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I recently returned to Grand Rapids, my hometown, to visit my family.

I love walking the streets of my childhood when I visit. I walk from my sister’s Heritage Hill house to the Eastown house I grew up in, on Sherman Street. It’s exactly the same as it was fifty-five years ago: a bulky Grand Rapids craftsman, like its neighbors. It’s even painted the same beige color.

I peek around to the back yard and see where my parents had made a sandbox out of a huge tractor tire — along with the climbing maple, my favorite part of the backyard. I look up to where my bedroom window was, and remember how bats would fly through my room on the way up to the attic while I was in bed, the covers pulled up over my head. Everyone I knew had bats in their houses in those days. I remember my dad chasing them through the house with a tennis racket to stun them before putting them outside. 

I remember the dinner parties my parents would have — the only time people used the formal living room. The Zwiers, Wolterstorffs, Smedes, Harpers, Mouws, and many others spent many a weekend evening there. I remember going upstairs at bedtime, but being drawn to what was happening downstairs by the peals of laughter emanating from the stairwell. I remember my brothers and I sneaking out of our rooms to sit at the stairway landing and spy on the adults, who were telling stories and laughing uproariously. 

+ + + + + + +

I keep on walking, now towards Calvin Church. Our family walked to Calvin Church every Sunday. Most of my memories of going to church are pleasant, if puzzling.

I loved the children’s choir director, Mr. Bouwsma, and singing “Humble Praises, Holy Jesus” from the balcony. I think of the Calvinettes leader who wore a lot of makeup and fancy clothes. I remember being puzzled, even as an eight-year-old, as she taught us the Calvinette motto, “Grace is deceitful and beauty is vain, but the woman who feareth the Lord, she shall be praised.” It was an unlikely principle to learn from a woman with false eyelashes, coiffed dyed hair, and a fur coat.

I think of all the men filing into the sanctuary in their black suits in lock-step and sitting in the front pews on Communion Sundays. This must be a really solemn occasion.Those men must be really important. 

We all loved Rev. Boomsma, our long-time minister, whose chins were many and whose voice was was low and gentle. I loved his children’s sermons, but my body would stiffen each Sunday as he read the Ten Commandments in decorous King James language. Had I broken that commandment? Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s wife, or manservant, or maidservant, or anything that is thy neighbor’s. Had I done that? And his ox or his ass: isn’t that a bad word? Why does Rev. Boomsma say it? 

Being such consistent church attenders, my childhood self had to find things to do to take up the time it took Rev. Boomsma to preach and say his “long prayer”. I’d count the bricks from carpet to ceiling. I’d imagine giraffes living in the decorative wooden “cages” in the front corners of the church. I’d wonder where they lived Monday through Saturday, and who fed them.

Then there was the chilly late fall Saturday afternoon in the second grade. My friends and I were roaming the neighborhood, as usual, trying to figure out what to do next. Walking between our houses on Bemis, Dunham, and Sherman streets, we got an idea.

Let’s go to Calvin Church and see if we can get inside and explore when nobody is there! We walked the three blocks to the church and went around to the back door. There were a couple cars there, but nothing like on Sundays.

We tried the back door. It was open! We tiptoed in, and, hearing faint voices, quickly climbed the nearest staircase to the cavernous (to little girls) balcony. Whispering, we began to play “house”. One of us was the mother, and after eating our dinner she told us it was time for bed. We each climbed into a cushioned pew and pretended to go to sleep. The problem was, we soon actually were asleep.

We fell asleep in the balcony of Calvin Church!

After some time, we were awakened by the sound of hard shoes coming up the stairs. It was Mr. Mulder, the stern custodian! Flipping on the light, he was just as shocked as we were. But he was not playing. He ordered us to get up. He asked us what we thought we were doing. “Playing house,” I squeaked, barely audibly. “What do you think God thinks of you playing in his house? A church is not a place to play!”

With burning, red faces and averted eyes, we crept out of the pews, down the stairs, and into the cool of the afternoon. For years, I could not face Mr. Mulder. He lived across the alley from us, so I could not use the alley. I hoped he wouldn’t tell Rev. Boomsma. I was so ashamed that I never told my parents. And I never played in the house of the Lord again. 

