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Find out more about The Refuge Church by visiting their website.
Gerry also mentions the West Michigan Environmental Action Council (WMEAC), the National Wildlife Federation’s Sacred Grounds program, LGROW (Lower Grand River Organization of Watersheds), and A Rocha.
Gerry: I feel a strong passion for what God has called me to do. I believe this is so firmly rooted in the Bible, in our Reformed theology, our Reformed understanding of scripture, of just this whole beautiful, you know, world-life view, you know, and I have to address it. I can’t step back anymore. I’m committed. I’m going to go to the end with this. And I’m just going to let the results be in God’s hand.
Debra: Welcome to Refugia, a podcast about renewal. Refugia are places of shelter where life endures in times of crisis. From out of these small sanctuaries, life re-emerges and the world is renewed. We’re exploring what it means for people of faith to be people of refugia. How can we create safe spaces of flourishing—“micro-countercultures?”—where we gain strength and spiritual capacity to face the challenges ahead? I’m Debra Rienstra, professor of English at Calvin University.
Today, I’m so pleased to share with you a conversation I had about a year ago with Reverend Gerry Koning. Gerry is a pastor in the Christian Reformed Church with long experience as a church planter and pastor of traditional congregations. However, in recent years, Gerry has felt powerfully called to lead Trinity Christian Reformed Church in Grandville, Michigan through a major transition. They are now called The Refuge, and their new mission can be summarized as “all abilities, all creation, all nations.” They focus on including people with disabilities, on healing their watershed, and on welcoming immigrants and refugees. Gerry’s church is a great example of a regular congregation working intentionally to become a church of refugia. I talk with Gerry about what led to this transition, about membership loss, getting muddy in the creek, taking bus trips to Detroit, studying cities of refuge in the Bible, and much more.
Debra: Welcome, Gerry.
Gerry: Well, thank you. I’m happy to be here with you.
Debra: So I’m so grateful for you reaching out to tell me about your church’s efforts to become a church of refugia. Even though that’s not exactly the words you were using, you came to this in your own way. So I want to ask you about that. And you wrote to me a few weeks ago to let me know that you had been listening to the podcast, and that your church, Trinity Christian Reformed Church in Grandville, Michigan was already in the process of remaking yourselves as The Refuge. So you wrote to me, “This has been a long time in the making, but we have been turning the corner from looking at ourselves in traditional-church terms to seeing ourselves as a refuge for broken people.” There’s more, but let’s start with that. What happened? What led to this change?
Gerry: Well, I think part of it is a very personal journey I’m on. We have two children with disabilities. And when we came there, they were in grade school and high school and we were thinking, you know, how can we make church something special for them? And so my wife and I began a ministry for people with disabilities, people that society would consider broken. And we needed to find a safe place for them to be—a place where, as she likes to talk about it, there is universal design in the sense that everything we do is geared not for the people that are able to do a multiple amount of things, but geared for the person that needs the most refuge, so to speak, that needs the most help in doing that. Whether it’s, you know, handicapped accessibility, non-visual people, people with hearing problems, and various things like that. So we’re very aware of that as a family.
And we said, “We think we need to do this for our congregation as well.” And even though they had a brand-new building, they didn’t have handicapped-accessible doors. So we just started with things like that. So that has been our journey there. And then we realized that there are just a lot of families that have children that are living with a disability of one type or another. And they’ve never been able to find their way into the door, either for physical accessibility or for just the welcoming nature of a church. So that when they begin—maybe their daughter will have a seizure, like ours does, and begins to make a lot of noise, and then all of a sudden it disrupts the service. And how do people respond? Or if somebody with—that’s on the autism spectrum disorder and they have an episode during a service, how do you respond? And is there a place for them to go that would be safe? So we decided we don’t have a nursery, but we have a sensory sanctuary.
Gerry: Yeah, it’s kind of cool. So we have it set up so that we have all kinds of things for people that need a different type of stimulation: weighted blankets, trampoline, big bean bag chairs, lower lights, music is muffled or is just kind of in the background, and nothing to really clash with some of the sensory issues that they deal with. So that’s how we moved in that direction with that.
And then we started inviting group homes that had people in them that were not getting out at all and they needed an outing. And these were generally group homes in which the residents no longer had family that could care for them. So they were towards the end of their life. There was no other place for them to go. They needed quite a bit of care. And so they went to a group home. And so we said, “Well, why don’t you come?” And so they would come. And all of a sudden that started changing the character of our church because in the morning when we’d start our worship service, you know, you would begin, you know, “Your help is in the name of the Lord,” you know, and those nice liturgical things. And all of a sudden, the hand would shoot up from somewhere in the audience, and somebody would say, “Pastor Gerry, it’s my birthday today!” And so interrupt the liturgy. And I said, “Great, Elaine! Why don’t you come down here and we’re going to sing Happy Birthday to you.” And so we would sing Happy Birthday to Elaine because it happened to be her birthday. So those things started changing the character of our church. It was not well accepted by everybody.
