Pastor Van

Jonathan VanAntwerpen
4 min readApr 11, 2023
Jonathan VanAntwerpen and Berton VanAntwerpen — Photo by Lisa Whiteman
Jonathan VanAntwerpen and Berton VanAntwerpen | Photo: Lisa Whiteman

Pastor Van.

That was how I first came to know him.

Pastor Van had a big beard, a big smile, a big laugh, a big voice.

And, we would learn, a big heart.

He liked to ski (thank you for that gift, Dad).

He built an ice skating rink in our backyard.

He taught me how to ride a bike.

And once, he drove right over me with our Oldsmobile station wagon.

I was alright, as it turned out. And years later we made a joke of it.

He loved to joke. With a twinkle in his eye.

At first, like many of you, we called him Pastor Van.

Then soon, and for all the years that followed, we called him Dad. And later, as Isabelle said, Papa Bert.

We loved our Papa Bert. Right, Ada and Georgia?

And so today we remember Pastor Van, our Dad, our dear Papa Bert, Grandpa Van, father and grandfather, brother and uncle, friend and mentor.

And we mourn his loss. We mourn our loss.

Not long ago, someone very dear to me said of Pastor Van:

“He was one of few people in this world who really saw me, and he made me feel special.”

That was his gift. He was our gift. We will miss him.

We will miss him. And it makes sense that we would grieve. It’s okay to cry today.

As Daniel Tiger tells my girls, it’s okay to feel sad sometimes.

So we remember and we mourn. And we also celebrate the blessed life and beautiful legacies of this remarkable man.

Pastor Van was a preacher. A Minister of the Word.

Somewhere there are recordings of sermons delivered in Cadillac and Princeton, South Windsor and Napa. And probably elsewhere too.

My brother Mike and I have heard hundreds of those sermons — second only, I believe, to our mother Marie, who by my counting has listened to nearly five thousand of them. Some of them, as Mom noted, several times over!

I wouldn’t say that Bert recycled his sermons over time, but that he reimagined them for a new moment and a new congregation.

And he and Marie served many. So he went back to the well. And it was deep.

You see, Pastor Van had a message to deliver. And he knew what it was. So he didn’t mind repeating a few stories along the way, if that helped bring his message across.

In fact, it was the retelling of the stories that kept them with us, that made the stories part of us.

“Do you hear what I hear?” he would ask us. “Do you see what I see?”

Come, see with new eyes. Hear with new ears.

Just as it was the retelling of stories that kept them with us, it was the repetition of the songs we shared that kept the music in our hearts.

Praise God, From Whom All Blessings Flow.

Yes, Pastor Van had stories to tell. He had a message to deliver.

So, what was that message?

Well, you tell me. You listened in on some of those stories too.

And Pastor Van was a gifted storyteller, wasn’t he?

Yes, Pastor Van was a preacher.

And he was: a gong show host — or, more to his liking, a gong show participant, dressed up in silly costumes and making people laugh. He loved to make you laugh.

Born in Grand Rapids, he grew up on the city’s west side. Little did he know — this 7th son of Dutch immigrants — that his work, and his second wife Marie, would take him across the country and around the world.

Ordained in 1962, he made his start in the Midwest, in Renville, Minnesota. Then it was on to Sheldon, Iowa; Hudsonville; and Cadillac, which would turn out to be a longtime home, with many other adventures and opportunities for ministry along the way.

In the dead of Michigan’s winters and later in the northeast, Pastor Van convinced groups of young people to paint the sides of old porcelain bathtubs, strap skis to their bottoms, and push them across the frozen lakes — racing one another for the trophies he would award at the end.

In the summers, he led hymn sings around the campfire in Mitchell State Park, took young people hiking in the Upper Peninsula, and later guided groups of them up to the peak of Mt. Washington in New Hampshire.

Young people gravitated toward Pastor Van. Why was that?

I think part of it might have been his grinning irreverence. His sly and gentle subversions of the normal way of doing things. He didn’t stand on ceremony.

But it was also his genuine interest in you. His willingness to listen. His kindness.

As the years went by, he deepened in wisdom, and his kindness only flowered further.

Bert seemed to sense that it wasn’t just young people, but each and every one of us that might be struggling with something.

“What hard battle are you fighting?” he wanted to know.

How can I be of comfort?

Pastor Van was a comforter. A man of conviction. A man of compassion. A wounded healer.

Through a wedding bond born of old wounds and in the midst of fresh world-altering grief, it has been a blessing and an honor to share life with this man for almost 50 years.

To share a family, to be family — to become a new family — because of his presence in our lives.

We are grateful for Bert’s life and ministry and love.

We are grateful to have shared that life and ministry and love with those gathered here and joining us from afar today.

We loved him. You loved him.

And he loved us all, I can say with great assurance.

So in his memory and by his example, let us love one another with renewed commitment and compassion.

JVA 04/08/2023

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Jonathan VanAntwerpen

Jonathan VanAntwerpen is a program director at the Henry Luce Foundation. Originally trained as a philosopher, he holds a Ph.D. in sociology from UC-Berkeley.