Rev. VanBaren. PRCA.org. RBO. P.R. Special Ed.
Not many today, I think, could put those four entities together in one short sentence. But it can be done. In fact, the Covenant Reformed News could well be added to the mix.
Protestant Reformed Special Ed plays an important part in the work of many of our Protestant Reformed schools. Who today remembers, or even ever knew, that it was Rev. Gise J. VanBaren whose initiative led to the formation and development of the Special Education Society. Four girls at Hudsonville, way back when Rev. VanBaren was pastor there, needed special catechism classes. Rev. VanBaren and the consistory worked with Mrs. Gertrude Hoeksema to provide that instruction.
And out of this activity came the educating of children with special needs and the birth of the Special Ed Society.
The Reformed Book Outlet (RBO) is, significantly, in Hudsonville. During Rev. VanBaren’s seventeen-year ministry there, he spent six months in Northern Ireland. While there, he met a minister who used, in his church, a bookstore as a means of outreach in the community. When he returned to Hudsonville, Rev. VanBaren, unsurprisingly, took steps to implement that concept in his own church and community. And out of that effort came the RBO.
Then there’s the denominational website. Again, who today, other than those who are directly involved in the maintenance of that website, remembers, or even ever knew, that it had its beginning in the parsonage of Loveland PRC…when Rev. Gise J. VanBaren was pastor there. That was back in the mid-1990s. It started as a tool for the promoting of Loveland PRC in the community and in the state. Rev. VanBaren did have some help. He freely admitted that he started that project with what he called “one big problem,” namely, that it “was something beyond the scope of the knowledge and understanding of one who received his training in the seminary.” No course in computer programming there. But, he added, “I had one advantage that provided some hope of success.” His son Phil was a student at the University of Michigan, where he worked with computers and had access to the University’s facilities. Phil set up a website for his father. Rev. VanBaren then became web master of Loveland’s new website, probably the first in the denomination. Those were the early days of the World Wide Web. Computers were slow, and transmission was accomplished via telephone. Loveland’s parsonage had a single telephone line, and there was none to the church. So Rev. VanBaren got out of bed early in the morning to work on the web-page, so as to make the telephone available for church and parsonage use during the daytime and evening hours. Time? Typically from 4:00-7:00 a.m. five days a week! That’s dedication. Which is taught in the seminary. He had learned well.
Rev. VanBaren did not stop with that. He had a heart not only for his church (Loveland) but also for the churches (the PRC). He therefore very soon added to the website of Loveland materials showing that church’s denominational affiliation. Not long thereafter it occurred to him that it would be advantageous to separate the two. Loveland’s site could continue on its own, which it did, and a separate site would be devoted to materials that belonged, not to a particular church, but to the denomination as a whole. This was implemented again with the help of his sons, and acquired the domain name of PRCA.org. It came, therefore, to be considered the website of the PRC.
But it wasn’t yet. It was a project of one man, who built it from the ground up and maintained it single-handedly. Even, and perhaps especially, after his retirement. It became, says his wife, his main occupation. And what he built was remarkably effective. Even before the denomination adopted it as its own in 2011, the website was being accessed from 25 countries worldwide. There were more than 200 million websites in the world at that time, and Rev. VanBaren’s ranked in the top % of 1% of them, based on number of ‘hits’ recorded. Worldwide evangelism—by what is a tiny denomination of churches in North America. From Rev. VanBaren’s own pen, this: “We have a marvelous tool, given us in God’s grace, to spread the precious gospel message through this means. And it can go places to which we likely never would be able to go. For this we thank God.”
Rev. VanBaren said it right. For this means of outreach, to the ends of the earth, we thank our God. But then we thank God also for giving us Rev. VanBaren, whose conscientious, persevering dedication to the service of God and the church brought access to this “marvelous tool” to the PRC.
But, again, with respect to the origins of all three of the above (PR Special Ed, RBO, and PRCA.org), who, today, still remembers the initiative taken, in each one, by the late Rev. Gise VanBaren? Undoubtedly part of the reason for our not even knowing about Rev. VanBaren’s involvement in projects like these is the way he went about his business. Synod 2006, I think, captured it, when they passed a motion to “acknowledge and express appreciation to Rev. G. VanBaren for the countless hours that he has quietly devoted to the developing and maintaining of an attractive webpage….” That’s it: “quietly.” In all of his labors. And unassuming. Recognition of that character of his work popped up frequently in the comments of parishioners and consistories alike in the 50th anniversary notebook that Mrs. VanBaren graciously gave me access to for the writing of this “In Memoriam.” Pictures and letters. In one of those letters, the clerk of Hudsonville at that time wrote: “…we give thanks for your quiet, efficient leadership (emphasis added). You faithfully led us in the consistory room.” Yes, efficient too. The clerk of Loveland consistory commented on Rev. VanBaren’s “dealing with problems in meetings that [his] knowledge of Robert’s Rules helps with.” Rev. VanBaren knew and honored and insisted upon the accepted rules of parliamentary procedure. Hence the orderliness of ecclesiastical assemblies when he sat in the chairman’s seat. Which, in the case of the latter, was often. Efficient…and quiet. A commendable combination. Rev. VanBaren did not seek the driver’s seat. But, because of his recognized leadership ability, he often found himself put there. It is, maybe especially, for that kind of leadership that we as a denomination remember Rev. Gise VanBaren.
