Cherry Bream, Flickr, under Share-Alike License


Hogwarts Adjusts to New Realities

            “I am so glad I’m not taking Divination anymore!”

Hermione had just come down from the girls’ dormitory into the Gryffindor common room. She plopped down into a squashy armchair next to Harry and Ron, looking thoroughly disgusted.

            “Look at this,” she said, flipping open her laptop and clicking the tab for Divination. Since her family were muggles, she had adjusted more quickly to laptops and cell phones than most of the students from wizarding families. “See?” She pointed to the screen. “Leave it to Trelawney to come up with only one Student Learning Outcome: ‘Gain access to the inner eye.’ What is that supposed to mean?”

            “Blimey, how should I know?” Ron scoffed. “We’ve never understood anything she’s ever said. Why should we start now?”

            “I know, but at least she could try to adjust to the new requirements. I think it’s excellent that our teachers have to provide syllabi and learning goals now. But honestly, no way is this a SMART goal. How do you measure ‘access to the inner eye’?”

            “Hermione, you’re taking this all too seriously.” Ron turned his attention back to his cell phone. He was playing Mountain Troll 2: Clash of Ghouls with evident relish. It was about all he had so far figured out how to do on the gadget.

            “I reckon Trelawney could measure whether our predictions come true,” Harry offered. He and Ron sniggered. They had tried to complete Trelawney’s assignments since second year by predicting one another’s demise in ever more gruesome ways.

            “Even if I thought Divination was a legitimate subject,” Hermione continued thoughtfully, “I wouldn’t expect to measure outcomes on an exam—after only a semester. But still, most of the teachers are trying to take assessment seriously. Look at Professor Binns, trying his best to flip the classroom, even after a hundred years of teaching!”

“I’ve been watching his lectures online.” Harry pointed to his own laptop.  

            “You’re actually doing it?” Ron was incredulous.

            “He’s not quite as hopelessly boring this way,” Harry observed, somewhat surprised to hear himself say it. “I can watch the lectures at double speed. Look.” Harry turned his laptop so that Ron could see Professor Binns gibbering in a high-speed voice. Since Professor Binns was a ghost, the new classroom cameras could barely pick up his image. It was like watching smoke wiggle.

            “What do you do during class then?” Colin Creevy had sidled over to Harry, Ron, and Hermione, hoping to join their conversation.

            “Uh… break into groups and … I dunno,” Harry mused. “Mostly we talk about quidditch.”  

            “History of Magic is right tolerable now,” agreed Ron.

Hermione gave them both a look that made it clear she did not approve of their classroom behavior. “Well, Professor Binns probably just needs more time to adjust. Anyway, I like the new concurrent enrollment agreements. I’m taking Arithmancy online now through Beauxbatons. They have a pretty incredible MOOC catalog. I don’t even need a time turner anymore.”


            The portrait swung open and Fred and George came through, followed by Lee Jordan and Parvati Patil. They looked oddly well dressed and groomed.

            “Well, where have you been?” called Ginny from the corner, where she was working intently at a rickety table, tapping away at her laptop.

            “Photo shoot,” Fred answered, dropping his school bag in a chair. His bag actually had books in it for once rather than the usual assortment of dungbombs and puking pastilles.

            “We’re in the Hogwarts donor brochure,” George declared. “We’re the token gingers!”

            Lee and Parvati gave a rueful laugh.

            “Brochure? Since when does Hogwarts have a brochure?” Ron wondered.

            “Since we need to court donors,” Fred replied, flopping into a squashy chair by the fire.

            “Hogwarts has to raise money now that the house elves have unionized,” George explained. “The education of wizarding youth costs more galleons than it used to, you know.”

            Everyone looked accusingly at Hermione. Her efforts to improve the lives of house elves through S.P.E.W. had resulted in some unforeseen consequences.

            “Well, the quidditch team is doing their share,” remarked Ginny, trying to cover the awkward moment. “Now that they’ve built a luxury box on the quidditch stadium, we’re bringing in loads of cash at every game—Hey! I’ve got it!”

            Fred and George crossed the room, stepping on chairs and tables to get to Ginny. They peered for a moment at her laptop screen. “Whoa, way to go! Nice work!”

