Gerald Vandezande: Canada’s Unassuming Prophet

Gerald Vandezande: Canada’s Unassuming Prophet

Life Lessons from a Christian Social Activist

A shorter version of this article appeared in the July/August 2009 edition of Faith Today, published by the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada.

On a lovely spring day in 1959 Gerald and Wynne Vandezande left their home in Sarnia, Ontario to drive across the St. Clair River toward Grand Rapids, Michigan. They had only been married for a couple of years, but Jerry—the name he prefers—wanted Jesus to be the centre of his life’s work. Wynne, his young wife of devoted faith, agreed. Driving west toward Calvin College and Seminary, they felt ready to answer the Lord’s call.

Vandezande had arrived to Canada in 1951 at age 17 from the Netherlands. With only basic high school level education and tireless resolve he rose from farm work to Bank of Montreal employee. At night school he learned cost accounting and the bank sent him to Sarnia with plans to move west and become an auditor. Then he met Wynne at the local Christian Reformed Church, whose parents were also Dutch immigrants. They married and he entered an accounting position at nearby Ethyl Corporation.

Jerry had a heart for many causes. One of them was the struggling Christian Labor union, which was strongly supported by Dutch immigrants. He believed there must be an organization to promote Christ-centred values in the workplace.

That day in Michigan, they called on Professor H. Evan Runner, who taught philosophy at Calvin College. Vandezande knew and admired Runner, whose expertise in current trends of Reformed philosophy was inspired by the late Dutch Prime Minister, Abraham Kuyper. The Kuyperian perspective put Christ at the center of all life, including science and politics.

Runner welcomed them warmly, but as Jerry and Wynne spoke about preparing for pulpit ministry, the professor expressed grave doubts. Vandezande’s strong convictions might lead to difficulties with seminary faculty. Besides, the churches had many candidates. Jerry’s call was to community leadership. “Few people do the things that you do,” said Runner.

Jerry was disappointed but not discouraged. “After that,” he said, “I threw myself into Christian action with gusto.” Indeed. The church lost a ministry candidate, but Vandezande did not miss his calling. He became one of Canada’s internationally revered Christian activists. His efforts for social justice in Canada have ranged from the environment to abortion, inclusive pluralism and child poverty. He has served as a community leader, spokesperson and valued consultant.

In 2001, Vandezande received the Order of Canada, citing his “powerful and respected voice for social justice.” Other honours include a D.Litt. from the Institute of Christian Studies and the Arthur Kroeger College Award in Ethics in Public Affairs, whose recipients include Romeo Dallaire.

But to understand Vandezande’s importance, just say “Jerry” to his peers in Canadian religious and political leadership. Dr. Brian Stiller of Tyndale University calls him “a gift to evangelicals.” John McKay, longstanding Member of Parliament from Scarborough-Guildwood says, “He cast the thinking for a generation of evangelicals engaged in public life.” Rick Tobias of Yonge Street Mission says, “Gerald Vandezande has done more than anyone I know to raise awareness and influence the church on the issues of poverty and injustice.” Many consider him a mentor who set the bar for commitment and vision in Christian leadership. Dr. Bob Goudzwaard, of the Free University of Amsterdam, calls him an international giant in applying the principles of Kuyperian Christian philosophy. A close Catholic friend calls him “Canada’s voice of generative justice and imaginative strategy.”

Yet many feel that Vandezande’s accomplishments are too little known. After mentoring Canadian leaders for a generation he still has much to teach us. We spoke to Jerry and a selection of friends and colleagues to ask what Christians can learn from this unassuming visionary.

Engage the Wheels of Justice

One of Vandezande’s primary values is that Christians who plan to have an impact on society must live by Scriptural principles, not simply quote the Bible or preach their beliefs. We must boldly engage public institutions that are accountable for justice.

Jerry is no idealist when he writes that the gospel is “a radical message of grace…it comes with radical demands to us personally and communally, as well as to our society” (Christians in the Crisis, p. 37). Those principles were personally forged as a boy during the Nazi occupation of Holland. He watched his parents risk their lives as part of the Dutch underground harboring Jews and resistance fighters. He saw his community—divided by politics and rancor like any other—unite to feed the hungry. Even with Nazis in the pews, preachers inspired their congregations to live genuine Christian lives.

This was the background for his response to the challenges of the Christian Labour Association of Canada (CLAC). He saw members of the Christian Reformed Church (CRC) forced to join unions whose principles conflicted with their faith. Today, union membership can be deferred for the sake of conscience. In that era, those who refused to sign a union card might be ostracized or fired. Vandezande saw that there must be a Christian alternative to mainstream unions. A 1961 Toronto Star article recalls that period when the CLAC was branded as “radically promanagement,” “highly dictatorial” and a union official called his denomination “fascist.”

Initially, the Ontario Labour Relations Board refused to recognize the CLAC because membership was strictly for Christians and its charter referenced the Bible. After Vandezande became executive secretary in 1961 membership was opened to everyone although charter references to the Bible remained. The Ontario board would still not relent.