That, however, is only one aspect of Rev. VanBaren’s long and productive ministry in the PRC. What else do we know of him?
Let’s start from the beginning. Gise J. VanBaren was born on May 3, 1932 in a house on Indiana Avenue in South Holland, IL on an onion farm. He attended the local South Holland Christian School, which at that time had two rooms, for eight grades. With, appropriately, two outhouses. And an outside well for getting water. As an aside, he learned to play the accordion in grade school—an accomplishment that at least one of his future congregations came to appreciate. He played Whispering Hope at Loveland’s 40th anniversary as a church.
Young Gise, after graduating from the 8th grade as valedictorian of his class, went on to Illiana Christian High, which met, in those early days, in the Civilian Conservation Corps camps in a forest preserve. Gise was part of Illiana’s third graduating class. And again he left as valedictorian. Besides, he twice, in both his junior and senior years at Illiana, won the oratorical contest involving four Christian high schools. For a future preacher, a happy combination of intellect and voice. Which also was noted by parishioners in that anniversary book. “We will never forget your powerful low voice,” one wrote. And, another: “We’ll always remember the sound, scriptural, and powerful preaching we were so privileged to be blest with week after week.” In catechism class too: “We remember how Rev. roared in catechism when he taught the lesson on Daniel in the lion’s den.”
Having already decided to prepare for the ministry, Gise moved from South Holland to Grand Rapids in 1950 in order to attend Calvin College. Calvin’s campus then was on Franklin Street, just east of old First Church on the corner of Franklin and Fuller. Seminary classes were being held in First Church’s basement. So, whenever his schedule at Calvin would allow it, Gise walked over to the church and audited some of them. He bore down also on his studies at Calvin, and, having taken some summer classes, graduated in just three years.
That, then, was 1953, and First Church’s basement was no longer available to the PRC. So, it was off to Adams Street School, which, because of the ‘split,’ had an empty classroom. Gise studied there under the tutelage of Rev. Hoeksema, Rev. Ophoff, Rev. Vos (for Dutch), and Rev. Heys (for hermeneutics). Because of multiple vacancies in the denomination after the split of 1953, Gise found himself preaching in the churches just a few months after entering seminary.
He graduated in June of 1956. First date with Clara Buiter was on the night of his graduation. He was ordained in October of that year in Doon PRC, and the now Rev. VanBaren tied the knot with Clara a few months later, on January 25, 1957.
Subsequent pastorates were Randolph, First G.R., Hudsonville, and, last, Loveland, from which he retired in 1999. 1956–1999—a long, faithful, and fruitful ministry.
Rev. VanBaren was not one to complain, but he did have physical afflictions to deal with for much of his life. He was born with an undeveloped optical nerve. During the time he was pastor at First Church, glaucoma developed in that eye, and while he was in Hudsonville the eye was removed. And while in college, probably when he was working during the summer loading heavy bags onto railroad cars, he injured his back. He had to struggle with back pain for the rest of his life, even after back surgery while he was pastor in Hudsonville. None of all this deterred him from soldiering on.
Rev. VanBaren was a father too. Eight children in all. With a view to the writing of this “In Memoriam,” I asked his eldest son, John, how successful he thought his father had been in navigating the daunting task of being, at the same time, both a good pastor to a congregation and a good father to a busy family. In a carefully worded written response, John began with this: “I can tell you he was a dedicated man who had very little spare time.” Dedicated, that is, to his ministry. “A childhood memory is of lying in bed late at night going to sleep hearing the clackity-clack of the typewriter in his study just down the hall.”
Doon was a small congregation, where his duties included leading all the societies and catechism classes, while also preparing sermons for broadcasting on the Reformed Witness Hour and writing a teachers’ guide for the Sunday School Association. And printing the bulletin. “When Mom suggested they do something special, he often had to tell her that they couldn’t, because there was another SS commentary lesson or an assigned radio sermon to finish.” That was the kind of dedication to which John referred. “But,” he said, “Dad always took his vacation time seriously, and started planning the family vacation on January 2. It always involved camping [in a homemade camping trailer] in National Parks somewhere, lots of hiking and outdoor activity. His favorite was Colorado…. He loved the Rockies so much,” John continued, tongue-in-cheek I’m sure, “that he ended up serving there [in Loveland] for five years.” Dedicated, Rev. VanBaren was, to his work in the church and churches…and to his family.
Rev. VanBaren had a couple of hobbies too—not golf, or fishing, or hunting, but coin collecting and stamp collecting, neither of which would occupy too much of his time or take him away from home. Stamps could be picked up from the P.O. And as for coins, well, he did teach catechism every week, and he could, and did, swap his own pocket change for coins of more interest in the catechism collection plate.