            “What? What is it?” Harry, Ron, and Hermione hurried over to take a look.

            “I hacked into the Restricted Section of the library,” Ginny explained. “Now that all the books are digitized, it’s easier to get access to the good stuff. Look: Moste Potente Potions, free for the people!”

            Murmurs of “You’re a genius” and “Wow” rose from the group.

            Hermione glanced at Harry, who wondered if she was thinking the same thing he was. If the library was digitized, and they could hack into it, there would be no more need to sneak around at night to research advanced magic so they could solve impossible dilemmas and save the school. No more need for the invisibility cloak, really. He might as well tuck it away in his trunk for good. The way things were going, as long as there was wireless in the common room, they could get into all the trouble they wanted right there. All they would need was a laptop and a bit of code. He wasn’t sure whether to feel liberated… or somehow useless.

            “Why did they digitize the entire library, anyway?” Harry wondered aloud. He knew the project had provided a few more internships for the new student internship requirement. The retail jobs that the shops in Hogsmeade could offer hardly gave every sixth-year a chance to fulfill the requirement. But still, digitizing the library seemed like a lot of effort, and considering the smell of some of the books and the bites of others, maybe dangerous.

            “They had to,” remarked Hermione, with a little sadness in her voice. “We have to meet international wizarding-school standards now. Because of…”—she paused, as if she were about to say a bad word—“because of accreditation.”

            “How do you know this stuff,” Ron huffed.

            “Because I read the Daily Prophet,” Hermione answered, obviously annoyed. “Online.”

            Ron rolled his eyes and changed the subject. “Harry, let’s watch those YouTube video demos so we can practice disapparating.”

            “Honestly, Ron.” She grabbed his phone and punched at it with her finger for a few minutes while he looked perplexedly at Harry.

            “There. Look. I just downloaded the Hogwarts: A History ap to your phone. Now maybe you will remember that you cannot disapparate inside Hogwarts grounds.”


Communio Sanctorum

Thy glorious household stuff did me entwine,
                And ‘tice me unto Thee.

George Herbert, “Affliction” (I)

When I was a child, my family usually attended church on New Year’s Eve, and during the service the pastor or an elder would read the “necrology”—the list of those from the congregation who had died in the last year. It was a way of taking stock, marking the passage of time, meditating on the reality that “Hours and days and years and ages swift as moving shadows flee,” to quote a somber hymn we would sometimes sing. I also seem to recall that babies baptized that year were duly accounted for, although their names seemed to weigh feather-light when read against the gravity of the saints departed.

This Sunday evening, my church will hold an All Saints’ Day service. Several of us remarked at a worship committee meeting how we rather cherished that old-fashioned practice of reading the necrology, but since no one was especially interested in attending, let alone planning, a New Year’s Eve service, we decided to shift this practice to All Saint’s Day—which we all agreed was a more fitting occasion for it anyway. At our service, I am hoping we will also sing “For All the Saints,” so that the accounting of our losses will dissolve into that triumphant tune and those resolute words about saints finishing their well-fought fight, resting from their labors, cheering us on with cloud-of-witnesses enthusiasm.

That’s the communion of saints, after all, yes? Or at least, that’s how we often think of it on All Saints’ Day: our connection, across the great chasm, with those who have shared in the body of Christ and who have gone before us. As we think of those saints, we look anew at the ordinary faces around us and recognize saints-in-the-making. We feel our connection to one another on the pilgrim way, the communion that comforts us as we “feebly struggle.” Communio sanctorum, says the Latin of the Apostle’s Creed, Original Edition: communion of holy people.

The church has always, from the beginning, emphasized that the communion of saints is not merely about pleasant human connections because we are like-minded or belong to the same club or vote the same way. Instead, communion of the saints flows from our communion in Christ. We are holy people, not perfect people, set apart and united in Christ. The Heidelberg Catechism renders this succinctly:

Lord’s Day 21

55 Q. What do you understand by “the communion of the saints”?

First, that believers one and all,
as members of this community,
share in Christ
and in all his treasures and gifts.

What gifts? Footnotes to passages in Romans and Corinthians point abbreviatedly to salvation and the gifts of the Spirit. Then the catechism, characteristically, makes a quick turn into the duties implied by this communion:

Second, that each member
should consider it a duty
to use these gifts
readily and cheerfully
for the service and enrichment
of the other members.

