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What does a guy like me, who’s lived a very white life, and who’s not a historian have to offer to Black History Month?

Not much, in point of fact.

My primary role is learner—to hear and to learn and to discover both heroes I never knew and atrocities I was never taught.

Still, I will share my memories of Martin Luther King Jr. Or really, how now in hindsight I see how much King influenced, changed, and inspired my father—and to some degree, saved him in ministry. And then, that in turn, formed me.

So this is more a story about my dad than Dr. King—which again displays how white my history is. Ultimately, it is really about me and my ongoing work to understand my parents as a key to understanding myself—a project to which, these days, I find myself devoting a lot of energy.

During most of this time I was a happy little kid, pretty oblivious to everything. Much of it my dad shared with me decades later as we mused about life in the ministry.

New York in the 1950s

My dad, circa 1958

In the late 1950s and early 60’s, I see my parents as somewhat casting about, uncertain, drained. This may be pretty typical for people in their late 20s and early 30s—young children, far enough into a career to have second-guesses and misgivings, the tank of youthful idealism filled only with fumes.

My dad was serving a Reformed Church congregation in the New York City borough of Queens—wanting to be free and far from his Iowa church upbringing, yet simultaneously struggling and unfamiliar with such very different understandings of church and faith, not to mention everyday life. Could he survive in ministry?

In looking for something to grab on to, my father found four pillars—an odd assortment of four very different people. People who blessed him, pushed him, and changed him.
James Muilenburg, revered Old Testament professor at Union Theological Seminary, also a product of northwest Iowa, who rumor has it, flirted with my grandmother back in the day.
Billy Graham, who held an epic sixteen week crusade at Madison Square Garden in 1957, and whose openness to participation by non-Baptist, non-Arminian, non-fundamentalist churches and pastors drew my dad in.
Harald Bredesen, a Lutheran serving as pastor of First Reformed Church of Mount Vernon, New York in the late 50s, who would go on to pal around with David Wilkerson, Pat Boone, and Anwar Sadat, who introduced my parents to the “charismatic renewal.”
• Martin Luther King, Jr., whose primary role at the time was pastor in Montgomery, Alabama and leader of the Montgomery bus boycott.

It was always very important in our family that Dr. King was a Christian, especially a pastor. To my dad, King was less a social activist or stirring orator. He was a minister. He pastored a congregation, like my dad. They were almost the same age.

My dad’s own ministry did not resemble King’s even in the slightest manner. But I think King imparted to my dad that ministry and ministers make a difference. King gave my dad a role model, an idea of what a minister could be. When my dad’s own sense of call was tenuous, when his energy was waning, King filled my dad with hope and courage.

Chicago in the 1960s

Skip ahead a few years, our family is now living on the far south side of the Chicago suburbs. Racial tensions are very high in the community and in the church my father served. Anger and bigotry were in the air. The white suburbanites, many of whom had already moved farther south once, feared African-Americans moving into their communities.

I’m still young and for the most part, blithely unaware. I do recall that when Dr. King would appear on TV, probably the evening news, my parents would watch intently and a reverent hush came over the room. Strange, the unspoken, unintentional things that young children sense.

My “clearest” memory—although memories like this are notoriously inaccurate and embellished—is seeing King at O’Hare Airport. My dad and I were picking up or dropping off someone. Edging our way through the crowded concourse, my dad stopped and pointed. “Look, there’s Dr. King in the phone booth!”

Hidden in an out-of-the-way corner, with the phone booth door shut, was Martin Luther King Jr. Several of his entourage milled around the area, guaranteeing his privacy and quiet. Apparently he just needed a place to rest and gather himself. We didn’t approach. But if this next part of the story isn’t true, it should be. I waved and Dr. King smiled back at me! I do remember eagerly reporting our encounter when we returned home.

Another near brush with greatness came when my family traveled to the Presbyterian retreat center in Montreat, North Carolina in August, 1965 for a “Christian Action Conference.” King was the keynote speaker, “The Church on the Frontier of Racial Tension.” Here I’m certain my memories are accurate because I have none. Every day, my sisters and I would gladly go off to day-camp while our parents went to the conference. That they didn’t think to bring us in even briefly to hear Dr. King still sort of rankles me.

But it was back home where King was inspiring my father. One example, told to me years later, happened during a church fellowship hour. A leader in the congregation declared in a voice loud enough to be heard by most everyone, “Reverend, if a n****r ever steps foot in this church, I’m going to stand right up and walk out.” It was said with the tone of a joke, but everyone knew it was serious. My dad, not a particularly bellicose person replied, “And I’ll say ‘Tony, you sit right down and worship God with the rest of us.’” A nervous chuckle and then awkward silence filled the hall.

Then the first African-American family moved into our neighborhood. At the monthly Consistory meeting, someone made a motion to forbid the pastor from going to welcome them. As my dad told it, he was silent during the following discussion. But in his head he knew that if the motion passed, the next action would be his resignation. He started playing out those undesirable scenarios—how to support a family, where to live, moving back with parents, and more. The voted failed, 8-4.

Yes, these stories are much more about my father than Martin Luther King, Jr. But I think King was in the background of them all, informing, stretching, reassuring my father, giving him courage and resolve he might not otherwise have had.

And over the years, these stories have become very important to me. Not simply in my hagiography of my dad. But as a pastor and person facing my own challenges, I draw wisdom and courage from my dad, the same way I believe he drew it from Dr. King.

Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell

Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell and his wife, Sophie, are the pastors at the Second Reformed Church in Pella, Iowa. Steve has served on numerous Reformed Church commissions and task forces, and also edited the journal Perspectives for many years. Before coming to Iowa, he lived and served as a pastor in upstate New York. Sophie and he have two adult children. He holds a Ph.D. from Boston College in theological ethics.

16 Comments

  • Daniel J Meeter says:

    This is the kind of Twelve post we read it for. Thank you very much. We should talk. Our dad’s lives had some parallels.The mixture of King, Graham, and Bredesen! I remember my dad coming back from a meeting with Bredesen, and talking about how literally to open up your breathing in order to pray in the Holy Spirit. Now I’m going to look up your dad in the Historical Directory.

  • Jan Hoffman says:

    Fabulous to read, you unearthed many memories of my very white upbringing and my preacher father, also Dr King’s age, and his move to St. Thomas, Virgin Islands to serve a church in an African Caribbean culture, a very conscious decision. We, too, were glued to Dr King on tv, and his words were often quoted in sermons. Thank you for the tribute to King’s influence.

  • Nathan DeWard says:

    Your memories caused me to think about how I connect the dots of my upbringing with my current sense of identity. It’s a good exercise.

    I also think that hagiography isn’t entirely inappropriate when we own it. Thanks for owning it.

    Great writing!

  • Fred Mueller says:

    Thanks, Steve. Two other ministers who tendered their resignations when African-Americans were denied membership (the leaders subsequently changed their minds); Howard Hageman in Newark and Jimmy Carter in Plains.

  • John Tiemstra says:

    Yes, tensions ran high in the Chicago area in those days. I remember the atmosphere of fear about what would happen if black families would try to move into our area. A lot of anger and open racism too. We have come a ways since then, but still have far to go. Thanks for a great essay.

  • JoAnne Wagner says:

    Sometimes when I read “a very white childhood,” I wonder if we are pretending that such is possible. The White community was always aware of the African American community, even in American society where they were treated as “Other,” and in fact we Whites had our own ambivalent and ambiguous thoughts and experiences because experience is rarely, if ever, monolithic. Steve’s stories make that clear. I’m wondering what his thoughts were about these stories, and how his interactions with African Americans while growing up shaped and informed his ministry. Thanks for sharing.

  • Cathy Smith says:

    Thank you for this sensitive post. I read it “to hear and to learn and discover.” It was helpful and perceptive.

  • Matt Huisman says:

    “The vote failed, 8-4.”

    I love this detail. There’s probably a lot more that could be said about what came after the vote. It’s quite a thing to be ready to take a stand like your dad. But I wonder how much wisdom/grace was needed in the aftermath (whether quiet undertones or loud clashes) to minister to leaders or a congregation that would vote 8-4? Lord have mercy.

    Thx for sharing this story.

  • Tom Eggebeen says:

    Thanks for a heartfelt telling of the tale … and a simple, if not tragic reminder, of how deeply imbedded is the fear and loathing of the “other.” We forget, perhaps, that our Dutch ancestors brought racism with them, as did most of our European ancestors; racism being, not an American invention, but an invention of the colonial powers of Europe. Of course, racism exists everywhere in the human story; the fear of the “other,” the “outsider,” whatever the specifics of that may be.

    Your father confronted the demon, and that bravery certainly impacted you, and if parents can do anything at all, this is it. And a reminder, as well, that the battle remains.

    Thanks for sharing … as one said in the comments, for this kind of reading is why I subscribed.

  • Lori Witt says:

    Thanks for sharing. The historian and the Christian in me really appreciated this post!

  • Davis Folkerts says:

    In the late sixties and early seventies of the last century Second Reformed Church still had evening worship every Sunday. As organist for the church, I was on the bench twice every Sunday. There was a series of evening services devoted to discussions, not just sermons, and one of those series focused on race relations. Discussion was encouraged and, for a church accustomed to sermons, was not very spontaneous. I don’t remember a lot of what got voiced until one evening when an immigrant Dutchman stood up to assert that apartheid was THE answer, and South Africa was the one place on the globe that had it right. I was too shocked to reply, and intimidated as the newbie, and there because I was hired to be at that. I still regret, however not having the fortitude to speak out. That was 50 or so years ago and the memory still stings.

    Thank you, Steve, for your post!
    Davis Folkerts

  • George E says:

    Great story, and an inspiring one. Thanks for sharing!

  • Jim Schaap says:

    What a wonderful gathering of memories. Thanks for remembering and writing and giving them to the rest of us.

  • Mark William Ennis says:

    Thank you for sharing this, Steve. My family was on the other end of this, not trusting King and knowing that “‘they’ are better off living with their own kind.”

  • Marilyn Norman says:

    I knew your parents at Third Church, Holland. It’s good to remember them after reading this excellent article. Thanks

  • Dick M. Stravers says:

    Sadly, racism is everywhere, isn’t it? When I was a child, our family would travel 45 miles west to Des Moines, Iowa, each August to buy new jeans for the upcoming school year. That was the only time in the entire year that we would see African Americans. We stared like mad. My mom (wonderfully loving in most every way) would even say, “Look at all of them darkies.” We kids weren’t even aware of how racist a comment that was, nor was my mom. When I was grown up and serving my first pastorate in Cleveland, Ohio, a saintly PhD said to me one day, “Rev. Stravers, don’t you think it’s time you preach a sermon about racism?” I followed his advice, with too little love in my heart I must admit. During the coffee hour afterward, a very angry member shoved me into the church kitchen saying, “I need to talk to you.” He didn’t talk; he shouted. Our son even feared that he would kill me. Today, that man is in the very presence of Jesus where racism is no more. Praise God!

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