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Without a doubt, Gerben Winters (his real name!) was the grouchiest, crankiest, most curmudgeonly parishioner I had in over 45 years of ministry. He was a member of my first congregation way back in the ’70s. I am now in my 70s! I confess I haven’t thought much about Gerben in the intervening decades.

Recently my view of Gerben changed. My wife Jeannette and I enjoyed Puerto Vallarta sunshine in February with dear friends from that first church I served in Lambertville, Michigan, a suburb of Toledo, Ohio. Harry and Adria told us a story about Gerben that I have never heard. Combined with the insights I gained this week from reading David Brooks’ latest book How to Know a Person, I think it’s worth our time to reflect a bit on Gerben’s story.

The only part of Gerben’s story I have ever known before this week was the part that Gerben assaulted me with every time I paid him a pastoral visit back in the 70s: Gerben grew up on the farm in South Dakota and worked with his hands which he would quickly hold up close to my face and compare to a preacher’s hands that offered no evidence of work or struggle.

The oldest of nine children, Gerben would quickly launch into the sad story of how his dad died when he was a child. “Load of hay fell on him. The wagon tipped over. I was the oldest child. I had to run the family.” That sad story quickly and always morphed into a story of accusation that no one else in the world had it as bad as Gerben. No one else in the world knew how hard it was for Gerben to run the farm and take care of this whole family when Gerben himself was just a child.

I listened attentively to Gerben’s lament every other month or so—he was the only senior citizen we had in that little church so his name came up on the visiting rotation rather quickly! I would let him talk because I sensed it was the right thing to do. It also gave his dear wife Pearl a break from his nonstop grumbling. I would try to sit with Gerben on the front porch, just to give Pearl some peace and quiet.

Eventually Gerben died. A couple members of the Electricians Union spoke at his funeral about what a good electrician Gerben was. And Pearl lived many more years. Pearl missed Gerben a lot. But she also seemed to enjoy the quietness in the house.

Then in February I heard the other part of Gerben’s story. When Gerben was 13, his mother decided there was no future for her or the family in South Dakota and therefore they should move to Michigan. They gathered their belongings onto a large truck and piled in mom and nine kids. Gerben, the oldest child, drove the truck. In the middle of Illinois Gerben lost control of the truck and in the ensuing crash, Gerben’s six year old brother died.

Every time I visited Gerben he told me about his dad dying. “Load of hay fell on him. The wagon tipped over. I was the oldest child. I had to run the family.”

But Gerben never told me this story of his little brother dying when Gerben lost control of the truck. Believe me, I tried to listen deeply to Gerben. I practiced every active listening skill that Mel Hugen had taught me in my seminary pastoral care class. But Gerben never went beyond the hard, cold facts of his dad’s death. He seemed incapable of talking about how that felt, how that affected him as a child, how it impacted his faith. And he never talked about the accident where his little brother died, the accident when

Gerben was driving the truck.

It makes me cry inside now to think about how monumental Gerben’s guilt and sense of responsibility must have been. He couldn’t even get close to telling me this story. And neither could Pearl. No one in that little church in Lambertville knew this story. Our friends only heard this story a few years ago when they stumbled across Gerben’s nephew at a party in Toledo. Gerben’s nephew said that the accident changed Gerben forever, that before the accident Gerben was a pretty well-adjusted, positive kid.

Oh Gerben, how I wish you’d been able to tell someone the story of the truck accident in Illinois. I wish you could have known about the healing of memories. As I look back now, I guess I sensed that behind your gruff exterior had to be some pain, some unresolved trauma, some deeper sadness even than your father’s death. But to see how not just your little brother’s life ended in Illinois but in many ways your life ended too. . . Oh Gerben, I’m so sorry.

No doubt the impact of Gerben’s story upon me this week was deeper because I was also reading David Brooks’ fine book, How to Know a Person: The Art of Seeing Others Deeply and Being Deeply Seen. Brooks’ book is a study in human complexity – how humans, fearfully and wonderfully made, are so finely tuned, easily damaged, yet resilient in the face of suffering. Brooks is at his most hopeful when he talks about the healing power of telling our story, how when we have the opportunity to deeply tell the story of our lives we also create it, or recreate it, or reframe it in ways that bring healing and coherence. If only Gerben could have deeply told someone his story.

The goal of Brooks’ book is that people will have more interpersonal tools to truly know another person. Brooks’ conviction is that if all of us developed the art of seeing others deeply and being deeply seen, we would all be healthier, happier, and more fully human. I agree and return home now determined to be more intentional about truly knowing other people.

Lord, tune my heart and mind and ear to know, truly know, and be known by, another person today.