Sharing the benefits of Christ with one another was not an idea new to the Reformation. It goes back to the early fathers in their reflections on communio sanctorum, and is richly accounted for in contemporary Roman Catholic reflections on the communion of saints.

However, there’s another possible meaning to communio sanctorum that I had never heard of until this week. The Latin word sanctorum is a genitive that can be either masculine or neuter and thus mean either of holy people or of holy things. Better yet: both.

We are the holy people who share the holy things.

Naturally, Roman Catholic thought emphasizes the sacraments here. The holy things are primarily the bread and wine. Perhaps the muting of this thing-oriented emphasis in Reformed circles goes all the way back to Reformation distancing from Catholic understanding of the sacraments.

This reflection from the Institutes on the communion of the saints, for example, focuses on apprehension and feeling: 

In the very term communion there is great consolation; because, while we are assured that everything which God bestows on his members belongs to us, all the blessings conferred upon them confirm our hope. But in order to embrace the unity of the Church in this manner, it is not necessary, as I have observed, to see it with our eyes, or feel it with our hands. Nay, rather from its being placed in faith, we are reminded that our thoughts are to dwell upon it, as much when it escapes our perception as when it openly appears. Nor is our faith the worse for apprehending what is unknown, since we are not enjoined here to distinguish between the elect and the reprobate (this belongs not to us, but to God only), but to feel firmly assured in our minds, that all those who, by the mercy of God the Father, through the efficacy of the Holy Spirit, have become partakers with Christ, are set apart as the proper and peculiar possession of God, and that as we are of the number, we are also partakers of this great grace. (Book 4.1.3, emphasis added)

(Election-haters, take note of the comment that we have no business trying to distinguish between the elect and the reprobate!)

I have to disagree with Calvin’s assertion here that we do not have to embrace this communion with our eyes and hands. I understand that Calvin is championing the church invisible over against the corruptions of Rome, etc. Be assured of your inclusion in the company of saints, he is saying; it’s not about the rituals. But 500 years out, perhaps it is safe again to recognize that our communion is made manifest in the things, and it’s all right to love them and derive comfort from them.

The stuff of our life together—the bread and wine, the water, the Bible, the cross—these are the holy things through which Christ comes to us, through which our communion in Christ is practiced, received, made real. Faith is in the mind and heart, but we are creatures of dust. We need to taste and see and hear, too.

Calvin wishes that our understanding, our apprehension of the communion of saints might bring us consolation. Of course. Anyone who has attended a good Christian funeral will testify that it does. But we experience that consolation in the tangibles: the gentle embrace of good friends, the words of Scripture spoken, the songs we love, perhaps even the coffee and cake. The communion of saints may be mystical and transcendent, but we grab hold of it through ordinary, tangible things. God knows we need this—it is consoling.

Isn’t this why Christ gave us the sacraments? In the sections of the Heidelberg on the sacraments, the words “surely” and “assurance” recur often. Lord’s Days 25-28 are summed up in Q&A 79:

[Christ] wants to assure us, by this visible sign and pledge,
that we, through the Holy Spirit’s work,
share in his true body and blood
as surely as our mouths
receive these holy signs in his remembrance,
and that all of his suffering and obedience
are as definitely ours
as if we personally
had suffered and paid for our sins.

The sacraments are all about promise and assurance, manifested in the bread, the wine, the water. We are the people who share in these holy things. This communion endures even to our last days, even beyond them.

At church this Sunday, we will begin the service by gathering a few tangible objects and placing them in plain view: a book, a cross, a candle, water. Later, at the offering, come the bread and wine. Simple, ordinary things. Made holy only because through them Christ has promised to be present among us, to draw us into communion with him and therefore with each other. In that, we find great consolation.

I believe in the communion of holy people who share in the holy things.


