As I sat there in the back of the church, attending the funeral of a dear friend in the church where I had started my life in Canada almost 70 years ago, I found my thoughts drifting back to the first post-war immigrants of that church, including my own father and mother. Now seeing the children and grandchildren of these first immigrants sitting in the pews in front of me, I saw them again—my father, my mother, the fathers and mothers of many who were sitting there. And I found myself becoming emotional, my eyes misting as I mourned not only my friend, who had been a faithful member of this church, but also the fathers and mothers who had begun this church.
They were all gone now, these first immigrants. The beautiful hymn “By the sea of crystal, saints in glory stand” came to mind. They had moved on to the church triumphant. After having lived through a devastating war, and no doubt after much prayer, they had left their homeland to come to this faraway country to start a new life. And because they knew they needed God too, they bought a small, old Quaker church. I remember it was purchased for $2,000. It became their church, a stronghold and a refuge in this foreign land.
I taught Sunday school in that old Quaker church—sometimes in a less-than-perfect way on its balcony, with congregants milling around down below when the weather did not permit them to be outside. And I attended a large youth group in that building. Soon after I got married in that old church, it was torn down and a new one was built—the one where I found myself today. I had moved away from the area, and although I had been back many times to visit relatives, it had been a very long time since I had attended a service in the church.
Memories continued to flood my mind. I remembered how our fathers and mothers had to build a new life for themselves and for their children in a rather short span of years. Most of them were already middle-aged when they arrived. There was, however, a beautiful unity in and among these families. The grown children contributed their wages toward the goal of buying a farm or just helping their family to get ahead. At the same time, these immigrants contributed to the building of their church. I can still see my dad preparing his little white envelope for the church on Saturday nights.
I remembered the many frustrations they experienced as well. Fathers struggled with the language, and employers did not always keep their promises. Mothers brought up large families on their own without the conveniences we have today and without much help from their husbands, who were working from morning until night to get ahead. I remembered mothers banding together to help each other clean their substandard houses.
But at the church there were soon cars to be seen on Sundays—second-hand cars that were the first signs of the immigrants getting ahead, of gaining some independence. They needed a car to go town on Saturdays and to church on Sundays.
Attending church was the highlight of the week. They loved their home missionary from the U.S., the Rev. Garret Andre, and his wife, whose help was invaluable in their everyday life too. Rev. Andre put thousands of miles on his car driving immigrants to church and often preached three sermons on Sundays, serving neighboring churches too.
The strong Reformed faith the immigrants had brought with them from the Netherlands was clearly visible in the sincerity with which they conducted their worship services. In church they felt the tie that bound them all together. They sang their Dutch psalms with gusto and in the evening tried to learn the English ones. After church they would share their burdens and experiences of the week with each other in their native language. The farmers among them discussed their progress in the buying or renting of a farm; the mothers talked with other women about their households and families.
These conversations helped encourage one another, for in many hearts lived loneliness, especially among the women longing for family that they did not expect to see again. Some also harbored doubt about whether they had done the right thing to uproot their family and leave their homeland. Life was hard for them in this new country, and it soon became evident that sickness and death were part of life here too.
That morning, seeing the descendants of these first immigrants filled me with melancholy as I thought about those who had built this church and had sacrificed so much for the future of their children and grandchildren. I was comforted, however, when my eyes fell on the bulletin I was holding in my lap. I read, “And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away” (Rev. 21:4, KJV).
I will never forget the hardship that our ancestors endured when putting their feet on foreign ground. Neither will I forget their legacy: the establishment of the Christian Reformed Church in Canada. For me it had all started in the 1950s in that small Quaker church in a village of Ontario.