Late at night you can often find Rev. John W. De Vries in the emergency room of the newly opened Metro Health Hospital in suburban Grand Rapids, Mich. But he’s not there in a medical capacity. De Vries serves under the umbrella of Chaplaincy and Care Ministries, one of six Specialized Ministries of the Christian Reformed Church in North America.
Having been awakened at home by a phone call, De Vries swings through the doors into the brightly lit treatment area, searching for the doctor, nurse, or social worker who called him.
Then he seeks out the patient or the patient’s family. He might be called to step inside a treatment room or to visit anxious parents in a nearby waiting room.
Occasionally the ailment that brought the patient to the hospital is minor. But often it involves serious trauma. As the patient is treated, the family gathers, awaiting answers, seeking solace.
Whatever the reason for the call, De Vries is there to address the needs of the injured person and his or her family. These needs can come in different forms. They don’t always involve praying at a bedside or in the waiting room, but often they do.
“Our job is to be with a person during a time of need—a crisis or a challenge,” he says.
De Vries, a CRC pastor who worked for many years in the emergency room of a hospital in inner-city Los Angeles, is also director of Chaplain Services Inc. in Grand Rapids, a group that provides chaplains to a variety of local settings.
“Our goal is not to convert people; we do this work because we are committed to Jesus Christ. We are often there for those who do not have other sources of support and encouragement,” says De Vries.
Showing God’s Love
The work of the CRC’s Specialized Ministries such as Chaplaincy and Care is one way in which the church rises to the challenge of showing people God’s love, justice, and care.
The CRC’s other Specialized Ministries include the Safe Church Ministry and the offices of Race Relations, Pastor-Church Relations, Disability Concerns, and Social Justice.
Each ministry has a specific mission assigned to it, often by synod, the annual leadership meeting of the CRC. Those missions almost always involve trying to bring justice, peace, healing, and comfort to people in the church and, as in the case of chaplains, outside the church as well.
“This denomination has an ethic. It believes in the value of reaching out to people who have serious issues of brokenness,” says Beth Swagman, director of Safe Church Ministry, which handles allegations of abuse by church authorities and provides a range of training and educational resources related to the subject.
“Our core value is to serve hurting, broken people in the context of the church,” Swagman says.
Sandy Johnson, director of denominational ministries for the CRC, says that although Specialized Ministries tend to have a low profile when compared to the denomination’s agencies, they are essential to the mission of the church.
“They are all communities of care,” she says. “We’d like to lift up these ministries and communicate the message of what they do and of the common threads they share. Each of these ministries has a biblical, prophetic edge to it.”
A Voice of Restoration
In a presentation made to Synod 2010 in June, the Specialized Ministries explained their mission as speaking up for people who have no voice, standing up for the poor and destitute, advocating for the rights of all people in need, and speaking out for social justice for individuals and groups “regardless of appearance, ability, color, personality, or status.”
Specialized Ministries described themselves as a voice the Christian Reformed Church has together. “We create a dialogue for change that reconciles people and restores communities to God’s redemptive plan. We are a voice that advocates for people whose voices are not heard. We are a voice of restoration when and where others could not find hope or healing.”
Rev. Ron Klimp, director of Chaplaincy and Care Ministries, says his office has 125 people like John De Vries “out there doing crisis care” in the military, in the workplace, in nursing homes, hospitals, hospices, and other settings. “We are willing to go into crisis situations and be the quiet, confident presence of God,” he says, speaking for all the Specialized Ministries.
“The reason we were called into being,” says Klimp, “is to help people and address the many versions of conflict in a culture that is not very settled.”
Earlier this year, members of South Grandville (Mich.) Christian Reformed Church had the opportunity to witness the profession of faith of a young woman, one of 16 members of the congregation who have cognitive and/or physical disabilities. With the help of their congregation and the CRCNA’s Disability Concerns office, they have been able to fully participate in the life of their church.