BuzzFeed, Myers-Briggs, and the Typology of a Generation

I am away at an academic conference today, so I would like to introduce you to Gabe Gunnink, a 2014 Calvin grad who is now teaching middle school English and Spanish in Grand Rapids. This essay originally appeared on September 20 on the Postcalvin, an alumni blog for Calvin grads in their 20s. During the month of September, the Postcalvin’s regular bloggers (all 28 of them!) wrote on the theme “millennials in thirty things.” The idea was to meditate on the quintessential stuff of daily millennial life. For more hilarious, poignant, and trenchant insights on being a young adult, please visit the blog and discover some wonderful young writers. -- Debra  


By Gabe Gunnink

Confession: I have never taken the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator test. Neither have I taken the StrengthsFinder evaluation nor any IQ assessment. The closest I’ve come to placing my identity under a multiple-choice microscope was an aptitude test I completed in high school. It told me I should be an animal trainer. I now work with middle school children, so maybe I should be taking these things more seriously.

But, for whatever reason, I have not felt the desire to encode my sense of self into an acronym or all-telling digit. Apparently, it’s another of my abnormalities, because the Myers-Briggs test is administered to around 1.5 million individuals annually from Fortune 500 employees to self-concept starved college students to most Lord of the Rings characters (thanks to BuzzFeed). However, the quest for them all seems to be the same: to find themselves and (in the darkness) bind themselves into one cohesive sense of self.

In this way, the Myers-Briggs has captured in a jargony, statistical fashion the primary aim of our generation: self-discovery. We millennials are an identity-hungry bunch and are endlessly goaded by a string of new, you-centric slogans: “Be Yourself,” “Live Your Life,” “Do You,” “YOLO,” and far too many more.

Now, I don’t want to oppose some of the ideological foundations of these messages. In truth, I feel that freedom and self-understanding are important principles and that these mantras are certainly improvements on those that could be applied to other eras and cultures: “Be Your Husband’s,” “Live Your Caste,” “Do Eunuch,” “You Only Languish Once.”

However, these continual calls to self-being have caused us millennials to become at times aggressively ourselves, busting out of boxes and popping out of closets more frequently and fervently than any generation before in an effort to break down walls and achieve the openness necessary to become fully “you.” But, as we step out into the open air of uninhibited self-discovery, we hesitate. It turns out that our relationship with boxes is more complicated than we realized.

In reality, while millennials so vocally oppose being put in boxes, we simultaneously stick labels to ourselves like we’re a political radical’s bumper: ESFP, flexitarian, demisexual, Libertarian, White (non-Hispanic), Pisces, Trekkie, etc. There’s something about the gleam of labels that we can’t resist in our manic attempts to “do you.”

Truly, there appears to be no end to the supply of boxes we can step into, from the big, refrigerator-sized boxes of ethnicity, gender, and political affiliation to the smallest, most obscure boxes imaginable. For example, BuzzFeed offers to answer “What Country Music Cliché Are You?” while Seventeen asks, “What Movie Couple Are You?” and Cosmopolitan really just goes big and claims to divine “What Kind of Female Are You?” in just six simple, man-centric questions. Thus, I would argue that we are the first generation to make a full-fledged hobby of self-discovery.

In the past week alone, I have discovered which kind of diva, which Rocky Horror Picture Show character, and which half of Ariana Grande’s face I am! And, I actually felt surprisingly self-accomplished upon receiving some of the answers. (Yes, I am a “flawless diva,” thank you very much!)

But we don’t stop there. Instead, we post the results to our Facebook page and wait for our friends to append comments revealing whether they do or do not share our spirit animal, or we linger at the dining hall having surprisingly serious conversations about which flower we are as a nearby group of men’s cross country runners chuckle a few feet away. In this way, for perhaps the first time in human history, self-discovery has become an end in and of itself.

That said, I don’t think that it has ceased being a means. In fact, beneath all of the type testing and celebrity twin finding, I think there lies a realization that first-semester-of-Spanish-class adjectives aren’t enough. It’s not enough to introduce myself, saying, “Hello. My name is Gabe. I am tall and nice and athletic and extroverted.” We need labels to do some of the talking for us. Somehow, breaking out the boxes and saying, “Hello. My name is Gabe. I’m a proud Ravenclaw vegetarian with a tendency toward Monica-from-Friends-spirited lovers!” seems to lend greater depth and texture to who I am.