Jerry was warned that a legal challenge would not succeed and a number of influential CRC clergy were adamantly opposed to bringing the Ontario government to court. Yet he had already made sacrifices, uprooting his family to Toronto and having his salary cut in half.

Prominent lawyer (and future judge) Bert J. MacKinnon also doubted the likelihood of success, but took the case before the Supreme Court of Ontario. His brilliant argument for an alternative union option persuaded Chief Justice J.C. McRuer, who wrote in his judgment: “If I supported the board’s refusal to certify the union on the grounds that its members engage in prayer, read passages from the Bible, and sing psalms and hymns at their meetings, the result would be that a union that required no standards of ethical or moral conduct… might be certified, but one that permits the practices here could not be.” After certification in Ontario, Vandezande acted quickly to get similar rulings in B.C. and Alberta. Within a few years the organization was viable in all three provinces and continues to thrive.

Jerry might have focused on building the union but he had a larger vision for social justice. He developed a CLAC offshoot called the Committee for Justice and Liberty which became the CJL Foundation. In the mid-1970s, Jerry was joined on staff by John Olthuis, a young lawyer associated with the Alberta-based Christian Action Foundation.

Engage People on All Sides

How do you start making inroads for social justice? Vandezande suggests that you begin with meaningful conversations that cross all political boundaries and then develop genuine relationships with political leaders from all parties. Speak from the heart and you will learn when to be bold and when to be discreet.

After the 1970s energy crisis the federal government promoted drilling for oil in the Beaufort Sea and planned a gas pipeline down the Mackenzie Valley. The Berger Commission was set up to examine the impact of those developments on the north and the Aboriginal peoples.

Vandezande and Olthuis expanded the vision of the CJL Foundation by linking up with activists from other churches. They appeared before the Commons committee on Natural Resources and Public Works and the National Energy Board (NEB) to call for a 10-year moratorium on the projects. The foundation also joined a decisive Supreme Court action to stop the NEB chair, the former head of a company in the development consortium, from ruling on whether it should proceed. The 10-year moratorium became a major recommendation of the Berger report (1977), later upheld by the Supreme Court. Olthuis is now one of Canada’s leading lawyers specializing in Native land claims. These efforts earned the foundation a profile of non-partisan integrity and gave Jerry links across the political spectrum from Tommy Douglas to Douglas Roche, the Conservative MP from Edmonton-Strathcona.

The CJL Foundation formalized ties with the Christian Action Foundation to form Citizens for Public Justice (CPJ). The organization became more innovative as Jerry became more effective. In the 1980s CPJ brought an alternative budget process to Parliament Hill. Jerry insisted that budgets be examined as statements of core values related to issues of public justice. The thoroughness and intelligence of his critique drew support from other groups and the media. (Politicians could not easily dismiss the insights of a well trained cost accountant.) Alternative budgets are now a common approach for many non-profits and activists. His wide-ranging relationships gave Jerry access both in open political committees and behind closed doors. He’s never joined a party, but all have asked him to stand as a candidate.

Engaging Younger Leaders

Vandezande also developed his skills as a speaker, often with little more than a few notes on an envelope. “I have seen changes in audiences when he addresses them,” says Dr. Goudzwaard. “He speaks to the heart of people in such a way that it changes their life.”

In the early 1980s, economic and political changes were taking place across North America along with the rise of politically focused religious conservatives. The media assumed that Canadian evangelicals held similar views. This was the public setting when Brian Stiller began leading the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada (EFC) in 1983. A former national president of Youth for Christ, his world-view was rooted in the evangelistic world of the 1950s and ’60s. “I was in desperate need for someone to teach and mentor me in the world of public policy and political initiative,” said Stiller. That role would fall to Jerry.

Vandezande had already been a long-standing member of the EFC national council. “At one of the earliest EFC meetings we tangled,” said Stiller. Did it create a rift? “No, that forged our friendship. In time, there was little that I did without consulting him.”

The Kuyperian perspective was also helpful. “I had operated with a bifurcated worldview of God’s will: eternity on one side and public policy and political leadership on the other,” said Stiller. “He helped erase that line to understand that all of life is in Jesus Christ; there is not one square inch of Creation that is not His.”

As the EFC became more engaged politically, Vandezande proved invaluable. His political experience connected him at the highest levels with journalists, politicians and party insiders on Parliament Hill and in provincial legislatures. He showed Stiller the value of non-partisan political networking, patiently building relationships with leaders. He could also craft well-written, concise documents on the issues. Stiller noticed his nuanced style of speaking that kept the conversation going. “He modeled for me how to speak into the public square,” says Stiller.

Propose Incremental Improvements

Jerry emphasized a constructive approach. Be positive. Be for something, not simply against change. Have a proposal to bring to the table and an alternative. Remain gracious and maintain a conversational tone even if it’s only to get another meeting.