Debra: That was my next question. I was going to ask about: what was the process of the kind of education—and I’m sure there was persuasion involved—in saying: “This is a vision that’s developing, and we want to move that way.” And how did people respond?
Gerry: I think because it was working with people with disabilities, and because, you know, every Sunday there was my son with Down syndrome and my daughter in a wheelchair with a seizure disorder. I think they realized, “We want to accept them as a family.” If you accept my children, why can’t we accept the children that don’t have parents anymore? And that the reason in their homes is because either their families have given up on them or their parents have passed away. And so they have become, in a sense, wards of the state, and the state—really the only way they know how to care for them is to put them in an institution.
And even though there used to be large, you know, institutions in which we would warehouse people with disabilities of mental or physical types, now they can only have six people in one of those facilities, and so they call them group homes. And yet, in some cases, the care has really not changed all that much from when we used to warehouse people with disabilities in large mental institutions like used to be in Kalamazoo, Michigan. So we reached out to them and said, “We want to be with them because those seem to be the people that Christ would reach out to.”
Debra: And you can’t argue against that.
Gerry: There isn’t. I mean, you could argue against it, but you’re not going to sound like a Christian if you do.
Debra: Right. So how did people in the congregation deal with their own resistances and their own needs to learn, their needs to be educated to how to become a refuge for people?
Gerry: Well, at that same time, I had just finished up a ThM at Calvin Seminary in pastoral care in the whole area of disability and ministry alongside of people with disabilities. And I had just searched the scriptures and just found so much rich resources there that talk about who we are as individuals, who we are as human beings, what the image of God is in us. And so often people define that image of God by certain assets that we have, even the “true righteousness, holiness and knowledge” comes out all the time. Well, what if somebody doesn’t have any knowledge, you know? What, if somebody can—
Debra: And who has righteousness? “Not one.”
Gerry: True righteousness, holiness, and knowledge. And so, you know, that was kind of the old classic Reformed definition of the image of God. And there was, I think, a better one that a professor at Calvin seminary came up with. He talks about the image of God as being three relationships, like a cross: your relationship with God, and the relationship with mankind, and relationship with the earth. And he talks about how in Adam and Eve, those three relationships were broken: their relationship with God because they hid from him, their relationship with each other because they began blaming each other, and their relationship with the earth because their toiling was now going to be more serious labor than it was before. So if you see those relationships, everybody can be in those relationships, regardless of abilities or disabilities. Everybody is in those three relationships: with God, with our fellow man, and with this earth. And I thought: that’s a much better way to look at who we are as image bearers of God.
Debra: That’s really lovely. And I feel a little convicted by that because I just finished writing a little section in the book Refugia Faith where I focus on the image of God as moral responsibility in reaction to the traditional sorts of constituents of the image of God as something cognitive, right—I’m sure you’re convicted about as well. But that moral responsibility is a little bit truncated compared to what you’re describing. So I really love that more fully-orbed…
Gerry: Yeah. So our being renewed in the image of Christ means restoring those relationships with God, with our fellow man, and with God’s creation.
Gerry: And so it brings that full-orbed thing that I think Reformed theology should be all about: that God created us for this earth, to care for this earth and that’s a part of our relationship. And when our relationship with the earth was broken, the earth couldn’t do anything but groan and moan as it does in Romans chapter eight, waiting for the redemption of mankind because our relationship has been broken. And so that has just been kind of the theological foundation in which I have been working with people with disabilities, as well as with caring for creation.
Debra: Yeah. So somehow, it sounds like the transition into this new way of thinking about the church and your church began with a disability issue, and with the people, and then transitioned into caring for the earth. So talk about how that’s been manifested in your congregation’s life.
Gerry: Yeah. I have always been interested in that. When I first went to college, I was a biology major. I wanted to do something like that. And then I guess, you know, the Lord called me to go into work with people, first in Latin America—it’s El Salvador—and then in Boston, Massachusetts, in the inner city—planting a church in the inner city of Boston. And then because of the physical needs of our children, we moved from there back into the Midwest, where some of those physical needs—doctors, education, and those types of things—are easier met. But I was always stewing about things, you know: what could I do to be able to care for creation? And our church is located—and we have a little creek that runs through our church property which we call Kenowa Creek. It’s really officially named Huizenga Drain, but who wants to live next to a drain?
