for busy times. Rev. Hoeksema did the same for me, but I refused. I knew from the start that would never work. I had to preach my own sermons my own way.

The opposition in the CRC had not lessened. We had occasion to meet with four of the professors of Calvin Seminary to discuss a small matter. On the way to the meeting Rev. Hoeksema remarked that he dreaded meeting these men. The business was transacted in short order and we were ready to leave when one of the men invited us to have coffee with them. Rev. Hoeksema declined, but I suggested that we stay. We no more than sat down and all four of them accused him of teaching a parallel predestination, that is, that even as God chooses his elect purely by grace and in no way because of their works, so God also reprobates the wicked sovereignly, regardless of their evil deeds.

We asked them to prove that he taught this. With an almost sarcastic smile one of them remarked that it was virtually self-evident. We insisted that they prove that this was his teaching, but they brushed all further discussion on the subject aside. We left there more than a bit unhappy.

A quotation from his Reformed Dogmatics will show that a parallel predestination was by no means the conviction and teaching of our pastor. On page 161 we read, “Reprobation is the eternal and sovereign decree of God to determine some men to be vessels of wrath fitted unto destruction in the way of sin, as manifestation of His justice, and to serve the realization of His elect church.”

In the summer of 1958, Rev. Ophoff, the trusty colleague of Rev. Hoeksema, who had resolutely supported him through all the struggles, suffered a stroke while on his way home from a trip to Canada. He and his wife stayed at a hospital in Toledo, Ohio until he was able to make the trip home. Since Rev. Hoeksema desired to see him as soon as possible, we visited him in the hospital in Toledo, where we had opportunity to talk with him, encourage him and pray with him.

Mrs. Ophoff was a remarkable woman, a faithful wife and a kind, understanding mother. When they returned home, she took excellent care of her husband, even to the extent that she virtually collapsed under the burden. Rev. Ophoff never fully recovered. At times he felt a sense of guilt, wondering whether he had done the right thing by staying up those long nights to prepare articles for the Standard Bearer or lessons for the seminary. Yet at that time he had no choice, the work awaited him.

He was gradually failing, but never faltered in his assurance of God’s promises that cannot fail. He remained a staunch defender of the truth he loved as long as he lived. He was taken home on June 12, 1962 at the age of 71 years, there to hear it said, “Well done, thou good and faithful servant, enter thou into the joys of thy Lord.” When he departed, Mrs. Ophoff was in a rest home and hardly realized what had happened. Yet when she saw him in the funeral parlor a single tear fell upon her cheek. Our pastor preached the funeral sermon on Psalm 73:24: “Thou shalt guide me with thy counsel, and afterward receive me to glory.” We all missed him.

In the early 1960s, Mrs. Hoeksema’s health began to fail. She had been a loyal help to her husband throughout all the years of their marital union. She also knew how to rear and guide her family, especially in times of storm and stress. Her husband depended upon her sound judgment of people’s characters more than most people realized. He did not appreciate simpering people or sugar-mouthed individuals, but he did readily accept and trust a person at face value. He could not imagine that any one would be dishonest or deceitful, since he himself was straight-forward and said exactly what he thought, even at times quite bluntly.

It was a pleasure to visit Mrs. Hoeksema during the time of her failing strength. I was always greatly impressed by her deep spirituality and confident hope. On September 23, 1963 the Lord reached out to take her into the rest that remains for the people of God. Our pastor sorely missed her. An important part of his life was taken from him, leaving a great void that could not be filled.

Gradually he was forced to give up his preaching, instructing in the seminary and contributing to the Standard Bearer. He had always hoped to die in the harness, that is, to be taken away in the midst of his labors, but the Lord had something better in store for him. He had time for quiet reflection and fellowship with his Lord. He experienced possibly more than ever that through prayer and meditation God shares His own communal life with His saints in intimate covenant fellowship. He could say with the sweet singer of old:

Yea, the secret of Jehovah is with those who fear His Name;
With His friends in tender mercy He His covenant will maintain.
With a confidence complete, toward Jehovah my eyes are turning;
From the net He’ll pluck my feet; he will not despise my yearning.
(Ps. No. 415, verse 7)

He had seen the churches recovering from the shock of 1953 and in his own family experienced God’s promise realized, “I will be thy God and the God of thy seed forever.” He was full of days, and was ready to enter into the rest. His departure was on September 2, 1965. He could say with the apostle Paul, “I have fought a good fight, I have finished my course, I have kept the faith: Henceforth there is laid up for me a crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, shall give me in that day: and not to me only, but unto all them also that love his appearing” (II Tim. 4:7, 8).

His son, Prof. Homer C. Hoeksema, who succeeded him as editor of the Standard Bearer, wrote:

My copy for this issue was not ready yet when the tidings came early this morning, September 2, that the Lord had granted my beloved father the desire of his heart that he would be delivered from this life, which is nothing but a continual death, into the glory of the inheritance incorruptible and undefiled, and that fadeth not away.

His departure, though painful for and mourned by his dear ones and by all of us who came to know him as pastor, teacher and friend, was not unexpected. For several months already the Lord had removed him from his active labors in our churches, and particularly in his beloved First Church. Besides, he himself had expressed the wish, when he was losing his ability to communicate a couple of months ago, that, “I hope it won’t be long.” And now the Lord has delivered him. Last Sunday we at First Church prayed that when we could no longer reach him, the Lord might reach him with His Spirit and grace to comfort him. Well, the Lord certainly answered that prayer. He reached him and called him home.

With the passing of these two giant defenders of the truth, another era of our history had come to a close. They have passed on the Sword of the Spirit to the next generations. Also to them comes the Word of the Lord: “Be strong in the Lord, and in the power of His might!” (Eph. 6:10). “Be ye steadfast, unmoveable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, forasmuch as ye know that your labor is not in vain in the Lord” (I Cor. 15:58).