Three or four members from other churches also attend South Grandville because of the “welcome mat” the congregation has put out for people who have disabilities.
“A lot of what we do is advocacy for people with disabilities by helping churches understand that caring for these individuals is part of the mission God has given us,” says Rev. Mark Stephenson, director of Disability Concerns.
Stephenson says that he sees his office “emphasizing the matter of justice . . . (for) people with disabilities,” adding that the ministry works hard “to get rid of the stigma—an un-Christian division of those who are acceptable and those who aren’t.”
Another church that’s very active in living out this mission is Madison Avenue CRC in Paterson, N.J. Emma Anderson, one of the coordinators of the ministry, says her church has worked hard to include and accommodate people with all kinds of disabilities.
The church has a large-print Bible in every pew and offers PowerPoint presentations with song lyrics in large, bold type. It offers Sunday school for children with autism and other disabilities, provides devices for people with hearing loss, and has a signing choir for children and adults. In addition, people who are homebound are served by elders and deacons who organize meals and prayer visits.
“The body of the church is not as healthy if it doesn’t include people with disabilities,” says Stephenson.
Advocating for Justice Everywhere
Arecently produced video about an irrigation project in West Africa is “one of the best examples we have of the work that the Office of Social Justice does,” says OSJ Director Peter Vander Meulen.
Called “Office du Niger,” the video focuses particularly on the work done by Mary Crickmore, a longtime Christian Reformed World Relief Committee mission worker, and her husband, Scott.
When Crickmore heard about a proposed U.S.-funded irrigation project that would not only bypass people who could benefit from it but even displace them from their land, she encouraged villagers to write letters to their government. She arranged to have their messages translated and photocopied. She also sent them to the U.S. embassy.
OSJ took up the cause, publicizing it and educating church members about it. In the spring of 2005, the Crickmores visited churches in the U.S. to talk about their work. They told of the irrigation challenges and encouraged people to take action.
As a result, government officials asked Mary Crickmore and the people of one of the villages to help put together a new proposal for funding. With input from the villagers and the Christian Reformed World Relief Committee, the government created a proposal that brought irrigation to the area without destroying the villages in the region.
The process was documented in the new video. Vander Meulen did much of the filming, while Meghan Kraley, communications director for OSJ, edited the story.
The collaborative nature of this project is what OSJ is all about. “We work with others to address the root causes of what keeps people in poverty and hunger,” explains Kraley.
OSJ is one of six Specialized Ministries of the Christian Reformed Church.
A Place of Healing
Normally the work of Pastor-Church Relations starts with a telephone call from a Christian Reformed congregation going through a time of tension or strife.
Maybe their pastor is using pornography or engaging in some other damaging behavior. Maybe the church is hemorrhaging members and isn’t sure why. Maybe the church is divided by cultural differences or different ideas about liturgical practices.
Whatever the problem, it is always sensitive and requires absolute confidentiality.
Rev. Norm Thomasma, the director of Pastor-Church Relations, and Rev. Cecil Van Niejenhuis, education specialist for Pastor-Church Relations, respond to the churches’ calls. They listen carefully, asking questions and clarifying points of concern.
Occasionally they can resolve things over the phone. But frequently they find it necessary to visit a church to get a firsthand understanding of what’s happening. At that point, simple, open discussion can lead to resolution.
If that doesn’t happen, an intervention—an in-depth assessment with specified suggestions for change—takes place. Thomasma or Van Niejenhuis spends significant time with the pastor and members of the congregation—sitting in on meetings, setting up and attending small listening groups, and trying to come up with suggestions for resolution.
“We find that there are many versions of conflict,” says Thomasma. “Often our role is to hold a mirror up to a church and help them have the conversations they need to have, but have no clue how to do.”
“We look for the presenting issues and the underlying themes and patterns of the problem,” he explains. “Our response is to integrate a biblical, theological perspective with a psychosocial perspective as we address and try to resolve the difficulty.”