So we call it Kenowa Creek—it’s just nicer—which runs right into Rush Creek, which is only a half a block away from our church. And, you know, going through there and looking at that, I said, “Wow, this is—we need to do something here.” So I called the West Michigan Environmental Action Committee (WMEAC) and asked them if we could kind of adopt that, to care for it. And they said, “Wow, that’s great, you know, why not?”
Debra: First call they’ve had like that. Yeah.
Gerry: So they said sure. So there’s a sign there now that this creek has been adopted by Trinity Christian Reformed Church. And then somebody there said, “Well, why don’t you do a macroinvertebrate study in the creek?”
Debra: Wait a minute. Somebody said, “Why don’t you—” Who is going to say that?
Gerry: It was a young woman there that was a stream ecologist—
Debra: …at West Michigan Environmental Action Council?
Gerry: —at West Michigan Environmental Action Council, yep. And she said, “I love doing those and I’ll help teach you how to do that.” And so I said, “I’m all in,” right? “I’m all in.” I like streams, you know, I enjoy fishing and stuff like that. And so in 2008, we were there for the first time and did our first macroinvertebrate study in Rush Creek as a church.
Debra: So tell us what a macroinvertebrate is.
Gerry: Well, a macroinvertebrate is “macro”—that means it’s not micro, so it’s actually, you can see them with your eyes. And invertebrates, obviously: no backbone. And these are what they would call benthic or aquatic macroinvertebrates that live in the stream or in water. And they live mostly in the bottom of the stream, in the substrate, in the bottom. And you have to use aquatic nets or very fine nets, and you kind of kick up the gravel and the dirt in front of it and let the water flow through that into the net, and then you pull it up and you see if there’s any crawly things inside there. And you take those crawly things and you put them into just a kitchen washtub and you kind of rinse it out. And you keep doing that for a measured period of length on the stream, looking under rocks, turning over rocks and see if you find any bugs crawling over them, and then picking them off with a tweezers. Some bugs make little places that they hide in out of stones and mud and twigs and stuff. And so you open those up and you take those bugs in there. Then you go along the stream and look for leaf packs, and you pull them apart looking for bugs, or if there’s any—you know, some vegetation, and then you stick the net in there and you shake the vegetation and get them all out of their hiding places.
Debra: You’re convincing your congregation to do citizen science, it sounds like. And who’s coming along with this? Like everybody or some people who are interested?
Gerry: Initially, it was mostly some of the younger people, but the kids just love this. They just—it’s just a really, really fun thing. Kids are really turned on to bugs, what can I say?
Debra: This is the best youth group thing ever!
Gerry: Yeah. Yeah. It’s like, “Oh, we’re going to look for bugs!”
Debra: It’s genius.
Gerry: So then we pour all this stuff out onto a big white sheet, and then we start going looking through it for anything that moves, and putting them into ice cube trays, so that each little hole in the ice cube tray is a different species of bug. And then when we look at those—at first, we weren’t trained to identify them. And so the professional from WMEAC, she identified them for us. And then we’d write them down on the sheet, and we would send that to WMEAC and to the department of natural resources as well. And the interesting thing is that those macroinvertebrates, their type and their quantity determine the health of a creek.
Debra: Okay. That was my next question.
Gerry: So what we were really doing is determining how healthy is Rush Creek that runs right by our church. And we found that it wasn’t too healthy.
Gerry: There was a lot of macroinvertebrates that were high tolerant of poor water. And there were few macroinvertebrates that desired clean, fresh water—
Gerry: —colder temperatures, and, you know, less silt and things like that that comes down through. So, over a period of time, you learn, you see progress. Is our creek getting healthier? And if it isn’t, then start looking at reasons why. Or if it’s not getting healthier, then maybe we need to do some remediation along the creek someplace.
Debra: Have you done some? Has there been action related to this?
Gerry: Well, this has turned out to be a larger project because we did this continually. And then somebody said, “You should apply to the State of Michigan’s arm that governs, you know, watersheds and things like that.” So we applied for a grant to teach us how to do macroinvertebrate studies. We were not able to do it because we didn’t have the proper audits that they require for a nonprofit to be able to do that. So we had to look to somebody else. But the person that was overseeing this, interestingly, is a member of a Christian Reformed Church in Ann Arbor. Paul Steen is just a wonderful, wonderful guy. And he says, “I really want you to do it because the church has never done this before, and this would be so cool!”
