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“Whatever you do, don’t go into grandma and grandpa’s living room tonight. Dad and your uncles have to decide whether we’re leaving the church.”
Those words of my mother were the only explanation I remember as to why we went to Grandma’s house that particular day.
It was around 1962. I was about nine years old. I couldn’t believe what I had heard. Why would we want to leave our church? There didn’t seem to be anything wrong, as far as I could see. But that just goes to show you what kids know.
I don’t think my cousins had any idea what the men talked about that evening in the living room. We did the same things we always did when the Kelderman clan got together there. Softball on the vacant lot down the street, horseshoes behind the garage, a couple of wrestling matches between the bigger cousins while the younger ones watched, and a hunt for lightning bugs after dark.
I wasn’t very interested in any of this that night. I wanted to know what was going on in the living room. Leaving the church? Why? Was it the minister? I hoped not. I liked his daughter.
I knew better than to eavesdrop on this important meeting. The best I could do was to glance quickly as I walked past the living-room doorway on my way to the bathroom. I went to the bathroom a lot that night. Grandpa was sitting in his usual chair in the corner. Smoke from his King Edward cigar filled the room. He wasn’t saying much.
My dad and uncles all had pulled their chairs around Grandpa’s big chair. I remember only that they were sitting forward, obviously intense about whatever they were discussing. I never heard a word they said. I didn’t have to. Even all my aunts were quiet in the kitchen, sure sign something was wrong.
The bad news came the next day. Dad announced that we were leaving the Protestant Reformed Church and going to the Christian Reformed Church. I just couldn’t figure it out.
As I would learn in the next few years, the church was full of “good guys” and “bad guys.” You had to be careful. Hoeksema was the best of the good guys. Dekker was sort of a bad guy. He talked about God’s love too much. I never figured out who De Wolf was; I just knew that he had something to do with our family leaving the Protestant Reformed Church and going back to the Christian Reformed Church.
The whole Protestant Reformed Church in Oskaloosa, Iowa, ended up closing its doors. I remember thinking to myself, why do ministers have so much say about where we go to church? We were happy in our church, or so I thought, and now some ministers hundreds of miles away were telling us that it was all wrong. But ministers are educated. They know more about these things.
Where Should We Go?
We had to decide which church to attend. This confused me too. I wanted to go to the church with a great vacation Bible school. But my dad explained that this church—a Reformed Church—wasn’t for us. He said there was a difference, but I never knew what it was. I just knew it was very important. With the Reformed Church and the Protestant Reformed Church out of the running, only the Christian Reformed Church was left. Of course, there were many other churches in town, but I knew better than to even ask about those.
Unfortunately, there were two Christian Reformed churches in town. Unfortunate from my perspective at least, because the Kelderman clan decided to go to Bethel, while the Rykens, my mom’s side of the family, went to First. This bothered me a lot. For one thing, how were we going to get together at Grandpa Ryken’s after church on Sunday morning if we were going to different churches? Grandpa Ryken was the theologian of the family. His big chair was also in the corner of the living room, and it was surrounded by books. I loved to sit on a chair in the far corner of the room and listen to him and my uncles and my dad go back and forth on the latest issue in The Banner or The Standard Bearer.
But that wasn’t the only problem. In the Protestant Reformed Church, Grandpa Ryken had read sermons when ministers weren’t available. I can’t say I remember much of what he read, but I was always proud when Grandpa Ryken read a sermon. I liked it when he put his glasses on.
Another thing that upset me was that Grandpa Ryken probably wouldn’t even have a key to his new church. Grandpa and Grandma Ryken lived right across the street from the Protestant Reformed Church. Sometimes Grandpa had let us go over and play there. My brother and I would sneak into the sanctuary and play preacher—one the preacher and the other the penitent sinner, deacon, and congregant.
When I asked Dad why the Keldermans and Rykens couldn’t all go to the same church, he just said that the Keldermans decided to go to Bethel and that the Rykens decided to go to First. But we were Keldermans and Rykens. So many things nine-year-olds don’t understand.
Figuring It Out
I remember the first Sunday we went to Bethel. I was afraid, even though Mr. Sturing was very nice in leading me to my Sunday school class and introducing me to my teacher. I adjusted to the new church very quickly, for, much to my amazement, I discovered that most of the kids in my Christian school went to this church. I was happy that I knew so many people in this new church, but I was also confused. I knew from coffee time at Grandpa Ryken’s that there are good guys and bad guys in the church.
Somehow at school we forgot about who was a good guy and who was a bad guy. If we could get along at school, why couldn’t we get along in church? As a matter of fact, we got along fine with everyone at the new church. Where were all those bad guys we talked about? I never doubted there was an explanation for all of this. I was just too young to understand.
Even though I was only nine, there were still times that I tried to figure it all out. Like the night I spent at my cousin’s house. Jay lived on a farm, and as soon as we got home from school, we dashed out to their new blue grain silo, opened the door on top, and let ourselves plunge down into the grain, an ideal place for a high-level theological discussion.
Jay asked, “Why did our folks leave the Protestant Church?” I didn’t really understand it all, I said. I just knew some people were right and other people were wrong. Common grace was bad. Hoeksema was right. But now all the people who are wrong aren’t as wrong anymore, so we could go back and be Christian Reformed. Either that or we weren’t as right as we thought we were. I wasn’t sure.
“But what’s the difference between our old church and our new church anyway?” Jay wondered. This one really had me stumped. I hadn’t the foggiest idea of what the differences were. Jay said that his brother thought the difference was that in the Protestant Church the men leaned forward and rested their foreheads on the pews in front of them during the long prayer. At Bethel and First, everyone sat up. I had noticed that too but suggested to Jay that it had to be something more important than that. After all, this was splitting up families. No one would start a new church just to sit differently. Churches only split for important reasons.
The Lingering Question
When the Protestant Reformed Church closed its doors in the early 1960s, the members sold the building and the parsonage. They used the money from the sale of the building to buy the minister a new Plymouth, and they gave the rest to the Christian school.
It’s been over 60 years since our family left the Protestant Reformed Church. Each summer when I’m back in Iowa visiting my family, I always ride past the old “PR church.” Now it’s a lodge or something like that. Grandpa and Grandma Ryken are dead now, so someone else lives across the street from the building. I would love to see the inside of the church, though I’m sure all the pews and pulpit furniture are gone; still, many precious though hazy memories remain.
People still talk about leaving the church. They’re still good guys and bad guys. Nine-year-olds just aren’t smart enough to understand all the important reasons that ministers and other grown-ups give for leaving one church and starting another one.
But children are full of questions and fears. I wish that when ministers and other grown-ups talk about leaving the church, they could explain it better to nine-year-olds.
This piece originally appeared in The Banner, 26 January 1987.