They've been my neighbors for most of my life. In high school, my best friend was one, the son of a preacher, in fact. My sister's family was, at one time, entirely a part of the church. Grandma was too, as were her parents and grandparents.
RCA that is--Reformed Church in America. Seriously, some of my best friends are.
I have no idea where I picked up the bug but I have this itch for history, especially Dutch-American history; and the history of the RCA is, in fact, steeped in tulips because the RCA's profoundly strong presence in Dutch-American conclaves in Michigan and Iowa originates in the Afscheiding, the painful 1834 "separation" undertaken by religious conservatives in Holland against a State Church--the Dutch Reformed Church--they believed was tottering in orthodoxy.
I'm part of that break too because the members of my family who broke away in the Netherlands broke away once more when they immigrated, this time when the CRC waved goodbye to the RCA in 1857.
I realize all of this doesn't mean diddly if your own DNA hasn't been arranged by all such heresy hunting, but mine has. That's why I loved reading Lynn Japinga's Loyalty and Loss: The Reformed Church in America, 1945-1994.
Reminds me of a story. Once upon a time, a man was stranded on an island in the South Seas. When finally he was found, his rescuers couldn't help notice that he'd built a whole city of his own. "There's my post office," he said, pointing down the street, "and there's my hardware store."
The rescuers were slack-jawed. "And that must be your church?" they said, pointing at a steeple. "But then what on earth is that?" they asked, pointing at yet another.
"Oh," the straggler said, smiling, "that's the church I used to belong to."
Perhaps I didn't tell it right, but that, methinks, hits us right in our vulnerability. But here's the punch line. Substitute synagogue for church, and you've got the telling I first heard. That's right--Jewish folks told me that joke, not Dutch-Americans.
We fight. Comes with territory covered by the spacious human condition. Where two or three are gathered, someone goes home mad. I can't imagine that any Christian believer who makes it to his or her fourscore and ten hasn't been bloodied somewhere along the line. It happens, and Japinga's lively and thoughtful history keeps running score of the battles, as if RCA history were another take on the Great Sioux Wars.
Her point of reference is The Church Herald, a magazine, now gone, to which I contributed a whole sheaf of personal essays a couple decades ago. I remember thinking that someone should give a Congressional Medal of Honor to Jim Bratt when he published Dutch Calvinism in America for his thankless devotion to reading every old copy of The Banner he could find in the bowels of the Calvin College Archives.
Maybe we can award them both a medal on the same night, because Lynn Japinga had to have waded through a shelf full of Church Heralds to glean all the letters. What's more, she's got a penchant for finding the most vivid, often the most embarrassing. I'll give away my colors here--it'll come as no surprise; but if I were one of what she calls "the purists," my blush would be a Ft. Lauderdale sunburn. When she looks back at battles over, say, South African apartheid, it's clear--embarrasingly clear--who were the crazies.
The plot outline goes like this: generally, the mainliners, the men and women in the eastern RCA (the oldest denomination in America, by the way) face off against the conservative Midwest evangelicals. The Civil War in the RCA pits East and against West, and makes me think Gysbert Haan may have been right 150 years ago when he and his rapscallion cohorts decided they'd have no truck with those prissy Easterners who didn't know a thing about what they'd gone through in the Afscheiden, nor did they care.
If I had to choose with whom I'd like to go fishing, I'd take Albertus Van Raalte any Lake Michigan afternoon over any of a dozen Gysbert Haans. Haan was a Young Goodman Brown who was generally gloomy and certainly neither young nor good; he was a brawler who made life miserable for Van Raalte, the man who more than anything shaped the Dutch immigrant community in west Michigan. Dominie Van Raalte wasn't wrong in thinking that his new world immigrants could use every bit of help they could get from the old knickerbockers out east, a church full of folks who could still manage some Dutch in the mid-19th century. I've always thought Van Raalte had a point.
Turns out, fractious Gysbert may have been right. Linking up with the New York crowd was just asking to be unequally yoked.
I'm being silly. What Japinga does clearly--and sadly, I should say--is outline the issues that have terrorized the fellowship in the Reformed Church in America. When abortion was legalized, for instance, much of the east sided with those who believed in a woman's right to choose. Many--probably most--Midwesterners were appalled. A fight ensued.
You name it--racism, apartheid, women in ecclesiastical office, homosexuality--there's been enough trench warfare in the denomination to give both sides battle fatigue. I don't know that anyone has ever raised a white flag, but then no one cares much about denominations anymore anyway, especially those we identify as mainline. They're all losing members.
It is a sad story, if you care. But the sadder truth is, most don't anymore.
Richard Ostling, once Time's religion editor, once told me that, in America, ethnic denominations simply die. Their raison d'etra simply disappears once people wear Nikes and not wooden shoes. "Americanization," Jim Bratt called it, has the same overwhelming power among the Swedish Baptists and the Irish Catholics and the Dutch Reformed, as it had among the Lakota out here in Siouxland. It's just that no white folks starved or were massacred.
I've worshiped in a lot of Reformed churches in my day. As I said, I have family there. And they're happy, I think. They're part of a congregation that's big and functioning, and they're trying to make a difference, trying to celebrate their joy in Christ's love, to offer thanks for the eternity of joy believers see opened up before them.
Basically, that's the way it goes in American Protestantism. Denominations die, especially ethnic denominations. But not faith. Somehow, despite our best intentions, it retains its incredible elasticity creating tents large enough to house all of us believers, even when we don't march lockstep or believe the other guy--or gal--really has a place. Depending how you pitch the story of churches we leave, I suppose, it's either a good story or a sad one. Probably both.
But it's our story, and Lynn Japinga helps us understand it and thereby see a bit more clearly, through the smoke and dust, just who we are. That's noble work. It's time for another medal of honor.
"That's the church I used to go to," the survivor said.