So we got Jamestown Township, who at that time— the township supervisor was a professor at Calvin University, Ken Bergwerff. And he said, “We will be your fiduciary for the grant process.” And so we were able to get the grant on behalf of Jamestown Township, and Ken Bergwerff worked with us marvelously to help us do that. So we got—one year we got a grant, and the next year we got another about $14,000 grant to get more equipment and do more training. So then we put together a stream team, and we were off to trainings and conferences and things like that, so that we could do that a little bit better and begin to train other people to value our watershed and be able to monitor it as far as macroinvertebrates are concerned.
Debra: All based out of your church?
Gerry: All based out of our church. Yeah. And then Jamestown Township did what they call a SAW grant, which is sewer and water. And so what they did is the whole Rush Creek watershed. So we were partners with that, so we helped them in a variety of ways. we’re looking at things like E. coli sediment that flows in and down the stream. We were looking at flashing—when it rains a little bit, it flashes high.
And we had a unique experience—we were looking for E. coli, so we took samples from 52 different spots in the Rush Creek watershed in gallon jugs, milk jugs, and bring them to our church parking lot. And then we got dog dishes, five dog dishes, on one part of the parking lot, and then over here about 20 yards away, about another five dog dishes. And then some—if you can believe this—poo-sniffing dogs came from Lansing. Two of them. And they are able to detect E. coli by just walking by them and sniffing the water. So one dog would walk by, and if that dog happened to smell poo, that particular dog would sit down next to it, and they would mark it. And all these locations are marked and stuff, and then it would go through the others. And then they would take that dog away, and another one would come through, and if that dog smells poo, it would bark by that dog, and then they would mark that. And so any time that they got a double hit on one of these dog dishes, they would take a DNA sample of that to see where that E. coli came from—whether it was equestrian, avian, you know, a human, or what have you, so that we could identify that.
And then we did quantities at how many parts per liter of colonizing units of E. coli to just determine a variety of things. So we were just kind of riding along, giving the space, observing what’s going on, because none of us are, you know, the scientists. We were the citizen scientists coming alongside of the scientists doing this work to develop a master plan for our watershed.
Debra: I see.
Gerry: So now that we have a master plan for our watershed, we’re working on remediation issues. And part of that is trying to put rain gardens in as many places as possible.
Debra: I’m just imagining you in the library in seminary, studying your Hebrew, not having any idea that someday you would be watching dogs sniff poo in water bowls in your church parking lot.
Gerry: No. No, that wasn’t part of my plan.
Debra: Probably not a scenario that came to mind, and yet here you are.
Gerry: Not at all.
Debra: Tell us a little bit about the Sacred Grounds program. So you said your congregation has qualified as a Sacred Ground. Tell us about that.
Gerry: Yeah. The National Wildlife Federation has started this program because they want to collaborate with houses of worship around the United States because they would like to leverage a way of getting education out there and a volunteer base that is normally not used when you think of conservation agencies, watershed groups, and those types of things that are normally, you know, state agencies. And there’s always this little bit of leeriness between, say, the general public and oh, the state agencies that do this, or the state agencies that do that.
So they—I think this is a brilliant idea—is to try to work with houses of worship, congregations. And so they do, and it’s whether it’s a temple, or whether it’s a mosque, or whatever, a Christian church, that’s fine. They work with them. And say, you know, “If you would like to become a Sacred Grounds congregation then we will ask you to do certain things on your grounds. Find space for pollinators. Find space, nesting space, for birds. Limit the amount of, say, chemicals that you’re using on any turf grass. So we thought this was done through LGROW—that’s a Lower Grand River Organization of Watersheds. And so we thought: let’s apply. And you actually can apply online at the National Wildlife Federation’s website if you would like to enroll your church in this program. And they’ll usually send out local people to do that.
So we did that. Then we hosted a rain garden workshop at our church. And one of the regional directors from the National Wildlife Federation came and talked about it—the program. A variety of people from our community were there. We had about 40 participants, and then LGROW put on a seminar on how to put rain gardens in your place of either worship or in your home. And we just went from there. And it was soon after that then, after helping them out, seeing what we were doing on our grounds, that they said, “Yeah, here’s your designation as a sacred grounds congregation.”
Debra: How much acreage do you have for your church?
Gerry: We have about six and a half acres. It’s a pretty good size, and the stream runs through it. We have a little bit of woods, which right now we’re transitioning into outdoor classrooms. And we have probably too much parking lot, like a lot of churches. But we put a large rain garden on the edge of one parking lot where it all drains into there. So it takes like 5,000 gallons out of the stream. So every time it rains, it all goes into there first and it’s all native species there. It holds, like I said, 5,000 gallons. It percolates out of there and it’s one of the things we’ve done. We’ve stopped mowing certain sections of our yard; we just leave it to grow natural flowers. We stopped using chemical fertilizers on our yards and pesticides.
