Mark Vander Vennen’s remarks, “For Gerald”

Wynne, Jan and Paul, Karen and Steve, Gerald and Wynne’s grandchildren, extended family and friends:

Gerald asked me to share a few memories and reflections at this event, and I am honoured to do so.

My friendship with Gerald began in 1981 in Pittsburgh, where I was living at the time, when Gerald left the huge Jubilee conference at the Hilton Hotel and eagerly marched with a few of us from Christian Peacemakers in a protest against the reinstitution of the U.S. military draft. The fact that he did this as an expression of his reformational faith was a revelation to me. I had been moving towards the view that a Reformed or reformational view was incapable of engaging the most central issue of the day—militarism, war and peace—and so what good could it be? I have no doubt that my life would have taken a much different path had it not been for that event, that gesture by Gerald. But I know that Gerald had that impact on many people who felt on the margins, questioning their particular expression of faith.

Gerald then quickly put me in touch with Bob Goudzwaard, his close friend, which, for me, led to a hugely influential friendship and partnership with Bob.

Bob Goudzwaard deeply regrets that he cannot be here today to pay tribute to Gerald, whom he describes as his best friend. If I may, I’d like to read a couple of lines that Bob sent to me from Holland to share with all of you today. Bob writes, and I quote:

Mourning a friend is hard, especially when the friendship is so genuine. Gerald was a faithful companion for 50 years. Yet I am also filled with a deep sense of gratitude. Somewhere the Apostle Paul writes that we must be legible letters of our Lord Jesus Christ. Gerald was exactly that for me: transparent about Jesus, his Lord and Saviour. He was a determined worker who was never about “just us,” and who, with many others, tirelessly devoted himself to the poor, the needy, and the outcast from around the world. Clear, intelligible, transparent—you saw something of the Spirit of Jesus himself active in Gerald. And so: thanks be to God for this precious life and this unforgettable friend.”

That’s from Gerald’s dear friend Bob Goudzwaard.

Gerald was such a mentor and close friend of mine for 30 years. For the past 25 years, we spoke at least once a week, often more if we were working on one of our countless projects together. We constantly talked about dynamics and trends in communities—immigrant communities, church communities, multifaith communities, governments, systems, society itself. He was a guide for me in these things.  But we also shared deep things about our own lives and our families, our deepest uncertainties, our vulnerabilities, our clearest hopes. It was a deeply mutual friendship, and we were good for each other.  We loved each other.

What came through first and foremost in our conversations was his devotion to his family. His family came first. Most every conversation would end with “say hi to Alice; say hi to Wynne.” About 24 years ago I happened to mention that our oldest daughter was teething and keeping us awake at night. Gerald said, “oh, I have just the solution for that. Whisky. Give her a tablespoon and drink the rest of the bottle yourself.  It works every time!”

I know that what I’m about to say will not be new to you as family members. He spoke to me regularly, Jan and Karen, about his deep love and pride for you. He always looked forward to and loved his visits with you. He spoke about how impressed he was with you Jonathan and his love for you, how helpful you were to him in editing and distributing and in many things. Kristen, he loved your travels to Europe and followed closely your move to the east coast for your schooling. Jason, your trip to Europe together was such a triumph for him. It was one of the happiest moments of his life. Jessica, he was in awe of your novel writing and your perspectives and your energy for life, and Alicia, he loved his walks with you and loved to take in how you perceive and engage the world. Of course, nothing matched the joy of his new great-grandchild from Jonathan and Christian. And no one was more precious to him than his life-partner, Wynne.

We all know that Gerald was a walking medical miracle, and that he had near death experiences for at least 15 years. I used to tell him that he was held together by duct tape and bailer twine. One of his medical issues was that he had an enlarged heart. I always felt that was a perfect metaphor for Gerald.  But even with all that his death still came as a kind of a shock. It feels like a hard mercy, in that he was spared some real potential suffering. He fought against his diminishing capacities. But remarkably, it seems there was also a sense, in his last few days, of true peace, of deeper peace, of being able to let go.

Gerald was a tireless advocate, all his life, for people who are on the margins, for justice and dignity for all. Throughout the 1980s, 1990s, 2000s, even right to his death he regularly had the ear of cabinet ministers, politicians, civil servants and decision-makers from all political parties. He was a vigorous opponent of the marginalization of faith from the public square. He was driven by a deep spirituality, a living faith in Jesus that was nurtured by prayer and his love of Scripture. He was never ashamed of the Gospel. He held the view that all ultimate convictions need to be on the table if we are to move forward.  He was a pioneer in the area of multifaith approaches to matters of justice.

Gerald was a bridge builder. He always spoke from a position of hope, joy and laughter; cynicism was not in his vocabulary. His motto was “affirm where you can, amend where you must, and oppose if necessary.” He said we are not against things, we are for things. He constantly stressed that none of us knows all of the answers; we all need to listen and learn from each other, himself included. He was a consummate strategist; he could think on his feet and talk off the cuff like no one I have ever met.

Gerald came from a tradition of Christian social democracy in the Netherlands. But what was unique about Gerald was that he did not seek to transplant an intellectual or social construct to his new country.  Instead, he continually crafted a made-in-Canada solution or approach. It was not a translation.  Sometimes that would get him into trouble with his own constituency. The mystery is that it was fed and sourced by engagement here with people from all stripes and all walks of life, from the most marginalized to the most powerful. As a home-grown Canadian perspective, his induction into the Order of Canada was thus no accident. And that ties into his view that the Holy Spirit is active everywhere, including in all of those engagements—who are we to limit the work and activity of the Spirit of God?  He had a broad, wide, constantly opening vision of the kingdom of God. Yet in this he always also remained true to his earliest inspirations. In fact, the last conversation we had was about his Dutch mentors, people like Zuidema, Van Riessen, Kuyper and others.

All of this is part of his remarkable legacy. And I feel like one of the most blessed people in the world.

12 or 13 years ago, at a public event honouring Gerald, I said that I had developed a pet theory as to why God graciously allowed Gerald to keep living and carrying on his work. I said that I think it’s because God knows who he would be getting. “How long, O Sovereign Lord, before you avenge the blood of everyone who has experienced injustice!?” That’s from Revelation Chapter 6. My theory was that God had to get himself ready for Gerald’s advocacy. Gerald got a big kick out of that. Now, Gerald has a new kind of access to the throne room of the earth, to the Parliament Hill of our world, if you will. He has a new avenue for advocacy; you can bet he is using it to the full, and he has a listening ear. And he is safely in the arms of his loving Saviour, Jesus.

Gerald, you have run the good race. It’s time for another generation to step up. Goodbye my friend; all my love.

Guest Author

Add new comment