What you see above is the empty space where the dorm I lived in during college was located. Heemstra Hall was an important place in my development into adulthood but also an extremely important place for my faith development. That was always a place I could go to when I was in Orange City and remember those moments in my life.
When I heard that Northwestern College was tearing down the dorm, I was devastated. One of those “sacred” places in my life would no longer exist. Like many of my fellow brethren who graced the halls of Heemstra my first emotion was outrage that such a thing could happen. Doesn’t Northwestern realize all the things that happened in that dorm. Yeah, it was old. Yeah, usually the men who lived in it didn’t exactly scream “cool” or even “respectable” but that place was where Christian community happened.
As a side note, I have often reflected on that time with people and explain that while Northwestern was a great place to get my education what truly helped me grow in my faith and understand what it means to be a disciple of Christ didn’t happen in chapel or the classroom, it happened in the halls of Heemstra.
Alright, back to my response to the dorm being torn down. At first, I was angry, but God has an interesting way of challenging us. You see, as a pastor I have been involved in a merger between two congregations this past year. Central UMC (where I was brought on as an associate) and McKinley UMC voted to come together and form one congregation. As part of that process, it was determined that we would move to one location which meant one church was going to have to give up an important place. It was determined that McKinley’s people would join those at Central and worship at the Central building due to its location and size. All of this was going on while I was also dealing with the reality that my “place” was not going to be anymore, and so I could understand what the McKinley people were going through. For many of them that building was the place where they were baptized, married, or had important faith formation moments. That place reminded them of all the people who had been important in their life of faith, and I couldn’t help but identify with their emotions. I got it.
And yet something pushed me to not stop there in my own reflection. While I continue to be sad that my old dorm is no longer there, I have come to realize that it wasn’t the “place” that helped me grow, it was God and the people who were following God. I had to realize (for myself) that God was still active and would form other students just like I was formed albeit in a different “place.” In a way that realization was freeing. It allowed me to see the boundless nature of God’s movement and action and how God truly is present wherever two or three are gathered. Knowing that has allowed me to open myself up to see the ways that God may be present in my current context and how God is moving.
Which brings me back to my current pastoral context. This morning after worship, Stacy (my wife) overheard some people talking about McKinley and how a certain group should move there because the space has an elevator and one of the people said if they did go there she would return to McKinley. As my wife shared this with me, I could totally understand why the individual said that. There is always a longing to return to those “places” and I get that, but really that “place” has changed. And so I am left with this question running through my head….”Is it harder for us to move on if the “places” in our life are still their structurally?” As long as Heemstra Hall was still up and running, I always in my mind wished I could go back and live that life again (even though my life is immensely more enjoyable now with a family), but once I visited Northwestern and took the above picture I really finally was able to see that while that “place” was important at a time in my life the eternal God was what continued to give my life its meaning and passion. I continue to pray that the congregation I have been called to can see that reality too even if the “place” (or insert “tradition”) is no longer the same. I hope we can all see that God is the constant and should the focus of our lives.