Duane Kelderman

Duane Kelderman has been a pastor in the Christian Reformed Church for 45 years and served for ten of those years as the Vice-President for Administration and Associate Professor of Preaching at Calvin Theological Seminary, in Grand Rapids, Michigan.


  • Daniel Meeter says:

    Oh my. Thank you, Duane.

  • RZ says:

    Your short ending prayer is a classic! Thank you for this timely story.

  • Marlyn Visser says:

    I can relate to Gerben Winter’s delima. I experienced the death of a very young son in a farm accident that I was convinced I was entirely responsible for . The Lord directed me to respond very differently. He guided me to share my struggle with family and acquaintances. His divine providence provided a means by which I could encourage fellow believers.
    I encourage you to read an article authored by James C. Schaap in, “CRC Family Portrait” and or “The Banner” March 1/82.

    • Ron says:

      Marlyn, thank you for using your painful experience to help others. Many of us do not have that kind of strength or that kind of love.

    • Duane Kelderman says:

      Thank you Marilyn. The healing grace of God is an amazing thing. God bless you.

  • Linda Miles says:

    Wow. Thank you.

  • Kathryn Vilela says:

    Thank you for this. Rest in good peace, Gerben.

  • Sara Pikaart says:

    This is so powerful! Thank you!

  • Pete Kooreman says:

    Duane, thank you so much for sharing this story. It is a good reminder to all of us to be alert and sensitive and loving toward each individual God puts in our life. I definitely will check out David Brooks book also. Let us all walk as Jesus walked and love as Jesus loved.

  • Carl Bennink says:

    To know and to love. To be known and to be loved.

  • Phyllis Roelofs says:

    Thanks Duane, During my decades of providing mental health counseling to broken humans, my self included, the main unspoken question was, “Why don’t I tell you who or am or all I have experienced?” Answer, “Because you might misunderstand, not believe my truth, or judge without mercy.” Brooks’ book is a very worthwhile read. Building and being able to trust is an ongoing challenge. May we all pray and believe in your ending prayer.

  • Ron says:

    I loved the book, I love this post, and I recommend another one for all to read. It’s called Supercommunicators by Duhigg. In it, the author goes deep into principles of communication that are consistent with everything Brooks wrote while providing practical strategies for use in daily conversations. It goes well beyond the typical active listening approach.

  • Jan Zuidema says:

    Doug and I will never forget the grace of listening that you, Jeannette, Kevin, and Cheryl extended to us last summer, allowing us to tell our storry of unimaginable loss, with much the same potential for our lives being stopped and hardened by the loss, as was Gerbens. But that gracious safe place with all of you along with many others, is turning our sorrow slowly into gratitude for the ears of God that have heard every lamentation to Him through those who have given us that listening presence. Beautiful article. I am becoming a better listener myself through this and need to read David’s book.

  • Henry Baron says:

    Thank you, Duane. This reaches us deep within.

  • Barb says:

    Excellent article. The stories that are kept secret for many years can cause much pain.

  • Jack Nyenhuis says:

    Thanks, Duane, for opening the window into another person’s grief and endless pain. When I was serving as an elder, I visited a seventy-something widow, who could not let go of the pain that she had experienced decades earlier. Your story helps me to feel deeper sympathy for her.

  • Al Mulder says:

    Thanks, Duane, this story moved me deeply. Childhood trauma has such potential for shaping our lives — for weal or for woe. When I was nine years old, my older brother Gerald died of a farm accident at age eleven. It changed my life in ways I continue to unravel into my eighties. But God also used it to grow me and heal me and encourage me, in part because of my (then young) dad’s attention to me. Putting his arm around my shoulder and gently leading me to view my brother’s body one more time before closing the casket. Talking to me the evening of the funeral about what this could mean for me as the next oldest child. And allowing us to talk about Gerald after he died. I still tear up as I reflect on this, but on this journey God’s grace to me has not been without effect (1 Cor 15:10).

    • Duane Kelderman says:

      Thanks, Al. Between responses here and on my FB page I’m in awe once again at the evocative power of a story. I think it was Buechner who said we are one at the wellspring of pain and joy. Thanks for tenderly telling us about Gerald and your dad.

  • Steve Schasp says:

    Thanks Duane. I remember Gerb and Pearl distinctly. I also remember the grace and love that you, my parents, and most others at church afforded him, despite his demeanor. A great reminder that everyone has gone, or is going through, or about to experience trauma. heart ache, despair or loss. Lord, help me be aware of the people around me, and to show the love of Christ to all.

  • Karen (Schaap) Bosman says:

    Thank you Duane for sharing the story of Gerben. Very touching. How well I remember him and Pearl.
    And how wonderful that he had a community of people loving him as Jesus would.

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