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While my parents were still living, I often traveled from Holland to Grand Rapids and lunched with them at Porter Hills Retirement Village. On one of my trips to Grand Rapids, I decided to drive past the old Third Reformed Church.

Located on the corner of Diamond and Hermitage, Third Reformed was a haven for Dutch emigrants around the turn of the century. Third hosted Jacobus and Patrinella Boogaart who in the 1920s had emigrated from Texel, the largest island of the Dutch archipelago in the North Sea. Jacobus was a poor tenant farmer who apparently ran afoul of the law and left the island to make a new start in the land of the free.

Jacobus and Patrinella were not church-goers on the island of Texel, but they were so thankful to Third Church for its help in finding work and lodging that they were drawn into its orbit. They raised their three children there, the oldest being my Dad, who in turn married my Mom and raised us, their four children, there. I was one of three generations whose lives were caught up in the rhythms of Third Reformed Church.

As I arrived at the church, I parked on Hermitage Street and stepped out onto the broad sidewalk where the men and women used to congregate and talk in tight circles after services. I tried the front door and to my surprise it was unlocked. I entered and climbed the flight of stairs to the sanctuary. Only silence was there to greet me. I thought about leaving but then voices from the past began to break the silence. I felt drawn into the sanctuary and sat down in a pew close to where the Hamelink family used to sit.

Taking in the surroundings, I was surprised to see that very little had changed. The congregation that had bought the building apparently did not have the money to update and repair. The stained glass windows remained, although now some panes had fallen out and were boarded up with plywood. The large wooden pulpit stood there like the prow of a ship that for years had led the gathered faithful into the uncharted waters of their future. The communion table still stood below the pulpit with the words “In Remembrance of Me” carved into the front panel. The baptismal font was gone, but then I remembered that my brother had saved it from the dumpster after the church had moved to its new location on Michigan Street. It sits in his garage awaiting rebirth. On either side of the pulpit were benches, the east side where the elders used to sit taking notes on the sermon and the west side where the choir used to sing with hearts in perfect pitch if not always voices.

Memories never float free; they attach themselves to places. Every nook and cranny of this old wooden ark of a church held memories, and they came flooding back to me. I got up from the pew and meandered about the church, eventually making my way to a large room in the basement where we used to gather for Sunday School. I could see Mrs. Ter Molen waving her arms and leading us in singing, and Miss Bouw dutifully playing the piano. The song, “Life is Like a Mountain Railroad,” came back to me, not very theologically profound, reinforcing an otherworldly understanding of heaven, but we all loved and requested it.

I looked at the south wall of the room, and I remembered that a map of Grand Rapids used to hang there with red topped push-pins stuck in it representing the addresses of each family of the church, maybe sixty or seventy in all. A red thread was tied to each red pin and was drawn to one large blue push-pin, the location of the church on Diamond and Hermitage.

Even after I returned to my car, the memory of the map stayed with me. It offered a grand vision of the church and its place in the world. All of us are pilgrims and oriented to the House of God. To this House we journey, and at this House we come into the presence of God. In hearing the word of God from the pulpit, being renewed at the font of God, and sharing a meal at the table of God, we imbibe the love of God and become more and more like our self-sacrificing Savior. And from this House, we journey home so that the love that glorifies us can shine from our houses to our neighborhoods and, to borrow a phrase from Abraham Kuyper, every square inch of the world. This ebb and flow of the sacrificial love of God is the means by which the great hope of the people of Scripture was realized: the love of God filling the earth (Psalm 33).

Yet, the memory of the map and its grand vision troubled me. When has this vision ever been realized? When has the church not struggled to experience the sacrificial love of God in the rituals of word, font, and table, and when has the church not struggled to share that love with our neighbors and to embody that love in the systems that constitute our neighborhoods? And when has the church not been beguiled by visions of Christianity less demanding than this one of sacrificial love and a worldwide mission?

I made my way to Porter Hills and sat to lunch with my parents, faithful pilgrims. I thought of all the pilgrimages over all the years to Third Church and back home again. Like everyone else they struggled to experience the real presence of God in Word and Sacrament and to make their house the embodiment of sacrificial love in their neighborhood. Yet when I looked at them, I could see in their faces, now softened by age, glimpses of the glory of God shining through.

Tom Boogaart

Tom Boogaart recently retired after a long career of teaching Old Testament at Western Theological Seminary in Holland, Michigan.


  • Daniel J Meeter says:

    . . . For, though I’ve no idea
    What this accoutred frowsty barn is worth,
    It pleases me to stand in silence here;
    A serious house on serious earth it is,
    In whose blent air all our compulsions meet,
    Are recognized, and robed as destinies.
    And that much never can be obsolete,
    lines by Philip Larkin.
    Thanks for honouring that sacred space.

  • John K says:

    What a tribute to “the steadfast love of the Lord that endures forever” (Ps. 118:1, 2).
    Decay and glory in all around I see. Embodiment. More than nostalgia.
    Profession and practice. That generation. This generation. The next generation?

  • William Harris says:

    Since that visit, the old church building has been bought by and is presently being restored into a community arts space. As the enrollment at Congress school across the street reveals, the neighborhood is more diverse, though still something of a gateway for immigrants. She who was forgotten has put on new clothes, and all who pass by delight in her.

  • Henry Baron says:

    Tom, I will always remember your dad as an embodiment of sacrificial love, in this case for the cause of Christian education. I came to deeply admire and love him in the years we worked together for Christian Educators Journal.

  • Diana Walker says:

    Oh, Tom.
    Thank you.

  • Kathryn VanRees says:

    Thanks again, Professor Boogaart for sharing your words. Do you ever ask yourself if Jacobus and Patrinella would understand? I’ll bet they would.

  • Nancy Hager says:

    What a pleasant surprise it was to see a picture of the old Third Reformed Church pop up today in your writing! Thank you for the trip down memory lane, Tom.
    I had an opportunity to visit a few years ago with cousin Chuck. We did a lot of reminiscing and had a lot of laughs. So fun to recall the “good ol’ days!”

  • Debra Rienstra says:

    Beautifully written. Awakens a heart-ache of nostalgia for my own growing-up church. Thanks, Tom.

  • Gordon VandenBerg says:

    Tom, Thanks for this article. As a former member and supporter of the current restoration effort I applaud the changes and hope the future for Third Church continues. The unique restoration has been very thoughtful about not gutting the interior but keeping it as it was designed many years ago. BTW the accoustics in the santuary are incredible. I listened to a concert there two years ago and was very impressed.

  • Phil Boogaart says:

    Back story to the missing fount. About 25 years ago at the current site of Third Reformed church, I was assisting my Uncle Morrie, the janitor , in disposing of all the junk in back garage.
    One of those items was the original baptism fount from the “old church.”
    The garage was subject to light flooding during the spring. The mouldings around the fount’s base had swelled and separated. In fact the entire base fell off as we were throwing the fount into the dumpster.
    Not sure why but somehow it just seemed wrong to see the fount laying in that dumpster. So I collected all the pieces and tossed them into the back of my Caravan . I had visions of restoring it repurposed as a terrarium.
    As with many of my great ideas, the fount continued to gather dust,stored in my own backyard storage shed.
    Several years when I learned that the “ole church” was being restored. I shared this story with a current member of Third. Turns out Third was preparing to have an anniversary celebration . The committee desired to restore the fount and use it as a symbol of a link between the two church buildings.
    Happily I brought this relic back to the church and literally within feet of that same dumpster, Art Delooff and his helpers restored that fount and a week later it was used in that anniversary.
    I can’t post pictures on this site but the “before and after” were quite amazing.

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