But I think there’s a greater reason millennials are going a little crazy with the label-maker, and it’s that no matter how many times we’re told to “be yourself,” “live your life,” or “do you,” we realize that ultimately “doing you” can be a lonely calling. Being unique loses its luster quickly. Thus, the best thing that labels give us is a sense of belonging. When we put ourselves into boxes, we realize that we’re not alone there. Instead, we find ourselves among our fellow INTPers, our District 4 kinsfolk, or our Green Party counterparts. We find ourselves dissolved into community.

So, I doubt that we millennials will end our flagrant fight for individuality or cease our incessant self-discovery. However, I do hope that we plot a new destination for this quest and take up a new mantra. I hope that we use self-discovery not as a path to acronyms or actor crushes but rather as a means to community. And finally, I hope that we begin to focus less on “doing you” and finally dwell a bit more on “doing us.”



Now What Do We Do on Fall Saturdays?

I would like to point out that the University of Michigan ranks among the top 15 finest universities in the world. Academically. We are talking about academics here. As an alum, I feel obliged to establish this fact at the outset.

Now we can talk about football. Perhaps you have heard about the incident last Saturday during the Michigan-Minnesota game (final score: we do not speak of it), in which quarterback Shane Morris took a hard hit to the head, staggered around, was escorted off the field, and then, a few plays later, to the astonishment of the fans, was sent back into the game for one play. Why none of the coaches or sideline trainer-medical types saw him wobble, or evaluated him for concussion before sending him back out (with an injured ankle, too)—no one can explain, and these mysteries have accelerated the slow, painful implosion of the Michigan football program’s reputation, and maybe the program.

The president of the university is attempting to salvage a situation that was exacerbated by delayed and dissembling communications from the athletic division. Meanwhile, Go-Blue pundits are hoping for the imminent departure not only of head coach Brady Hoke but also athletic director David Brandon, who is increasingly depicted as a mustache-twirling villain. In fact, “departure” may be too mild a term for what may happen to these guys and members of their staff. As my husband keeps telling me, this is Michigan football we’re talking about, and the villagers are sprinting out to their toolsheds for pitchforks and torches. At the very least, Michigan students staged an old-fashioned sit-in Tuesday on President Schlissel’s lawn, calling for Brandon’s removal.

Can Michigan football be saved? Maybe. But I wonder, honestly, if this is just another tremor in a major cultural shift. I wonder if we are witnessing the end of an age, not just for Michigan but for football at all levels. The NFL grapples with mounting evidence about the long-lasting effects of repeated head injuries. And just this week, three high school players dieddied—from head injuries suffered, at least allegedly, from football-related impacts.

Maybe we shouldn’t bother to try saving football. Maybe we should just let it go.

I realize this is easy for me to say because, although I enjoy watching Michigan football on fall Saturdays, my life would hardly change if it all went away. In fact, after the Michigan-Notre Dame game on September 6 (final score: we do not speak of it) my Saturdays seem to have opened up this fall, and I’m happily filling up those four hours a week with gardening, reading, laundry, and (well, to be honest) more paper grading.         

However, football is so embedded in American culture, it will not be easy for many others to extricate it from their lives. So with patriotic altruism for my fellow Americans, I have been thinking about possible substitutes for football, substitutes that might serve many of the same important cultural needs.

Some modest proposals, then, organized by the cultural need they could fulfill.

The need for festive, tribal competition
How about eliminating the football part and concentrating only on the marching bands? Crowds could gather in big stadiums and watch marching bands from rival schools compete. We could easily repurpose the commentators, the television broadcast technicians, the whole commercial apparatus. We could import judges from all those TV competition shows. Marching band smack-downs would still involve plenty of color and noise, crowd cheering, trash talking—and no one gets hurt. Well, at least if we can eliminate the hazing and corruption that already beset top university marching band programs. Oh well. Maybe with more attention and popularity, band program troubles will be better monitored! Anyway, imagine what this would do for K-12 school band programs. Competitive parents would be starting their kids on clarinet at age 3!

The need to grill meat communally
You laugh, but according to Michael Pollan’s latest book Cooked (which I heartily recommend—it’s fascinating), the human need to get together and grill meat is both ancient and cross-cultural. In the section of the book on American Southern barbeque, Pollan considers the origins of meat-grilling in ancient sacrificial rituals, citing the careful attention to meat-roasting in Homer’s epics and the Old Testament as well as his reading in the anthropological research on food practices. Pollan writes:

Quite apart from its spiritual significance, the ritual sacrifice had three worldly purposes, purposes that will seem familiar to anyone who has cooked at a barbeque:

To regulate the potentially savage business of eating meat.

