Distinguished Alumni of the Year

Earlier this spring, Mike VanDenend from Calvin College called me in the middle of a busy morning. I have never really spoken to him on the phone before, and I was uncertain about the direction in which he was going. At one point I thought that he was going to ask me to be on the Calvin College Alumni Board, but all of a sudden, he took a turn and said, “We are awarding you the Distinguished Alumni of the Year Award.” My heart soared. I was completely taken by surprise and flabbergasted. For twenty seconds, I was very excited, and then Mike VanDenend said, “Now let me tell you what this means. This means on graduation weekend, on Thursday, you will be speaking for four minutes to the entire faculty. Then on Friday, at a luncheon for winners of the Distinguished Alumni Award, Foundation Board Members, and Calvin Board of Trustees, you will be giving a twenty minute talk about your story, and then on graduation day, you will be talking to the entire graduating class at the Calvin graduation. It will be a four minute talk about whatever you would like to say to address the graduates.” I must say, my excitement began to wane dramatically. It went from joy to nervous tension in all of ten seconds.

Now looking back, speaking at all three of the events was a great privilege and a wonderful honor to be able to speak to the faculty and boards of an institution that has had such a dramatic impact on my life and consequently on the formation of The Potter’s House School as well. I’d like to share with you one of the addresses that I gave. This is the graduation address to the Calvin College graduates:

When I entered Calvin College in 1970, I wanted three things: to be well thought of, to enter a prestigious profession, and to make a lot of money—in other words, the basic American dream. Unfortunately, my plans were completely ruined by my experience at Calvin.

First, I met students who engaged me to think. Students like Carl Kromminga and Sam Wanner who challenged my complacency with questions like: “If you are a Christian, why aren’t you concerned about civil rights? Why aren’t you concerned about the poor?” I didn’t have answers to those questions. This left me intellectually engaged but sorely troubled. 

 By my sophomore year, I was questioning my whole faith. I knew that people had always thought of me as a good Christian, the boy who liked to please, but deep down I knew that my goals were empty—money, success, a respected job. It seemed that if this Jesus story was true, it would demand more of my life than I was giving it. If it wasn’t, then I might as well admit it and live as if it weren’t.

If this story were true, it wouldn’t just demand a little more of your life . . .  but it would be the kind of story that you would give your whole life to.

God hounded me throughout the first half of my sophomore year, and this culminated in a rather dramatic experience. In November, I went to a prayer meeting where I said, “Okay God, I’ll give you my life, just do whatever you want with it.”

That was a pivotal moment in my life. Everything changed after that. My guidance counselor, Gertrude VanderArk, confronted me with these inspiring words, “You want to be a elementary school teacher.” It was a startling comment since I had never once considered it, but I knew she was exactly right and that it was what I was supposed to be. This profession ended up bringing me more joy than I ever could have imagined.

God also called me to share my life with like-minded people who were Calvin students. We began to live our lives like the second chapter of Acts, sharing all of our resources, and offering our lives up to God saying, “Please use us as a group. Show us where we can move to and make a difference.” We didn’t know where in the country that would be, but it turned out to be just a few blocks away from where we lived on the southwest side of Grand Rapids.

As we were listening to our neighbors and building relationships, God gave us 150 kids to work with each week. After six years of working with these kids with very little to show for it, the pastor of our neighborhood Christian Reformed Church said, “I think it is God’s timing for you to start a school.” This school became The Potter’s House, a school that offers a Christ-centered education to families who would never be able to afford it. We started with twelve students and two teachers who had quit their jobs to teach for free. Three Calvin professors, Bette Bosma, Katherine Blok, and Jim Kuipers, lent their support as advisers for our crazy idea. Today we have 550 students, a staff of 70, and each year we raise 2.7 million dollars in scholarships.

When I said as a sophomore, “God, do whatever you want with my life,” I actually thought that I was throwing my life away. But God did so much more than anything I could have accomplished on my own. God’s plans were so much bigger than mine. The joy that has flowed into my life is so much greater than I could have imagined.

And so I ask you the same question that I asked myself, “If this story of Jesus is true, is it the kind of story that you give your whole life to?”

One comment on “Distinguished Alumni of the Year

  1. Tim Swiney says:

    Thanks for sharing, we are so blessed to have you leading our school.

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