Editor’s Note: The following story is adapted from the first chapter of Tuinstra’s recent book Dutch Preacher Boy: Coming of Age in Grand Rapids, Taking Wing Beyond, written under the pen name Tuna Fisch.
Extraordinary! An angel of God startles me awake. “Get up! They need you!”
I, a seminarian on his first summer assignment, in Vermillion, S.D., am about to embark on an adventure of a lifetime.
It isn’t a typical Sunday where I’d tackle heady issues from the Danforth Chapel pulpit on the University of South Dakota campus. On this 30th day of July, 1967, I had been invited to speak in rural Platte, a 130-mile, two and a half-hour drive west.
Last night, as I had a rousing message ready to go, Platte calls: “We just had two deaths in our congregation. Please bring comfort.” I scramble to reread, rethink, rewrite. Weariness sets in. Soon I am fast asleep at my desk.
Then, as if jarred by lightning, my eyes seize on the wall clock: 7:45. Church starts at 9:30. I have exactly an hour and 45 minutes. What do I do? Call and cancel? Not on your life.
I jump into my three-piece suit, grab my Bible and notes, dash to the car, hit the highway, and am suddenly overwhelmed by a stunning double rainbow extending horizon to horizon—a miracle, a sign. God is with me.
In a flash of revelation, I visualize a private plane propelling me to my destination. There must be recreational pilots at the Vermillion airport. No luck! Think! Yes—there’s another airport at Yankton, 30 miles north along the Missouri River.
I leap from my vehicle and spot a bystander near the runway. “You know of anybody coming in?”
“Sure do,” he volunteers. “There’s a single-engine Piper from Nebraska about to land in three minutes.” My destined chariot in the sky! I tell him what I need. “Well, it wouldn’t hurt to flag him down and ask,” he deadpans.
The Piper lands and taxis. I sprint to the aircraft, waving my arms frantically. The pilot hops down. “What’s the matter?”
“Listen, I’m late for church; I overslept. They need me desperately. Just get me to the church on time. I’ll never make it by car. How much to fly me to Platte?”
He hesitates slightly, then grins. “For you, preacher, 40 bucks.”
“Sold! Let’s roll.” (I have exactly $41.48 in my billfold.) Who could possibly ask for more? Guardian angel, wondrous sign in the sky, calm weather, smooth ride, gorgeous view.
The little town of Platte comes into view. “Where’s the airport?” I query.
“There isn’t any. Just the grass strip over there. See the wind bag in that farmer’s field?”
“No taxi service? How do I get to church?”
“Sorry, my friend. That one you’ll have to figure out for yourself. Now hang on, it’s gonna be a little bumpy.” He exits the scene with a modest military salute and a “Good luck!” Under his breath, he mumbles, “Angel, rainbow, church … hogwash!” as he revs up the engine and takes to the air.
It’s 9:20. Now I have to fend for myself. I spy the edge of town from the middle of this hot, humid, mosquito-infested field. I navigate the tall grass, elbow my way through corn stalks, jump two fences, jog past chicken coops and a pigpen. And as I approach a farmhouse, I see a car leaving the driveway. I shout at the top of my lungs, arms flailing—all to no avail!
In desperation, I pound on the front door of the house. No response. Time’s running out. “Lord, help!” And from the corner of my eye—would you believe?—I spotted a little kid’s bike on the side lawn. “Forgive me, mea culpa, but I’ve got to steal—no, borrow—this bike, for the greater good.”
So, off to the races—pedaling furiously, my knees hitting the handle bars. This is how The Platte Enterprise described my entrance into town:
Walking down Main Street, Marv Rasmussen heard an urgent call:
“Where’s the Christian Reformed Church?” As Marv pointed west, John—without pausing—disappeared around the corner. You can imagine that Marv was somewhat puzzled. Here’s a man in a dark suit, perspiration dripping from his face, a Bible under his arm, riding a half-size bicycle as fast as he could go, who barely had time to wave his thanks as he zipped around the corner headed for the church.
It’s 9:40. I lean the bike against a wall. An elder is busy leading the congregation in an improvised hymn sing, praying that the neophyte would soon appear. I open the back door, hoping to find a bathroom and freshen up a little. But lo and behold, I find myself standing on the podium in full view of the congregation. What an entrance!
Mouths are agape. Before them stands a sweaty, disheveled greenhorn seminarian. The elder looks greatly relieved. Not missing a beat, I intone “Let us pray” (no explanations, no excuses). I breathe deeply, hold my urine, and somehow find the right words to say—words of comfort, words of hope—entirely off script.
Doxology completed, I scamper to the bathroom and return to shake hands with the congregation. At this point, no one is yet wise to what happened, when all of a sudden a little boy shouts to his mother in earshot of everyone, “Mom, what’s my bike doing over here?” That really gets things buzzing.
I have to fess up and tell them the entire story. “And that, young man, is how your bike ended up against the wall of the church.” It’s amazing how the gravitas of that morning turns at once into a lightness of being. The boy’s parents come up to me. “You poor soul, you missed us by just seconds!”
A little later, the boy’s father, Junior DeLange, playfully taps me on the shoulder, “By the way, Pastor John, somebody was home—my elderly mother. But she was too frightened to open the door to that wild stranger. And guess what? There’s one thing you probably missed—our garage door was unlocked; there’s a Jeep inside, with keys in the ignition.”
Whoa! After composing myself, I respond, “The Lord works in mysterious ways, but never would I take your Jeep!”
That day in Platte, we had a good cry. Afterward, we had a good laugh. Tragedy and comedy—such is life.
At summer’s end, the new school year commenced at a wooded retreat, as was customary. The tale was told of the ill-fated but miraculously sustained tenderfoot—a tale passed on for many years with hearty laughter and two morals for seminarians: “Sleeper, awake!” and “Never give up.” I was properly roasted. This would be a tough one to live down!