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Basic Principles at Holland Center, Lodgepole

By October 20, 2017 16 Comments

You think I’m exaggerating when I say that from up there on the hill, you can watch your dog run away for three days, but Holland Center Christian Reformed Church, Lodgepole, SD, is so far off the beaten path, it makes Alton, Iowa, my home, feel congested. 

Nothing but endless rolling grasslands all around. Perkins County is not just “big” country, it’s gargantuan. When I pulled up to the church Sunday morning, I couldn’t help wondering how often Holland Center gets a visitor in a place where there are probably more pronghorns than people.

The CRC’s “find a church” list claimed Holland Center is five miles south of Lodgepole, then three miles west. That’s where I found it. You pass just one ranch on those three miles of gravel over nothing but big-shouldered range land so barren cattle have to wander for forage. It’s the deep freeze come January; scorching heat like you wouldn’t believe in July.

Only buffalo are suited for such a nasty climate, and you don’t have to go far to find the place where a state historical marker claims the Last Great Buffalo Hunt went down in 1882.

I wanted to go to church at Holland Center. Call me crazy. I was out in the far reaches of South Dakota anyway last week, so I got myself into the closest motel I could find, twenty miles away. I’d been driving all day, so I walked into a steak house/bar on a downtown street, a place jammed full of cowboys, so full I never got farther than the front door. I asked the woman at the motel desk about other places to eat. Only two, she said. The other one has a Thai cook, she told me, so they serve Thai food.

Two huge men, my age, walked in the place after I ordered, obviously first-timers too. We were the only three customers in the place. Straight out of Hee-Haw they were, bib overalls big as army tents, seed caps on both their noggins, both slightly hard of hearing which made it clear they had no clue what to order from an odd menu. Neither did I. One of them said he’d been in Vietnam forty years ago, but he didn’t know what to make of it either. “This is foreign food,” one of ’em  said, shocked. When the owner walked in, an Asian woman, they were chuckling to themselves about only wanting hamburgers. “You a foreigner?” one of them asked. I’m not making this up.

I got up early on Sunday–the denominational listing claimed services start at eight (you read that right). Holland Center isn’t exactly  seeker-friendly. I got there a touch early anyway, walked in past an entire family of greeters–five or six kids, grandpas and grandmas all in a line. Hearty smiles on handsome people who looked trim and scoured by the unforgiving country they call home.

I didn’t expect people to get out of pews when I walked in, but they did, stepped right out to greet me. It was precious really. Pastor shook my hand warmly. They share him with a Methodist church down the road; hence, the meeting time: “he’s got to get back to Prairie City.”

People told me he does far more than meet their expectations. “I call him a ‘Reformed Wesleyan,'” an old man told me, grinning. He introduced himself by name, then told me that his grandad, more than a century ago, had moved out to Perkins County from Grand Rapids when his wife came down with asthma. He’d been furniture maker. They stopped near Lodgepole, which, likely as not, was actually a town back then. 

They started a church up out in the country, he told me, when they heard about a bunch of Dutch people (Dutch as in,”from the Netherlands”) who had some land just west a ways. So they put the church in the middle and called it Holland Center. Made some sense, I guess.

I liked the “reformed Wesleyan” preacher, quite frankly. He tried his best to get out some baseline principles about being a believer, took scripture that morning from the very beginning, book of Genesis, because he wanted to establish some foundations in a manner that he gambled was a bit airy and even a little professorial. He apologized for not hitting a scripture in his usual fashion. He wanted to establish what was absolutely basic about the Christian faith.

He held forth from a clump of hand-written notes, but hated standing behind the pulpit so much he’d come out in front time after time after time to explain a point more vividly. It was hard not like a preacher that earnest.

But that Sunday morning, the real sermon was right in front of me, where an old man who’d gone out of his way to greet me sat in pew with his wife. He’d not introduced me to her earlier, made no mention of her, even though I stood right there beside him–and them. He didn’t regard her at all, a gender attitude I determined was less chauvinistic than simply cultural.

But once the pastor started defining basic principles, that old rancher laid his arm around his wife, held her shoulder, stroked her back, let her know he was there, almost as if they were kids again, spooning in that tempered moment in all of our lives when, try as we might, we can’t go a minute without touching the person we love. A couple times, with his hand, he smoothed her hair in the back, and when he did I realized I’d never seen an old man do that before, not in church, not in public. It was moving, beautiful.

