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Back then I was a moody 10-year-old harboring a newfound hatred for church.

When my family began attending the local Christian Reformed church, Mr. de Zeeuw was one of the first people I remember, though I wouldn’t really get to know him for years to come. He was an older, white-haired man who spoke with a thick Dutch accent and used a walker. Most days, we sat in the pew behind him.

Back then I was a moody 10-year-old harboring a newfound hatred for church. It wasn’t because of a lack of faith or resentment toward singing the same type of songs every week. No, I believed in God and I loved to sing. But I also really loved my former church—a small, Evangelical Free church where everyone knew my name, and where I felt comfortable being myself. This very large, ethnic church where no oneat all knew me just wasn’t cutting it.

I especially disliked the beginning of the service. That’s when everyone was supposed to shake hands and greet each other. I constantly hoped we’d be super late and miss it. Sometimes I even went to the bathroom just to get out of this horrid meeting.

These deep feelings came out of an even bigger yearning. I longed for relationship, fulfillment, and community. But I thought those things were impossible among a church full of strangers, a church with few fellow 10-year-olds.

When we sat behind Mr. de Zeeuw, he greeted us fondly each week and tried to remember our names. I had no idea who he was. Each week I smiled in spite of myself and continued to hate Sunday mornings with a passion.

But as the Sunday mornings passed into years, things gradually changed. And by the time I was 15, I’d even begun to like this hand-shaking routine. However, having expected community to just happen, I was disappointed at my continued lack of connection. I wanted a good friend at church, and after five years of shaking hands with acquaintances, I felt there was no real hope for friendship here.

That Christmas I played the role of Mary in a series of short Advent monologues. Decked in a long purple and blue robe, I shared my passion for theatre with the congregation, letting the story of Jesus’ mother roll off my lips.

Afterward, Mr. de Zeeuw approached me  and relayed how much my monologue had blessed him. I took his compliments with a smile and a gracious, “Thanks,” as I did with everyone else. Mom told me Mr. de Zeeuw’s praise should be taken seriously as he was known for speaking his strong opinions truthfully. His thoughtful compliments continued, and I began to smile more.

Sundays passed into months, and it was Christmas no more. Sometimes—quite often, actually—Mr. de Zeeuw and I would talk before or after the service.

Somewhere along the way he asked about my dad, who didn’t attend church with the rest of my family. Although I’d always dreaded this conversation, it was a relief to me when it finally happened.

“My dad’s not a Christian,” I explained.

Somehow, Mr. de Zeeuw knew that would be hard for me, and he promised to pray for my father.

Then he told me about his family. About how he’d been without them for a lot of years. It made me sad to think of.

One Sunday I had three people track me down after a lengthy conversation with Mr. de Zeeuw. They wondered if I was all right.

“Yes, why wouldn’t I be?” I asked, thoroughly confused.

I suppose they wondered what we’d have in common, since he was older, traditional, and sometimes blunt, and I was a teenage girl. Yet he told me nothing but testimony from his life and praise and encouragement for my own. A surprising love for Sunday mornings began to transpire in my heart.

It turned out that Mr. de Zeeuw wasn’t just a Sunday morning friend. He attended every one of my plays from then on, marking each with thoughtful praise.

“Your art,” he’d say, referring to my precious theatre experiences and giving it utmost importance in the kingdom of God.
He was thrilled when I professed my faith in the presence of the entire church and promised to pray when I headed off on a mission trip to Mexico.

One Sunday morning after the service, during coffee time, Mr. de Zeeuw said, “Something seems to be wrong. What is it?” His words were the only ones I cared to acknowledge that day, through my red-rimmed eyes and angry heart.

“My grandma’s dying,” I told him.

Mr. de Zeeuw became a constant source of peace in my time of grief and an even greater friend when I stepped back into peaceful living again.

All these years later, it seems funny that the friend I’d prayed for came in a form I had never expected. From a man likely four times my age, a man of a different ethnic background and life experience. It still surprises me.

But then again, many people did not think that the Messiah would come as a carpenter’s son and be born of a virgin, so I guess it’s fitting.

Willem de Zeeuw passed away a year ago this past April. Who would have thought that I’d miss him every Sunday in my church pew?

I’ve come to realize that quite often God plants beauty where we expect to find weeds. He pulls joy out of the ordinary and grows relationship through the unexpected. He is a surprising God, confusing at times, but he knows what we need when we need it.

I’ve learned that God fulfills us through each other. That’s one of the reasons church is important; it’s an open community of people like us, searching to be loved.

Sometimes I get angry again as I sit in that church pew during the morning greeting. At times I’ve been so caught up in missing my friend that I have to leave the room while everyone else shakes hands. Mr. de Zeeuw sat in front of me for eight years, but I never really knew him till the last three, and now the chance to know him is gone. I would give so much to shake his hand just one last time and say I care about you instead of just Good morning.

But peace fills me at last, as I sit in that pew and think about those three years. I yearned for friendship, and now I see that God gave that to me in a way I never expected.

I still miss my friend, yet I’ve learned that his friendship is a blessing even now. Mr. de Zeeuw taught me that community is not impossible, nor does it just happen thoughtlessly. Rather, it is a divine act of the Holy Spirit. I’ve learned that trust in the Father brings bountiful connection. I’ve found that deep friendship may come in the unlikeliest form or place.

So remember to look everywhere. Cherish what and who you have now. Discover life in the extraordinary. And know that the love God gives us will transcend all eternity.

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