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Reformed Church Clashes With S. African Cousin on Apartheid

Times Staff Writer

For a relatively small denomination, the Reformed Church in America has a long history and its own foreign policy.

The 350,000-member, 954-congregation denomination ended its annual synod Friday in Garden Grove, a meeting that was dominated by a dispute over the future of South Africa.

In light of its shared roots and longstanding adversarial relationship with the all-white Dutch Reformed Church of South Africa, controversy over a keynote address by a representative of a militant, multiracial group opposed to the white-minority regime in Pretoria was not altogether surprising.

The Rev. Kenneth Leestma, outgoing president of the denomination, said the invitation to Alfred Nzo, general secretary of the African National Congress, was part of the denomination’s “continuing and escalating opposition to the South African government’s brutal and heretical system called ‘apartheid.’ ”

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20-Year Opposition

Leestma, pastor of the New Life Community church in Artesia, sketched the background for the invitation:

“It was almost 20 years ago that the synod expressed its formal opposition (to apartheid) in a communique to the Dutch Reformed Church. For too long, perhaps, our church felt that our task was to somehow convince the white Dutch Reformed Christians in South Africa that they were wrong in their support for an unjust system.”

The denomination, he noted, seemed uniquely able to influence the South African church because “we were their Dutch Reformed cousins in the United States.”

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Such efforts included statements opposing apartheid, divestiture of holdings in corporations doing business in South Africa and hosting anti-apartheid religious leaders at church assemblies, he said. “Today, we take another step. . . . We open our doors and our minds and our hearts to hear the message of the banned political opponents of apartheid.”

Significance Noted

Nzo acknowledged the significance of the occasion. The invitation to speak was seen by ANC leaders “as an important development in the efforts of our movement to expand the platform of solidarity with the struggle of our people.”

The Reformed Church in America, heir to a Calvinist tradition that followed early Dutch migrations to the American colonies, established its first congregation on Manhattan Island in 1628. Well-known members included Henry Hudson, Peter Minuet, and Presidents Martin Van Buren and Theodore Roosevelt. Members of the denomination founded what is today Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J.

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In the years that followed, as the Dutch Reformed Church in South Africa developed a theological justification for white supremacy and racial segregation, the church in America developed an equally stubborn social consciousness.

Members of the denomination, which had few congregations in the American South, came relatively late to the anti-slavery movement, according to church historian Gerald De Jong, but when they joined, their opposition was vigorous and sustained. More than a century later, leaders and members were highly visible in the civil rights and peace movements. The denomination ordains women, and does not support prayer in the public schools or legislation banning abortion (although it strongly disapproves of the procedure).

Church’s Special Burden

But South Africa and the South African “sister church” were the Reformed movement’s special burden. Since 1948, when the Afrikaans’ National Party swept to power with its doctrine of racial separation, apartheid, the Reformed Church in America has been actively struggling with it.

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In 1976 the American church established formal links with black members of the Dutch Reformed Church in South Africa and, in 1982, the Americans broke relations with the white Afrikaaner church, divesting the denomination’s portfolio in 1983.

“It became intolerable over a period of time,” said John Stapert, editor of the denomination’s 160-year-old monthly magazine, The Church Herald. “Reform theology was being used to defend apartheid.”

“We couldn’t get anywhere with those people,” recalled Marion de Velder, retired general secretary. “In 16 years, they didn’t move that far,” he said, holding his index finger a millimeter from his thumb.

The denomination even has its own champion in South Africa, the Rev. Allan A. Boesak, now president of the World Alliance of Reformed Churches, whose face graces the cover of church publications.

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Schuller Protested

“Boesak is highly regarded in the Reformed Church,” said Stapert, whose magazine has a circulation of 56,000.

Like all of the other sessions, Nzo’s keynote address to the synod had initially been scheduled for the arboretum of the Crystal Cathedral in Garden Grove. But protests over the ANC’s use of violence from the Rev. Robert Schuller, founder of the 10,000-member congregation, forced the speech to be moved to a hotel in Orange.

