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This is the First Roseland Christian Reformed Church of Chicago Illinois — a long time ago.

First of all, I want you to know that my childhood church was really something. I can still hear that steeple bell calling the saints to worship. A major life disappointment was that I never got the chance to pull the rope bringing that bell to life. The stained glass was magnificent. So was the congregation. And the singing. And the potlucks.

I’m not sure if I have all my memories straight but my dad bragged that it was in the basement here that Christian educators gathered to form the first national Christian School Association. Dad claimed Peter Eldersveld of “Back to God Hour” fame, even though technically he wasn’t from First. The BTGH ministry was spot on and one of ours. Even more important, we were often first in the softball tournaments between the Christian Reformed and the Reformed churches. Dad was a little competitive and liked the whole idea of First.

Today I know that every Christian Reformed Church still has somebody just like my dad. They love their church and can tell endless stories about the events that make them vibrant. I’ve done a ton of pulpit-supply preaching, as well as some short term pastoral interim work, and “my dad” and his bragging stories are in every last one of these congregations — always with careful weasel words for humility’s sake. Plus every last one has some sort of metaphorical steeple bell joyfully calling each one to abundant life. I’m confident that some things will never change.

Personally I gained another kind of first at First. My learning curve started here and hard lessons learned have enhanced my understanding of both church and world. For example, I once witnessed a young woman publicly shamed at First Church and that’s when I first learned that scapegoats are not limited to the Old Testament.

When the four CRC congregations packed up church and school to move south and west, out of Roseland, I learned the power of societal pressures in ways the church could not understand. Today, I know that the huge social upheaval in southside Chicago in the 1960’s was not much different than white evangelical nationalism in 2022. Not identical obviously, but the impulse to elude cultural engagement, maintain isolation and theological superiority is powerful.

At First, we regularly won the softball games when matched up against the Reformed Churches (that’s my story and I’m sticking to it). Much later I learned that the RCA remained in Roseland for years while the CRC fled in a matter of a few months. I learned that softball games with fellow Christians are a lot of fun but are not Kingdom missional.

After leaving Roseland, First CRC eventually left the Christian Reformed Church entirely for the United Reformed Church. That was a shock and I protested that old Peter Eldersveld was likely turning in his grave. The trigger for leaving seems to have been Dominee driven orthodoxy. I’m not sure if it’s true or not, but I heard they displayed that marvelous steeple bell in their lobby. Certainly distressing but that’s when I learned that nostalgia mainly serves for the way I think things ought to be rather than what they actually were. The trick to using nostalgia as a powerful tool is to find the right quarry to deflect from the surrounding chaos. I learned something about politics, not limited to politicians.

Back in the day, my mom complained occasionally about how church leaders were chosen at First. My dad was on the regular rotation while others, men of course, never quite made the cut. Mom didn’t have the vocabulary but it sure sounded like a caste system at work. Like the rigid Sabbath rules, we all understood the purpose of conformity under the guise of unity and theological purity. I learned that is pretty important stuff for immigrant church formation while perpetuating the myth that my church has an inside track on God’s plan for the universe and its inhabitants.

Thousands of outside advisers, privy to God’s plan for the universe, descended on Chicago’s southside. Not just in Roseland but throughout the greater Chicago CRC community. Self-appointed experts on God’s Will confused ecclesiastical unity with the unique challenges faced by individual churches. Pain and fear were the unintended consequences of that false premise, clearly learned the hard way. I’ve learned that discernment without agenda is important especially when boots on the ground wisdom is disparaged.

There’s a 60 year span between 1960s Roseland and 2022 CRC. I’m amazed that lessons learned then are so relevant today. Not identical but parallel. That’s how history works of course, placing the burden on us to see the parallels, learn the lessons, recognize the differences and respond effectively as the Spirit leads.

Almost within the span of my immigrant heritage, our systemic responses to internal and external pressures have repeated several times. The process is predictably similar, as if cut from the same cloth with results equally ineffective and abysmal. First there was the RCA, then the CRC, followed by the Protestant Reformed and the United Reformed. Perhaps soon to be followed by something else with a prominent “R” somewhere in the title. In 2022 here we are — still loving the church with heart and soul, still echoing the same old ways to undermine our unity and impact.

First Roseland all over again.

I’ve learned that Reformed is worth bragging about. I’ve learned that my dad and all the other dads and moms are worthy of a proud listen. I’ve also learned that Reformed can be a talisman for “deja vu all over again” as we move toward schism again. I’ve learned that we can choose otherwise. We can choose a different way, perhaps choosing a new first for our denomination.

It may be that the steeple bell will be heard in the land once again — free and singing to a chaotic world hungry for our song.

Al Schipper

Al Schipper is a retired chaplain and teacher. Retirement brought interim challenges, an opportunity for foreign ministry, and authoring COPACETIC: God’s People Transforming Chaos. Now living in Grand Rapids, Michigan enjoying family, friends, and a spectacular book club.

10 Comments

  • Daniel Meeter says:

    I enjoyed this very much.

  • James Schaap says:

    Me too. Thanks!

  • Jack Reiffer says:

    Well done, Al Schipper. This is the perspective and wisdom we need. Thanks!

  • Katy says:

    This kind of thoughtful reflection on how we frame our “legacy” is so important

  • Scott VanderStoep says:

    This essay brought me back 50 years. I am the grandson of a CRC minister (who complained about evolution being taught at Calvin), the son of parents who never took me to church (citing “hypocrisy” as one of several reasons) until I was 14 (a PCUSA, of course, just to make my grandpa mad), and someone who fell in love with Reformed theology in college through great profs and mentors. I felt like an outsider to discussions as a child, but your solemn story brings back memories of Christmases and Easters at extended family gatherings–the dialog was often about who was in and who was out. The conversations always streaked right past all of the things that could have been celebrated. Your essay allowed me to take an important walk, albeit melancholy, down Memory Lane.

  • Wonderful reflections and lessons. Thank you.

  • Al Schipper says:

    Thank you for the kind comments. Truly made for a fun day but just as truly, I hope we can not only live and learn but learn and grow,
    as

    • Henry(Hank) Post says:

      Al,
      I found some fine wisdom in your reflection. This one dripped with truth and painful irony: ‘The trick to using nostalgia as a powerful tool is to find the right quarry to deflect from the surrounding chaos. I learned something about politics, not limited to politicians.’ Thanks for writing. I confess I am only a South Side Chicago CRC via marriage half a century ago, but my sister-in-law was kind enough to copy me onto this fine piece.

      Hank Post

  • James C Dekker says:

    Thanks much, Al. Brother, do I have lots of similar memories and belated insights, albeit from 4th Roseland CRC and Roseland Christian School. It would be grand to hunker down over a Founders or two to reminisce and confess. Btw, I rang 4th Roseland’s bell several times, always on the sneak after morning worship. The last time I was caught.

  • David Sieplinga says:

    Thank you, brother. Powerful, poignant reflections; and I could hear your voice as I read.

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