Rev. Dr. James Lee Vanderlaan, former director of Disability Concerns, died Aug. 18 at age 81. His 14 years of leadership left a lasting legacy in this ministry that seeks to bring about the full participation of people with disabilities in the life of the church.
Overcoming the challenges of blindness, Vanderlaan graduated from Calvin College and Seminary and proceeded to obtain an MA and a Ph.D. from Princeton University. After ordination in 1971, he pastored the following congregations: Bigelow (Minn.) CRC, Webster (N.Y.) CRC, and Parchment CRC in Kalamazoo, Mich. In 1992 he became director of Disability Concerns until he retired in 2006. From 1991 to 2014, he was also part-time chaplain at Pine Rest Christian Mental Health Services, and during retirement he served as mediator for Kent County Courts.
The Americans with Disabilities Act, a law prohibiting discrimination against individuals with disabilities, was signed by President George H.W. Bush in 1990. Vanderlaan was Disability Concerns director when Synod 1993 adopted a resolution encouraging all churches and ministries of the CRC to work toward full compliance with the act. When staff was reduced by half during the 1990s, Vanderlaan set up a network of volunteer regional and church disability advocates that continues to this day.
Mark Stephenson, appointed director after Vanderlaan retired, reflected, “I was able to hit the ground running with many excellent and trained volunteers in place. In fact, less than a month after I started, I met with a number of volunteers whom Jim had recruited and trained, and they in turn did a lot to train me. That cadre of volunteers, and the way they were set up, allowed the work of Disability Concerns to engage on the church level—to varying degrees with all 1,100 CRCs—even though our staff is very small.”
Bert Zwiers and Hank Kuntz each were Regional Disabilities Advocates in Canada. “Jim was the perfect ‘disabled image’ for the fledgling agency that was attempting to raise disability awareness within the church,” said Zwiers. “We did many speaking engagements together—he with his long white cane, I in my wheelchair. He, his image, his use of his Braille Bible, will be remembered for years to come.”
Kuntz commented, “Jim showed that people with disabilities can reach their full potential as members of society, as workers, teachers, husbands, leaders, etc. His very personality conveyed the normalcy of being a leader/pastor/scholar/advocate who happened to be blind as well.”
Pete Euwema used to drive Vanderlaan to work daily and was affected by the confidence with which Vanderlaan lived with blindness. “In the winter he would be out shovelling snow or taking the trash to the road. He did repairs on his car,” Euwema said. “He preached at our church once, and at the conclusion of the sermon, he said that he had been blind since birth, so for him in death his eyes would be opened and the first thing he would ever see is the face of Jesus.”
Predeceased by son David, Vanderlaan is survived by his wife, Eunice; six children and spouses; 25 grandchildren; one great-grandchild.