+ + + + + + +

Until much later. Twenty years later, my own two daughters were born into the life of a preacher’s kid, I being the preacher. They will tell you to this day that a church is probably the best place to play. After church, when the adults were drinking coffee and talking, the kids would explore.

They explored the front of the sanctuary where they found those ancient ornate straight-backed chairs and played “Queen”. Sometimes they’d get into those little rooms off the front of the sanctuary and gawk at all the banners and worship paraphernalia. When they were feeling especially brave, they’d venture into the enormous, dark basement where the soup kitchen served lunch every Monday. They’d steer clear of the furnace room where it was rumored someone was living, deep in its bowels. Silently skirting its vicinity as to not awaken its sinister inhabitant, they’d see if they could find the secret passageway to the daycare center. And the balcony! It was so much fun to hide under the pews there during games of “Hide and Seek”.

The church was the best playground!  I would be wide-eyed each Sunday as my kids recounted the escapades that had carried them into the worlds of their imaginations during coffee hour in the church.

A lot can change in just thirty years. I, the little girl who had never seen or heard or imagined a woman preaching, grew up to be a preacher. Churches now have different attitudes towards children and often welcome their imaginations in church.

There is one thing that did not change. Way back then in Calvin church, I felt the love of all those grown-ups, even the stilted ones. I saw them smile at me, pat me on the back, and welcome me to church with a hand-shake. And each week, I gladly received the peppermint Mr. Kamp stealthily transferred from his palm into mine.

Jane Plantinga Pauw

Jane Plantinga Pauw pastors Rainier Beach Presbyterian Church, a small, delightful, urban PCUSA church in Seattle. She and her husband, Jack, love to go on long-distance walks. Their favorite was the Coast-to-Coast walk in England, and they are planning to do part of the Via Francigena next. A graduate of Calvin College and Fuller Seminary, she returns often to Grand Rapids to visit her parents and siblings.


  • Thomas Bartha says:

    Jane. I do not recall reading any postings by you prior to this. But this was truly a delightful piece of writing, and a fine way to begin this day. Thanks for the vivid memoir. Brought back childhood memories of exploring our huge old Presbyterian church in Columbus, Ohio.

  • Rebecca Jordan Heys says:

    What a delight to read this as I prepare to preach at Calvin Church this morning!

  • Ruth E. Stubbs says:

    Jane, I read the RJ blog every day. Imagine my delight at seeing your name this morning. Lovely piece! The names of the people and streets and worship traditions are all familiar. Thank you.
    Ruth E. Stubbs

  • Suzanne Van Engen says:

    Jane I will leave for church in a few minjtes. As I sit there this morning I wll look around the sanctuary and imagine what child might be seeing. And, I’ll make sure to greet the children around me. Thank you for your memories.
    Suzanne Van Engen

  • Dawn Boelkins says:

    During a New Year’s Eve celebration at Covenant Church in Muskegon Heights, we lost our grandma! She had hidden so well that we couldn’t find her. Thank you for prompting memories of that evening and of a treasured community.

  • Evonne Bratt Kok says:

    Thank you for this wonderful memory. I grew up on Alexander Street and began attending Calvin Church as a young child. My husband and I still are members of this wonderful caring church, and we love it. I too remember sitting on the stairwell at home on Sunday nights when my parents often entertained other Calvin College professors—and sneaking down to get some food. Your story about getting caught playing house in the balcony is so funny. Now when our grandkids visit Calvin Church, we take them to the balcony where our terrific organist Ken Bos shows them how he plays that magnificent instrument.

  • Elaine DeStigter says:

    Jane, I worshipped at Calvin Church for 47 years. I too have many memories. I remember all those persons named by you. I remember you and your family well. While serving as one of the first women deacons elected in Calvin Church, I remember your dad, with a twinkle in his eyes, always referring to my navy blue suit worn when I collected the offerings as my “power suit.” 🙂 And I was a Calvinette leader with the woman you described as you remember her. Deep inside, she was, and still is, a woman of strong faith with a beautiful spirit. Thank you for writing this blog.

  • Kathy says:

    Ah, yes! The peppermints! We had a choice, and I always chose pink!

  • David E Stravers says:

    Thanks for sharing these great memories. I’m sure you stimulated the memory corridors in the brains of many readers.