Rev. VanBaren, by the way, enjoyed teaching catechism. I personally well remember seeing him at Adams School (where he taught the younger catechumens after school when he was pastor at First G.R.) trucking down the hall toward his catechism room, pushing a cart carrying an overhead projector, with homemade transparencies in hand. Not only did he roar like a lion when teaching about Daniel in the lions’ den, but he captivated the little ones with his visual aids. State of the art at the time. Today he would be making masterful use of Power Point. All to make his catechism instruction come alive. And all of which would take extra hours of preparation time. Again, this was Rev. Van Baren. Dedicated. Imaginative.
Rev. VanBaren was once asked, after his retirement, what the favorite parts of his ministry had been. His response: Preaching was usually the highlight of the week—though it often seemed that there was not enough time to prepare adequately. And this: Pastoral visits with the members of the congregation were also enjoyable—though, again, there was hardly enough time to do all of that.
A common lament of ministers, I’m sure, but this immediate reflection by Rev. VanBaren is a clear indication of where his heart was. He was a preacher with a shepherd’s heart.
That his parishioners caught that, appreciated that, and remembered that, is evident from letters in that anniversary notebook I mentioned earlier. In fact, what better way to conclude this “In Memoriam” than by letting some of them express that appreciation here. A young man in Rev. VanBaren’s second charge (Randolph) recalls vividly an unannounced and unexpected visit from his pastor. The young man had a small suitcase packed and he was sitting in the kitchen of his house with his parents just prior to his leaving for the army. “And that’s when you showed up. I never forgot that visit!” Not only that, the young man recalled also that during his time in the armed forces he would regularly receive from Rev. VanBaren a church bulletin with a personal note from his pastor on the back. “An informative letter,” he recalled years later, “that I appreciated very much.”
Then, from a former clerk of Hudsonville: “Nothing greater can be said of a pastor than that he preached the Word of God in truth on the Lord’s Day. …the members of the congregation would [long after Rev. VanBaren left for Loveland] still say at family visitation how they had looked forward to hearing the preaching each Sunday. They enjoyed how God kept you fresh in the pulpit.” And then this: “You and your family were a wonderful example of what a Christian home should be.”
From First: “You came at a crucial time in the history of our congregation…. God used you to guide us through these troublous times and to provide stability. We flourished under your ministry.”
Even from the CPRC NI: “It was you who were instrumental in starting the Covenant Reformed News…. This has proved to be a real source of blessing to many.” (That’s the fourth of the startups to be credited to Rev. VanBaren.)
On the lighter side. Yes, there was a lighter side. One that would initially catch some by surprise. A parishioner in Rev. VanBaren’s last charge noted that, when he first met Rev. VanBaren “I had the idea that he was a stern man, not much for joking or bantering.” But then one Sunday, after Rev. VanBaren had been gone for a couple of weeks, the parishioner greeted him with a “Hello, stranger.” “His reply, ‘You’re kinda strange yourself.’ I knew then….”
Rev. Eriks can testify to that sense of humor. When Garry Eriks was in his last year in seminary, he had his internship under Rev. VanBaren in Loveland. “We had some enjoyable times together,” Rev. Eriks wrote in his letter, and then added this: “Rev. VanBaren, I don’t know if you remember calling a cell phone of one of the guys I was with on a trip into the mountains on a Saturday, to try to make me believe you were sick and I needed to find a sermon for the next morning.”
Ah, yes, the “stern man” could even be a practical joker. In moderation, as it always was with Rev. Van- Baren, a sense of humor can help endear a man to a congregation. And, from all the letters in that notebook, it appears that it did.
What figured larger in those letters, however, was the preaching. I reference again the letter from a parishioner in Loveland. After making a reference to the appreciated humor, the writer wrote, “And, more importantly, we’ll always remember the sound, scriptural, and powerful preaching we were so privileged to be blessed with week after week.” And another, from the same congregation, after also reminiscing about fun times with Rev. VanBaren, wrote that they “remembered most of all the unabashed, unashamed proclamation of the gospel of Jesus Christ. ‘For I am determined not to know anything among you, save Jesus Christ, and him crucified’ (1 Cor. 2:2).”
Rev. VanBaren was able to watch live streaming of the worship services of Trinity PRC in his room in assisted living after March of 2019. On May 12, at Rev. VanBaren’s request, special effort was made for him to be able to attend the evening worship service, in order to be in church for Rev. W. Langerak’s first sermon as newly installed pastor there. “A Letter from Rev. VanBaren,” distributed later in the congregation, had this closing comment: “Streaming is a wonderful system to be used when one cannot go to church, but there is no substitute for being part of the worship in person to feel the blessings God sends in worship.”
That was Rev. VanBaren. The church was his life, to the very end. On August 31, 2019 he was carried home, where he now sees, face to face, the Savior he preached for so many years, so faithfully. We thank the Lord for Rev. Gise J. VanBaren.