Pat’s Funny Bone: It takes a congregation of farmers to grow a pastor

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For Pastor Pete and me, our first ministry assignment was in a small town south of Chicago. It really wasn’t small, it was tiny, teeny to be exact. The town of Wichert was located a mile off the main highway and consisted of six homes, school, farm warehouse and a small store which was stocked with mainly bread, milk and the daily newspaper.

Our home was located in the suburbs of Wichert, a mile west of downtown Wichert. It consisted of the church and seven homes. It wasn’t exactly a metropolis.

When we moved in, it was a community event. Two farmers drove to our home in Holland, Michigan, and loaded all of our earthly belongings in the trailer of a potato truck. Together, we traveled the four hours from Holland to Wichert only to arrive at our new home and find 75 people who were waiting to unload the truck. Our prayer life greatly increased that day as we watched 80-year-old men carry our brand new color TV, china closet, bedroom mirror and other precious items into our new home.

The best moment that day was when we dropped into our bed that evening after working hard all day only to discover that our bed had been filled with uncooked rice! It was perfect! These people had a sense of humor and we loved it.

As a rookie pastor and wife, we found ourselves adapting to the Midwest style of life very quickly.

During our first summer, we rode in a crop spraying helicopter with both of us sitting in a seat designed for one and no doors on the cab. With every quick turn and every dive to get closer to the corn, we screamed in terror. We Californians are not wimps when it comes to roller coasters, but crop-spraying helicopters, never again!!

Tornado watches always got our hearts pumping but it was not until we had a tornado warning did we become concerned. One afternoon, when the clouds looked terrifying, we decided to go down to the basement. Concerned about Mrs. Tallman, our 80-year-old neighbor lady who didn’t have a basement, we called her and told her to come right over. After 5 minutes passed, Pastor Pete looked to the west and saw a funnel cloud headed straight toward our homes. Mrs. Tallman still hadn’t arrived so he ran next door, grabbed her by the arm and pulled her into our basement right before the tornado hit a farm directly behind us. After all was quiet, he asked her why she took so long to come over to our house. Her reply was priceless. “I had on slacks and I had to put on a dress because you should never go to the pastor’s house with slacks on,” she said. Mrs. Tallman won our hearts.

Wedding receptions in the church fellowship hall always included mixed nuts that were placed on the tables the afternoon before. The mystery for years was, “Why are all of the cashews missing when the reception begins?” To discourage the cashew poacher, the women would cover the bowls with Saran wrap, but the cashews were still disappearing. They then locked the bowls in the kitchen to place on the tables right before the reception began, but the cashews still disappeared at a steady rate. The “offense” continued until the day that we moved to California and Pastor Pete turned in his master key for the church. Mystery solved!

There was a day when the entire congregation wondered about our marriage. Pastor Pete and I had lived in a one bedroom apartment in Michigan so this four bedroom rambling ranch-style house was like a palace. Being married only a few years and having much more energy than we do now, we found ourselves laughing hysterically and chasing one another around the house. Finally, Pastor Pete made his escape out of the front door, slamming it behind him. At that moment, I saw a window of opportunity so wide open that I couldn’t resist taking action. There were three deacons standing in the church parking lot in earshot of anything that was happening in our home. I opened the door, stood on the porch and yelled as gruffly as I could, “And don’t you ever slam that door on me again!” I stomped back into the house, slammed the door behind me and doubled over with laughter as I watched this young pastor try to explain what happened to these leaders of the church. It was perhaps, my finest moment in our marriage!

The congregation in Wichert was our family. They were our “rock.” They responded enthusiastically when we adopted our oldest daughter, Alice. The baby shower was huge with an hour set aside for the opening of gifts.

They mourned with us when two years later, all movement of our expected baby stopped just two days short of her due date. They prayed with us as we faced the trial of giving birth to a perfectly formed, 13.4 pounds (due to undiagnosed diabetes), stillborn daughter.

After serving the congregation for five years, we packed up our belongings and placed them in a moving van and began our drive to relocate in Canyon Lake. It was a decision that we made with very mixed emotions. We were excited to be moving back to California and the challenge of a new ministry, but we knew we would miss all of the people that we had learned to love in that small Midwestern town.

These people had loved us through our joys and our sorrows. If we made a mistake or a misjudgment, they still supported us. They taught us how to laugh at ourselves and cry with others. Every Sunday, over 400 congregants would take their places in the church’s pews, investing their time to listen to a young pastor who was still “learning the ropes.”

As we drove out of town on a cold January afternoon, we made one last stop. We turned down a narrow lane and headed to a small hill in the middle of a snow-covered cornfield. We stopped the car, opened the iron gate and walked toward the center of a cemetery. With a flower in one hand, Pastor Pete used his other hand to brush the snow off of a small headstone that read “Angela, Daughter of Rev. and Mrs. Peter Van Dyke, July 31, 1976.”

Did we leave a large part of our heart in Wichert? Yes, without a doubt!

It may take a village to grow a child, but it takes a congregation of farmers to grow a pastor.

Pastor Pete and Pat Van Dyke pose for a photo in the backyard of their Wichert home in the spring of 1973. Photo provided by Pat Van Dyke.

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Pat Van Dyke