To bring people together in a community.

And to support and elevate the priestly class in charge of it.

So if the football tailgate party dies, we will obviously need a substitute to satisfy our need for meat-intensive Dionysian rituals. I’m going to suggest that we return meat-grilling to its religious roots and start holding gigantic barbeques after church every week in the fall. The more granola churches like mine, with our high percentage of vegetarians, will have to provide options, of course. But even those who eat the bean burgers can feel their primitive human impulses sated when they inhale the smell of bratwurst.

The need to watch people engage in violent contact
I have already championed the idea of bringing back jousting—sort of like football distilled down to nothing but crashes and injuries, except with horses. Sadly, the competitive jousting show didn’t last, but we might still be able to learn something from the competitors. A number of them were theatrical jousters, making a living on the Renaissance Faire circuit. What if we were to switch to theatrical football? All the tackles and runs and even the interceptions would be choreographed, and no one would really get hurt. Suddenly, high school theater geeks would be popular, because they would be good at sports, because they are good at acting! In fact, if this idea caught on, we could even add musical numbers.

The need to dress men in exaggeratedly manly outfits—huge shoulders, tight pants
I would not be surprised, should football fade into memory, if we experienced a corresponding increase in the number of people attending comic-con events just to see men in superhero outfits.

The need for an excuse to get drunk
No problem here. Americans already use almost every holiday for this purpose.

The need for an excuse to have people over to watch a big screen
No problem. We already have Downton Abbey. Oh fine. Or The Ultimate Fighter.

The need for an excuse to snooze in front of the TV
There’s always golf, which also goes on for hours and involves hundreds of ads.

I’m not claiming this will be easy. But I have faith that American culture will survive somehow even if the Age of Football is coming to an end. Meanwhile, my undergrad and grad-school alma maters are playing each other today (Michigan vs. Rutgers). I could regard this as a surefire win for me either way, but I’m still more loyal to Michigan. So I’m predicting right now that whatever the final score may be, I will not speak of it.


Mighty Deeds

“There’s a lot of down time between the mighty deeds of God.”

I heard myself saying this to my friend Sharon over pancakes yesterday. We were talking about her church’s efforts to discern where God is taking them next. They were weathering some discouraging developments along the way, and even for people who have seen God’s unmistakable workings in the past, God’s laugh-aloud, no-doubt-about-it mighty deeds—even then, sometimes you wonder… what’s taking so long this time? And what are we waiting for, exactly? We live so much of our lives between promise and deliverance, those long cloudy stretches of hope and doubt.

It was time, for both our sakes, to recount what I had seen the day before.

First we have to go back twenty years, to when our mutual friends Trevor and Linda moved to Jersey City, New Jersey, after graduating seminary. Long, difficult years followed, years of trying a lot of hopeful but ultimately unsuccessful ministry strategies. Finally they experienced a turning point and slowly a vision came into focus. Today, New City Kids is an innovative, savvy ministry that transforms the lives of teens and kids through the power of the Holy Spirit and a lot of fantastically creative people. It’s a kids’ after-school program, a teen mentoring program, a training ground for leadership and hopeful futures, and a lot besides. I won’t say more; you can read all about it on their website. New City Kids was a long, slow miracle. But that’s what it has become.

For the last few years, however, Trevor and Linda have felt for a number of reasons that they should move to Grand Rapids, leaving the Jersey City site in the hands of their capable staff. But what would they do when they got here? Where would they live? How could they serve here? Years went by before anything became clear. The Spirit’s guidance? The Lord’s leading? Where was it? For a long time, it seemed there was a whole lot of silence.

Last year, finally, it started to seem possible that they could replicate the New City Kids program here in Grand Rapids, and let this site become a greenhouse for additional sites. The ministry could “multiply,” as they say in the biz. Great, but lots of things had to fall into place, funding primarily. And staff. And a site. And community buy-in. And a place for their family to live. And a school for the children. More waiting. Too much silence.