As with the other Specialized Ministries of the CRC, Pastor-Church Relations has as its mission seeking a just solution to problems facing people in a broken world.
The office handles other duties as well, such as trying to link churches with new pastors. It also organizes healthy-church trainings and seminars. But the nitty-gritty is working with a church to overcome problems and return it to a place of healing.
Dealing with Sin and Human Failure
As a Safe Church Ministry advocate for people who bring allegations of abuse against a Christian Reformed church leader, “Ralph Johnson” has been involved in some highly emotional and touchy cases.
He asked that his real name not be used to avoid bringing publicity to the victims of abuse with whom he has spent long and often very painful hours. He says the work can be hard, disturbing, and truly heartbreaking.
Part of the job includes listening to the story of the person who has contacted the Safe Church Ministry office to report an incident of abuse, either recent or in the past.
It is rarely an easy process. There are times when, initially, no one believes the allegation. That is not surprising, Johnson says. Abuse usually occurs in an isolated office or some other out-of-the-way place, meaning it can come down to one person’s word against another’s.
Often the allegation of abuse refers to a sexual act, but not always. Emotional abuse, abuse of power, and other abuses also occur in church contexts.
The advocate’s role can be an unpleasant one, since it involves looking into the darker side of congregations and dealing with issues of sin and human failure, Johnson explains. Many emotions come into play, ranging from denial, anger, and shock to grudging acceptance.
As the advocate for the victim, Johnson supports and guides the person who has brought forward the charge of abuse from the start of the process to the end. He often spends significant time with the victim, helping him or her to prepare a case.
Cases go before a regional Safe Church Team composed of members who have expertise in this area. When a case reaches a Safe Church Team, it challenges everyone to seek God’s guidance.
The Safe Church Team refers its findings to the church council of the congregation where the abuse is alleged to have occurred. But even when a council accepts that there is evidence to support the charge, it does not have to take further action. In the majority of cases, it doesn’t take action.
Although the task is difficult, it also can have great rewards, Johnson says. “To be willing to do this kind of work in the name of Jesus Christ for the church is awesome,” he says. “You come face to face with the human dynamics that go on as sinful things surface.”
Beth Swagman, director of the Safe Church Ministry, says that this Specialized Ministry focuses on helping people who are hurting and on preventing others from being hurt. “We deal with individual people; we don’t deal with organizational issues. We also bolster the awareness of abuse through education and work with churches so that they have child-safety policies.”
When he went through the Dance of Racial Reconciliation (DORR) training about five years ago, Rev. Socheth Na realized he had some hard, unpleasant work to do.
Na, the pastor of Cambodian Fellowship CRC in Holland, Mich., knew he needed to ask God to help him forgive others, as well as to seek forgiveness, as an important part of the process of breaking down the barriers of racism. He also realized that respecting and understanding others was as important as wanting them to respect and understand him.
Today, Na serves as a trainer for the DORR program, which was created for church groups and others by the CRC’s Office of Race Relations.
“It is very important for our denomination as well for our churches to go through this training if we really want to become the most effective and productive workers of the Lord who take his Great Commission seriously,” says Na.
Synod, the annual leadership meeting of the CRC, established the Office of Race Relations “to help the denomination address issues of racism and discrimination,” says Rev. Esteban Lugo, director of Race Relations. “We have been asked to design, organize, and implement programs that the church can use to eradicate the causes and effects of racism in the body of believers.”
Lugo says that the CRC’s Specialized Ministries such as Race Relations play a quiet role in supporting the mission of the church on a wide range of issues. Often working in the background, these ministries take on individual tasks and issues as a way to keep the church, its congregations, and members on the course set by synod.
The job of dismantling racism is a never-ending enterprise, Lugo says. “The sin of racism is more deeply embedded than we want to believe within our structures, institutions, and policies. We work to develop a value in our church for ethnic, racial, and cultural participation on all levels.”
About the Author
Chris Meehan is a freelance writer and commissioned pastor at Coit Community Church in Grand Rapids, Mich.