Debra: Yeah, so there’s benefits—cost benefits too, I would imagine. I mean, you do put money into it though…
Gerry: But yeah, it’s the number of, say, butterflies or pollinators, bees, that we see around our place is just amazing. And then we have—to kind of emphasize that, we built a little deck that’s right on the edge of the creek. And I think because it was always treated as a drain, you know, drains are just something that you just throw things in and let things wash around, wash downstream, and then it becomes the people downstream’s problem.
Gerry: And so we washed down sediment. We washed down E. coli. We would wash down garbage. All our styrofoam goes down. Our plastic goes down. And then we think, “It’s not our problem, you know? Now it’s the next people down the street—it’s Grand Valley’s problem.” And then it’s all our problem. You know, we have to learn not to keep flushing things downstream and think we’re tidying up our place when we’re just destroying people downstream.
Debra: It’s a way of loving your neighbor. We talk about loving your downstream neighbor, and that’s very literal as well as a great metaphor.
So you said in your note that your congregation has been studying scripture to prepare for this transition, and you said you were looking at the cities of refuge in the Old Testament, as well as the Psalms. So let’s start with the cities of refuge. What was that study process like? And what did you discover?
Gerry: Well, because of COVID, and because, you know, a lot of churches are struggling with membership and things like that, and we were—perhaps because of some of these things, although people don’t like to say, you know, “You have too many people with disabilities, therefore I don’t feel comfortable here anymore. So I’m going to look for another place.” But it also has to do with, you know, liturgy, music, and all of those things. And just, you know, we thought maybe what we need is to re-identify who we are, who we are becoming. And we looked at a variety of possible names that we could call ourselves. And one that kept coming up over and over and over again was ‘the refuge.’ And so I said, “Let’s spend some time as a church and look at: what does this whole concept of refuge mean in scripture?”
And so one of the first places you encounter it in the Old Testament are the cities of refuge. And I had never really done much study or preaching on the cities of refuge. I mean, after all, it seems like some primitive thing, you know? You accidentally kill your neighbor and so they’ve got their spear and they’re running after you. And so you run off and you find the city of refuge and you just hide there for a while. And, you know, I didn’t really see the amount of really biblical justice that was behind that, how important it was for these cities to be accessible for everybody.
And so they were strategically placed throughout Israel. They were always placed up on a hill. My understanding is that their doors always had to be open. They always had to have a room ready and supplied for somebody that would come for refuge. They were never able to ask questions—“Did you do it or not?”—until you had a thorough investigation of all of the things that surrounded the thing that happened to them that brought them there in the first place. I even read someplace that the priests of the city were supposed to make sure that the road was cleared of obstacles so that there were no obstacles for the people seeking refuge to getting into the city of refuge. And so I’m thinking, “Whoa.”
Gerry: That’s the church. That’s the church. There are so many people today that are looking for a place of refuge. They can’t find refuge—maybe in their families. They can’t find refuge because they’re struggling with their own personal identity. They’re struggling with a sin in their life that just seems to ostracize them from so many different places in the world. They’re struggling with a disability. They’re struggling with loneliness or they’re struggling with depression and just looking for a place that—they go there, and the first thing is not, “Should you be here? What do you look like? You know, have you taken a shower? Are you homeless? Are you addicted to something?” No. The first thing is, “Oh, we have a room over here. We have a whole house over here that is furnished. You got clothing here. You got bedding here. You got food here, and whatever you need, we’re going to supply it for you.” And so I’m thinking, “No, that’s beautiful.”
Debra: That radical hospitality.
Gerry: Yes. Yeah. And that’s what we wanted. That’s what we saw. This was just so beautiful. So we said, “Yes, that was good.” That was another confirming thing. We said, “Yes, all right.” And then you start looking at some of the Psalms, you know: “The Lord is my refuge and my strength, an ever-present help in trouble.” God is our refuge for those who seek him, and in so many ways, he’s the strong rock. He’s the fortress. He’s the one that’s going to take care of you, regardless of the reasons you need refuge, regardless of the way that you have messed up your life, you know, regardless of all of those things, he just wants to be the one that, you know, gathers the chicks under his wings.