  • Linda Krol Brinks says:

    It was so delightful reading your memories! My own early beginning was at Grandville Ave CRC, the beautiful, stained, glass windows, the church so prominent on the hill with my school, Southwest Christian, now Potters House behind the church.
    Later it was Baldwin St CRC where my father was the custodian, so it was a work place during the week for us kids. Polishing those pews, cleaning floors and bathrooms. To make it more enjoyable, my Dad would let us put the sound system on and put the transistor radio by the mic and play WGRD! The furnace room and cadet room were the dark dungeons of the church. My Dad was playful and occasionally would put 7-up instead of water in the pastors water glass on the pulpit. Much later I would be a pastor’s wife and the older churches were great places, full of history. Noordeloos, Jamestown, Sully and others. All wonderful places packed with saints who worshipped faithfully. My memories were indeed stimulated!

  • Ron Rozema says:

    What a delightful set of memories shsred so wonderfully. Though you experienced Calvin Church well before our family did, joining the body in 1971, we remember fondly the people you mention. You may enjoy knowing that the church remains actively engaged with Eastown though, like the church, it’s population has changed. Thanks for sharing!

  • Phyllis Roelofs says:

    Thanks for sharing your meaningful memories. I have a few of sitting in my childhood church observing things I didn’t always understand. About fifty years ago husband was verbally chastised by a deacon when our sons made paper airplanes out of the order of worship folders and sailed them toward the high ceiling in the sanctuary while he was cleaning up after a worship service. For me it gave new meaning to “arrow prayers”.

  • Joanie Rosema says:

    As your nearby neighbor on Bemis Street, sister-in-Christ Calvinette, and Baxter Christian attendee, your memories of Calvin CRC completely mirror mine. Mr. Bouwsma and Mr. Kamp still hold an extra special place in my heart and I have a pretty good idea of who your fellow balcony- invaders were! Thank you for this trip down memory lane!
    Joanie Van’t Hof Rosema

    • John Breuker says:

      Mr and Mrs. Kamp were friends of my parents whose visits away were accompanied by a peppermint for me followed by two g ood c igars which the men should e n joy after dinner.serious talks conducted over tho se stogies for sure.

  • Scott Hoezee says:

    Thanks, Jane: I finally got to this late on this Sunday. As a former pastor at Calvin and a successor for “Boomie,” this was a delight to read.

    • Jane Pauw says:

      Hi, Scott! You must have come to Calvin about when I started attending COS in college, or maybe when I had left for seminary. 1981?

  • John Breuker says:

    Not surprised to read that my palm was not the only recipient of a surreptitious peppermint while greeting George Kamp.
    The Kamps were friends of my parents and as a kid I welcomed their visits – not just for the peppermint.

  • David Bouwsma says:

    Thank you Jane, and for remembering my father! That building still inhabits my dreams on a regular basis though in various fantastical permutations. I am presently committing the church home I have landed in (Boston Square in Grand Rapids) into digital form as we explore accommodating a growing number of non-traditional uses. Apropos of your story, most of those involve neighborhood children. I imagine some of my own children’s fondest memories from B.S. are of playing “Tea Towel” or “Body Body” with the youth group. I worked as a substitute janitor at Calvin a couple of times as a young adult, but I never found any sleeping children.

    • Jane Pauw says:

      Hi David! So great to hear from you! Is your father still living?

      • David Bouwsma says:

        No, my father preceded my mother by a few years in 2014.
        I shared your memories with two of my sisters. Andrea, who you may remember, specifically remembered the junior choir singing “Humble Praises, Holy Jesus” (also all the names at the dinner party). Now I need to look that song up, as it didn’t ring a bell; and I was in that choir too. Like Elaine, I also remember your father with a twinkle in his eye.

  • Lynn Likkel says:

    Jane, such delightful memories. I too invented stories during long prayers. Once I sat in the front row of the balconey with girl friends and the pastor admonished us from the pulpit for whispering to each other. As you know, I also became a pastor. Amazing grace!

  • Sara says:

    Wonderful essay Jane! I hope I was always more of a peppermint lady at church. I do have fond memories of the kind people from my childhood church. Thanks for taking the time to write that.

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