Schuller’s role highlights one of several paradoxes of the church.

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Although it is a soft-spoken denomination which has been losing members, two of its ministers are well-known nationally from radio and television and as the authors of books that have sold millions of copies. From opposite coasts, each has exerted considerable influence within the denomination.

From Marble Collegiate Church in New York, Norman Vincent Peale has been expounding the “power of positive thinking” for decades. Schuller has developed the equally popular “possibility thinking.”

Neither one is typical of the denomination, Stapert said.

‘Recognition Factor’

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In earlier years, Stapert said, Peale served the same function as Schuller does today, with church members utilizing “the recognition factor of his name and positive thinking to explain to people what we are.”

Today, some church brochures identify the Reformed Church as “the denomination of Norman Vincent Peale and Robert Schuller.”

Where the “Hour of Power” is broadcast, local congregations buy 60-second spots at the conclusion of the broadcast. And newer congregations tend to be modeled after Schuller’s Crystal Cathedral, both in the physical structure and the style of ministry.

Of 38 drive-in, walk-in churches, Stapert said, 31, including Leestma’s, are affiliated with the Reformed Church.

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“We’re not that large a percentage of anything involving religion in the United States, " Stapert said.

Another paradox of the denomination is that it weds its strong commitment to the social gospel to an equally conservative, evangelical theology, based on the Heidelberg Catechism.

Bridge Between Opposites

Three years ago, when the denomination applied for membership in the National Assn. of Evangelicals, the application was rejected when the Reformed Church refused to sever ties with the liberal National and World councils of churches. Yet for the same reason, denomination leaders often work as a bridge between opposite wings of Protestantism.

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Boesak, for example, “is so clearly evangelical in his faith that he may give the denomination a hearing in evangelical circles,” according to Stapert.

Because of its history and accidents of demography, the Reformed Church has been sensitive to socioeconomic trends.

“Many of our churches have remained in the inner city long after most of the core members moved away,” Leestma told the delegates. “As a result, in the midst of the city we have some very large church buildings which can no longer be financially supported by the small number of people who attend.”

“That has compelled us to be concerned,” Stapert added.

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Ties to Minorities

Some of these churches have been turned into missions. Today, less than half of denomination members are of Dutch descent, and the church has developed a strong commitment to largely black, Latino and Asian communities.

More recently, the denomination has been hard hit by the farm crisis.

“One question I was asked by pastors in the crisis areas,” Leestma told the delegates, “was, ‘Does the Reformed Church have a policy on bankruptcy?’ ”

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As outlined in his report to the synod, Leestma’s goals for the denomination in the next decade are characteristically modest: 100 new congregations and 36,000 new members.

“The aspirations are going to look modest, especially if you look at it from this campus,” Stapert said, gesturing to the grounds of the Crystal Cathedral.

The dozen simple displays of church literature in the rear of the Crystal Cathedral arboretum contrasted sharply with the rows and rows of displays by larger denominations that often meet at the nearby Anaheim Convention Center.

Dwindling Numbers

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Howard G. Hageman, former president of New Brunswick Theological Seminary, frankly admitted in a church journal that: “The story of the place of the Reformed tradition in American life has, for the past two centuries, been one of steadily diminishing returns.”

Since its long slide from dominance in Colonial times, he wrote, “the Reformed forces which are left would not strike the observer as terribly impressive.”

Returning to the theme of Dutch stubbornness, Hageman wrote that the denomination could take some solace that the “same doggedness born not out of our human willfulness, but out of our conviction about the sovereign choice of God, can be an almost irresistible force for getting things changed. . . . The struggle for justice and righteousness, therefore, is not a struggle for noble ideals or lofty aspirations, but the struggle for an order of things which is surer than tomorrow’s sunrise.”


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