And he’s the one that wants to provide a place for you, from your enemies. And, you know, sometimes those enemies can be people—the closest people to you. And sometimes they can be right in the church, you know, because we’re so good at shooting our wounded. And we just have to be able to find a place where we have this unconditional love. And so we will just accept you, and then we’ll say, “What can we do for you? How can we help you?”
And we saw that’s a God who just—arms wide open, you know? The gates of the city wide open. It was just such an image of also, you know, the new heavens and the new earth, when the New Jerusalem, you know—one of the characteristics of the New Jerusalem in Revelation is that the gates are never shut. You know, they got these big, beautiful gates. But they’re never closed, so that the people from all the nations can come in and we can celebrate the splendor of all nations.
And so now in the last two years, when we’ve been struggling with this whole idea of racial identity and those types of things. And the whole question is—the conversation is completely askew. We just have to open our arms, you know? He didn’t put any stipulations except to say the fact that: “We’re just going to rejoice in your particular cultural expression of your racial identity. And so we want you to come and to be the blessing that, you know, God had created you to be.” And so that has kind of couched our conversation about race and identity in this whole thing.
Debra: Yeah. So you have three things going on that you—it’s actually depicted this way on your website: “All abilities, all creation, and all nations.” So three different concerns. So race/ethnicity, environmentalism is one way to put that maybe, and then disability/inclusion. So talk about that transition process for your congregation a little more. What has been really joyful about it and what has been really challenging about it?
Gerry: I’ll start with a negative first. The challenge has been to try to change culture in the people, because—and I don’t know if it’s just because we’re Dutch or Western Michigan or what—but we look at new things with a certain amount of suspicion. And I don’t always know that—you know, as much as I enjoy preaching, and I think preaching is an essential part of what the church does, I sometimes question its impact.
Debra: Ha! Many, many pastors are questioning their impact lately.
Gerry: So, you know, I say, “How do we do that?” And so part of the whole process has been engaging, engaging, engaging, and reflecting and reflecting on that. So trying to get as many people into the stream, get the waders on, get working with people with disabilities, engaging people of other ethnic backgrounds.
For a long time, we had a partnership with an African-American church in Rosedale Park in Detroit, and Pastor Haymond would come and preach at our church, and I would go there and preach at their church. And then we did things—work projects together. We went on a mission trip to Haiti together. And we wanted to have a relationship in which we weren’t seen as, “Oh, there’s a lot of needs in Detroit, and so let’s go over to Detroit and help them.”
They said, “No, no, no, no, no. That’s not it at all. There’s a lot of assets in Detroit, and we want them to come here and teach us. We want them to teach us.” And they did. They taught us, you know, perseverance, faithfulness in difficult times. They taught us all kinds of beautiful things that we weren’t aware of. We would gather around the table with a group from Rosedale and a group from Trinity, and we’d sit, we’d have lunch together after a church service here. And Pastor Haymond and I would lead a discussion about racial issues.
And so one of the questions that Pastor Haymond always liked to like: “Okay, you who are White here—what do you like about being White? And you who are Black here—what do you like about being Black?” And, you know, the people that were Black generally would say—and I want to be very cautious about generalizing and things like that—but generally what happened was: “You know, I like being Black because when you see another Black person on the street, you know, you’re all of a sudden—you’ve got a bond. You don’t fight. There’s a bro over there.” That’s somebody, you know? And there’s some identities, and they would say, “Oh, I like that I don’t have to go to the tanning booth.” Or, “I got my hair. I love this.”
And you know, there’s a love of culture, and I love those things. And the people that were White were just looking there at the ceiling and counting the ceiling tiles and saying, “What do I like about being White? I don’t know.” And then some of the younger people there began to come up with, “Well, I like going into Walmart and not have a clerk follow me around the store.” And then pretty soon it started clicking.
Debra: They suddenly realized they had a White identity that they hadn’t been conscious of.
Gerry: Exactly. Yeah. And so those are some of the things that we didn’t know. That didn’t always sit so good with some people. Especially in this past year of Black Lives Matter and things like that. That didn’t sit well. But what do you do?
Debra: Have you lost people?
Gerry: Yes. We’ve lost a lot of people. We’re a lot smaller than we used to be. But that’s okay. It’s been a struggle, but I have been working at not valuing myself by the size of the group of people I’m preaching to on Sunday mornings.
Gerry: I can tell you, that’s not an easy thing. To go through that and say, “Man, what did I do here?” Because when I was a church-planter in El Salvador, I mean the church grew. We had all kinds of baptisms. The same thing in Boston, and the same thing in a small little church in a more rural area, and the church grew. And then I go to a more suburban place, you know, and I’m thinking, “Whoa. I must have really lost it here. You know, what’s going on here?”