“Why does God tell us things only on a need-to-know basis?” That was another question I asked Sharon over pancakes.

The first question that was answered for Trevor and Linda, after months of consternation, was where they would live. Long story, but here’s the short of it: they bought the house next door. Yes. Ron and I have not lived in the same state with these people in twenty-two years, and this summer they moved into the house next door to us.

Next came, in rapid succession: seed funding for New City Kids Grand Rapids, a terrific core staff, the eager cooperation of school administrators, and a perfect site in a neighborhood where the need is great. Trevor found the site by meeting with all kinds of people, by visiting high schools, and by walking neighborhoods. One day he walked into a church, cold, and explained the ministry to the staff. They wanted in. It felt right.

It was the church where I grew up.

So that’s where I was the night before the pancakes: I was helping New City Kids Grand Rapids audition teens for jobs as tutors, recreation teachers, and performing arts teachers. There were forty teens present for this, the second audition day, and none of them know how to do this work yet. That’s the point. A dozen of them will get hired here, and they will get mentoring and training and become leaders.

And it will all happen in this old church that I love. Before the other night, I hadn’t been in the building for twenty-five years. The congregation of Alpine Avenue Christian Reformed Church sold the building around 1990 when their pastor of thirty years died of cancer. (This was when I was away at grad school.) The neighborhood had changed, and the congregation knew they were not equipped to minister there anymore. So they merged with another congregation and sold the building to a group ready to do urban ministry. I hadn’t heard a thing about the new congregation since.

I wondered what it would feel like to return. And then I turned the corner onto Alpine Avenue: same steeple spotted from blocks away. Same old reddish bricks and gold-and-green windows. But doesn’t it seem smaller? More compact somehow? And now there’s an accessible entrance ramp to the familiar old door. Still, I remember this feeling of entering here, turning right, pounding down the basement stairs.

We gathered in the basement, to me the site of potlucks and senior gatherings, women gossiping in the kitchen, after-church receptions on special occasions, sugary cake and coffee. Instead, there was Trevor and his staff on a freshly built platform, against freshly painted walls, playing drums and keyboards and bass guitar, leading a bunch of teens in a rap about the parts of speech. “This is how we teach kids at New City,” he told the teens, to the beat of the drums.

A couple hours later, after we finished our work with the teens, I took a solitary walk around the building. There’s the consistory room where I professed my faith before the elders, an occasion, as I recall, of great gentleness and blessing. The solemn, black-and-white portraits of previous CRC pastors had been removed, of course. It was now an adult education room.

In the upstairs hallway, more familiar rooms. That choir room, with its wall of closets for robes (empty) and that same old carpet with the gray-and-maroon swirly pattern, probably selected by a women’s committee in 1946. At the end of the hall, that big classroom with all the windows where we learned our catechism. The old green carpet and yellow, molded-plastic chair-desks were gone. It was now a youth room in classic style: garish colors and thrift-store couches.  

I passed through hallways and doorways and stairwells, amazed at how these old spaces came back to me, the feeling of moving through them. I still find myself here in my dreams occasionally; I know every corner and turn.

Then I went into the sanctuary. That’s where it all hit me hard. Anyone observing me might have guessed that I was tearing up because of the disrepair. That wasn’t it. Actually, things looked pretty good. The organ had been removed, the floor looked rough, some seat cushions were gone and all of them were worn thin. But all that beautiful old wood still shone, and those windows let in the same warm light.

I felt overwhelmed because… this is where I learned the faith. Everything most important to me started here. Such gratitude, and such sadness, because things change. So many people gone, so many ghosts, a whole world that I loved slipped away, all present to me for an instant in the emptiness of this silent room.

It felt to me, in that moment, that the ongoing life of my old congregation had been a mighty deed, in its own busy and ordinary way. I don’t know what’s been going on in this building in the past twenty-five years. Wonderful things, I hope, perhaps small and mostly unnoticeable to outsiders, perhaps a miracle or two.

But I do know that something new is beginning in that basement now, and I believe that more mighty deeds are coming.


If you would like to support New City Kids as a volunteer or donor, please visit the website. You will find ideas for getting involved in either the Jersey City and Grand Rapids ministries.