When the worship was over, he looked for me again as he helped his wife into the wheelchair he’d left in the aisle beside them, a wheelchair I hadn’t noticed. “The wife’s got Parkinsons,” he told me, smiling at her, at his love, as if they were newlyweds.

There are two hymnals in the rack at Holland Center CRC, one of them, for the record, is the blue Psalter Hymnal in plastic covers that will keep them from harm for a ton of years yet. Music?–traditional. And get this: a male organist!–amazing.

And the singing?–nothing to write home about, dominated, oddly enough, by men’s voices. Somehow–maybe it was because last week was the week of Harvey Weinstein–somehow I found that beautiful too.

Way out there in the country, where once upon a time the buffalo roamed and proghorns stayed alive in grueling winters by following those endless herds through snow that could well have killed them had the bison not stamped it down, way out there twenty miles from Tip Top Motel and Suzy’s Thai menu, last Sunday morning, I worshiped the Lord in an old white frame church on a hill in the middle of nowhere, and was blessed by a sermon on some basic Christian principles.

What a joy.


James C. Schaap

James Calvin Schaap is a retired English prof who has been something of a writer for most of the last 40 years. His latest work, a novel, Looking for Dawn, set in reservation country, is the story of two young women joined by their parents' mutual brokenness and, finally, a machine-shed sacrament of reconciliation. He writes and narrates a weekly essay on regional history for KWIT, public radio, Sioux City, Iowa. He and his wife Barbara live on the northern edge of Alton, Iowa, the Sgt. Floyd River a hundred yards or so from their back door. They have a cat--rather, he has them.


  • Daniel Meeter says:

    Boy oh boy, I would have loved to be with you for this. I think you saw God’s face.

  • mstair says:

    amen, Jim! … love reading your descriptions … !

  • Duane VB says:

    Thanks for sharing your story. A beautiful story really…..

  • Delightful, Jim. Thanks for your “report”.

  • Tom says:

    Thank you for this beautiful story, this is the stuff that really matters. Thank you, too, for not mentioning Trump, the NRA, etc., etc., etc. This is infinitely more powerful and meaningful and filled with truth than some of the other “screeds” I read on this journal and we need to hear more stories like this.

  • Harvey Kiekover says:

    Vintage Jim! Thank you for showing us a remote place brought stunningly close to us readers. Basic principles indeed: they brought you back to them and you brought us with you! Thanks.

  • Lynn Setsma says:

    Jim, this is great! I’ve been in that church but just on a tour by dear friends who live in the heart of Lodgepole. And, yes you can watch your dog for three days. Beautiful country. Hope you had a chance to visit the General Store in Lodgepole. There is another great experience.

  • Diana Walker says:

    Your words have wings that take me to places like Holland Center. And Suzy’s. And into witnessing a long time love. Thank you, thank you, thank you.

  • Al Mulder says:

    I just love watching that dog run away.

  • John Wesselius says:

    We stopped there on a family vacation. Back in the late 1990’s early 2000’s, I had spent several years visiting every school district in the Dakota’s and wanted to spend a vacation without driving interstate highway’s. Sioux Center to Platte to Pierre to Lodgepole ( because there were 3 letters to the editor of the Banner from Lodgepole SD. in one year ) to Teddy Roosevelt North Unit and into western Canada. Camped at Shade Hill SD looking for Hugh Glass monument. Thanks for reviving the memories. ( that was a 6,000 mile road trip with elementary school age girls in a van with no air conditioning. On the way back following the east side of the Missouri from Bismarck south it was 105 and we stopped to swim in a road side lake near Pollock SD.

  • Lynn Japinga says:

    Beautiful essay, Jim. You capture the grace and foibles of humanity so elegantly and respectfully.

  • Cory Van Sloten says:

    Haven’t been there but would love to go sometime as some of my wife’s ancestors are buried there. Makes Lebanon Christian Reformed Church of rural Sioux Center where I serve seem congested too! What were those crazy Dutch folks thinking when they homesteaded there? Thanks for sharing your experience!

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