But I said, you know, “I feel a strong passion for what God has called me to do.” I believe this is so firmly rooted in the Bible, in our Reformed theology, our Reformed understanding of scripture, of just this whole beautiful, you know, world-life view, you know, and I have to address it. I can’t step back anymore. I’m committed. I’m going to go to the end with this. And I’m just going to let the results be in God’s hand.
So that has been a struggle. We have a beautiful, beautiful facility, you know. And like so many, you know, Christian Reformed and other churches, we all have this, you know—that builder generation has been so good at leaving a legacy. And a lot of times that legacy is in buildings and projects, and they did that at Trinity in spades. I mean, it’s beautiful.
But some of the generations that are coming up are probably not as interested in paying our lights and, you know, the heating bills and the cleaning and stuff that has to go on. And so when we began to get smaller, we said, “How can we use this beautiful asset now?” So we actually have three schools that meet in our facility. We have two other churches that meet in our facility. We rent it out for counseling services. We rented out for Bible studies. There’s a group that does music lessons there. There’s a group of people that struggle with sexual addiction that meet there. And so we’re just turning it into a ministry center.
So that becomes a service to Christ’s kingdom. It helps us maintain the facility, but it’s way different, you know? But it’s—we want to be able to use all of our assets that God has generously given us in a way that will just continue to bring in his kingdom. And we think we’re doing it in a way that allows us to continue to be a smaller congregation and doing some significant things. We’re planting a church for East African refugees. and so we’ve reached out to East African refugees in the Grand Rapids area, churches located in Wyoming. We’ve reached a lot of Muslims. And our church planting pastor, under unfortunate circumstances, passed away this past year, but God immediately provided us with a young man originally from Kenya, graduated Calvin Seminary, and we’re in the process of calling him to continue the ministry to a group of refugees and immigrants. And so we try to provide computer lessons. We try to provide English for them, times when we can get clothes or things, backpacks for their kids so they can go to school.
Debra: Sounds like you may have lost members of your congregation, but the people who remain are much more engaged and passionate.
Gerry: We do have a group of people, and that’s the group that has joined us, you know, so we’ve seen some people join us. And so we asked, you know, people in their thirties—millennials, okay—“Why’d you want to become a part of our church?”
“Well, we feel that dealing with people with disabilities and working with creation or the environment is very, very important to us. Those are values that we have, and we want to be discipled in those values as we get discipled in Jesus Christ.”
Debra: So how has this process changed your outlook on the next decades of church life? How do you look at the future of your church differently now?
Gerry: You know, I like the word sustainability. And I think that we’re a more sustainable group of people. We’re a smaller group of people, but I think a more sustainable group of people. And we’re positioning ourselves for the next 10, 20, 30, 40 years. As I listen to young people talk about what they value, what they would like to do, they often talk—“If you’re not going to look after the poor, if you’re not going to look after the refugee, if you’re not going to say something that has to condemn racism that we see so rampant in our society, if you’re not going to say something about caring for our environment, I don’t want to be a part of an institution like that.”
And so I think there is a real need for younger people to get excited about the church again. And I think this is a biblical way. This is in no way watering down the gospel. This is, as a matter of fact, letting the gospel flourish and flower in a way in which I think will grab the attention of people that have been kind of bored with the church, or kind of turned off to the church, or even hurt by the church, and to be able to say, “No, this is what I’ve been looking for.”
This is the hints that I’ve been getting from the younger people that I’ve talked to—the younger couples, the kids that are raising their children. And they want their children to have a real respect for this earth. And so they want to, you know, we want to talk about what’s so terrible about disposable plastics or single-use plastics. And yeah, they want to deal with those things. So is it really important to have these beautiful, manicured, toxic green lawn, you know? Are those the values that we want to instill in our children? Or do we want to do something that is much more sustainable?
Debra: Okay. That was a conversation that I had with Reverend Gerry Koning almost a year ago, last fall. And I wanted to share it with you because I thought it was so rich and so useful, but I also thought it would be interesting to see how things have gone in the last year. So I gave Gerry a call, and here’s what happened.
Hey, Gerry, how are you?
Gerry: I’m doing well.
Debra: Thanks for taking a minute today. You know, last time we talked was about a year ago, so I thought listeners might be curious, along with me, about how things are going at The Refuge these days. So what’s new?
Gerry: Well, we’ve had a very exciting year. We have really embraced the whole idea of being The Refuge, and we are just opening up our arms to our community and to refugees in the West Michigan area and ministering to them, as well as to the environment around us.
We’ve had some exciting things happen with the refugee church, or the church called Strong Tower. We just recently celebrated 14 baptisms of people who have recently come here seeking refuge from some difficult situations in Africa after having been in refugee camps for, in many cases, tens of years. And they are now here trying to establish a new home, and we are able—along with Pastor Bryson, who is my colleague, to minister in that way. And we’ve seen just some wonderful things happening there, and people finding a home, and finding a new start, finding a place where they can put down roots and to begin to grow and have a new life. And that has been really pretty exciting.
We have also had the opportunity to minister to some homeless people in our community. We, you know, presently actually have somebody living in his van in our parking lot. He had been kicked out of so many different places and needed a place to go. And so we said, “Here, we’ll give you some electricity so you can run a heater in the wintertime.” During January when it was 10 degrees and 15 degrees, he was freezing, so we wanted to provide that, and he is now working and hopefully be able to have a, you know, a better opportunity for his life in the future as well.
So that’s been exciting. We just had our first creation care summer. We are using material from A Rocha organization, which in the United States is based out of Wheaton, Illinois, and they have written some outdoor studies curriculum, and we took their first year and used that. We had almost 40 young people—young people or children: kindergarten through fifth grade. And we spent a week with them outside, in the woods here, in the creek here, doing different things about studying the beauty of God’s creation and relating that to how we can better care for that, and how we look to Christ who as our Redeemer, not only of our souls, but also of all of creation. And so we had just a wonderful week with that too. So we’ve had some really fun things going on.
Debra: Great. What’s coming up this fall?
Gerry: We will begin doing all of our children’s education outside. We have established an outdoor classroom. It’s got outdoor structures and play things. It even has a zip line. We’ve just recently finished a suspension bridge that goes across the creek to get to what we call our “creation station.” And there we can study, again, things about God’s creation, how beautiful it is, how God’s creation is like a tapestry, so beautifully woven together. And we are part of that tapestry—we’re part of those threads. And we’re woven right in with creation so that we might care for it and care for the things around us, care for the people around us, care for God’s creation around us.
So we care for the birds, and we care for the macroinvertebrates, and we care for the mammals that live along our creek and the insects that live there. We’re just trying to teach that. And to people, young people, some of whom aren’t really affiliated with an organization like a church, they’re not part of a house of faith yet—they find this something that we all have in common. We’re all threads in this beautiful creation, this beautiful environment. And we need to be woven together to produce the beautiful tapestry that God would have us be that gives him the most glory and the honor.
Debra: Amazing. I love how literal “refugia” is in your church. Literally refugees. Literally a refugia for the creatures in your watershed there. Literally these kind of permeable membranes that we’ve been thinking about and talking about, where people are members of your church, but then a lot of other people aren’t necessarily members, but they’re still entering into this refugia space. It really is just wonderful.
So if listeners are jealous and want to learn more about what you’re doing or imitate some of the things you’re doing, how can they find out more?
Gerry: Well, they certainly can go to our website where this information is given. And that website is refuge-church.com, and there they can find contact information for us and see some videos about what we’re doing and even opportunities to engage. Again, this fall we will have a macroinvertebrate survey. The West Michigan—well it’s LGROW, the Lower Grand River Organization of Watersheds—is having their annual jamboree here at The Refuge Church. So we’ll have people, live music, people from all over western Michigan that have a concern for our watersheds coming and celebrating the things that are going on in the various watersheds in the Lower Grand River. So that will be a fun event that we’ll be having here.
So we do seriously like to connect with people that aren’t necessarily affiliated with a church, because we have, when it comes to providing refuge or refugia, we’re all in this together, believe me. And we really need to work together. It’s kind of an all-hands-on-deck thing, because of the importance and the seriousness of what we’re.
Debra: Fantastic. Well, Reverend Gerry Koning, thank you for spending some time with me last fall and again today. I’m grateful for the transformational work you’re doing and for the way your church is seeking new models of church life and striving to be a refugia church. Thank you.
Gerry: Well, thank you very much. It’s a joy doing it.
Debra: The Refugia Podcast is produced with support from the Calvin Center for Christian Scholarship. Our audio editors are Ian Gilbert and Kathryn Gardner. Our text editor is Michal Rubingh. If you enjoyed this episode, please help other listeners discover us. Write a review on your podcast platform or share this episode through social media.
You can find us on Facebook and Twitter @RefugiaPodcast. You can also visit our website at refugiapodcast.com where you can explore links and transcripts from this and all our episodes. You can find me on Facebook and Twitter at Debra K. Rienstra. That’s D E B R A K. R I E N S T R A. As always, thanks for listening.