In 1990, they joined together to address the key issue of abortion. The EFC leaders were patient, persuasive and reasonable and the Mulroney government’s Bill C43 reflected their priorities. “It wasn’t perfect, but it started us down the right road, affirming life at conception,” said Stiller. The bill was passed by the House and went to the Senate for approval.

At this point one of the more strident, Christian anti-abortion organizations rallied national support against the legislation. Insisting that there could be no legislated compromise, they joined forces with pro-choice organizations to reject the bill. Despite Stiller and Vandezande’s resolute efforts, the Senate vote was a tie. The bill would not go forward. “We shared a deep sorrow,” said Stiller. “It’s the only time I cried about public policy.”

This brought home for both men another important lesson about promoting social justice. Real progress is gradual, there is no such thing as instant change.

It was a devastating blow, but Stiller now gains satisfaction as he sees their progress. “We are light years ahead of where we were in 1990 with the number of people of faith in public service including mayors of cities, towns, MPP’s, Senators and MP’s,” he says. “The EFC continues to be on the forefront of public policy options. We were working on the larger battle.”

Current EFC President Bruce J. Clemenger, agrees. “Jerry’s work with the EFC in multi-faith partnerships beginning with education but moving through cases involving the definition of spouse and marriage is a great legacy. Jerry’s ability to bring together people of different faiths for common purpose, along with his ability to mobilize and bridge generations of leaders within and without the EFC, has facilitated our ability to engage across faiths and to build policy-focused partnerships.”

Be Well Informed

One important aspect of the learning curve was the need for a stronger public profile. Jerry participated in 200 episodes of the EFC television panel program, Cross Currents, hosted by Stiller. Vandezande was both a frequent on-camera guest and key resource. Karen Pascal, the program producer, recalls his access to “unreachable people” to get comments on current issues. Pascal was impressed by Jerry’s capable approach to a diverse array of guests. When asked about those public debates, Jerry reflects an attitude based on strong preparation and genuine interest in his passion. “You cannot be intimidated if you are well informed. Read and learn as much as possible about the issues of social justice in your community.”

Pascal, too, felt she had been mentored by Jerry. She has since expanded her role in creative film-making on faith issues and says Vandezande inspired her. “He changed the course of my Christian walk. Jerry saw my potential to communicate the Christian world view and make sure it’s well represented in the media.”

In the 1990s, Jerry might have been forgiven for slowing down, but as Ontario’s Common Sense Revolution brought in severe cuts to social programs, his presence in the media appeared to grow. One of his significant colleagues in that period was Janet Somerville, the General Secretary of the Canadian Council of Churches from 1997 to 2002. As a national leader speaking for mainline churches (including Jerry’s denomination, the CRC), she developed an important relationship with Vandezande, whom she counts as a long time friend and colleague.

They first met around 1986 when Somerville was on staff with the Catholic New Times. She quickly noticed Jerry’s ability to bring people together. “Strategizing is something he does while he breathes,” says Somerville. “Jerry refuses to be stopped by conventional boundaries. He doesn’t get rude or aggressive; he simply ignores them.”

Do More Than Serve “Just Us”

During this period, as churches and other faith organizations began to link more effectively, Jerry’s approach again proved invaluable. He insisted that Christian attitudes toward justice can’t be about advancing an individual or a specific community agenda. He likes to say: Justice is not “just us.” We must learn what justice means for others to whom we are to be salt and light. We must seek out political opposites and those of other faiths with whom we can discuss the issues. We can learn from them. God is at work in the hearts of all people. Jerry emphasizes the importance of listening to opponents. How else does one act as Jesus said and love them? Also, they help generate new ways to understand the issues.

One area where Jerry has made sustained efforts is public funding for independent (non-Catholic) religious schools. As Vandezande broadened his network for support on this issue, he built bridges to other faith groups including Jews, Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs. In the late 1990s he brought many of these groups into the EFC-led group called Ontario Multi-faith Coalition for Equality in Education (OMCEE). A disappointing series of court challenges has brought few gains for the schools or the participating families.

However, Jerry successfully cultivated these relationships into other projects. When he needed to assemble a larger coalition to address the Harris government’s social service cuts, he used this network to build a larger voice for social justice issues. Many now participate in the Interfaith Social Assistance Reform Coalition (ISARC). Jerry developed a similar coalition that has re-organized as the Campaign Against Child Poverty, identified with the foundation of the late June Callwood.

His support of Street Level, an EFC-led coalition of groups addressing homelessness, led to a particularly satisfying moment. In 2006, when Street Level adopted a platform statement called the Ottawa Manifesto, Jerry addressed the assembled groups and suggested taking up a collection to have the manifesto printed in the Monday morning edition of the Ottawa Citizen. The next day it was on the desk of every sitting Member of Parliament. That gave Jerry another inspiring moment in a long history of meeting extraordinary challenges.

How has he stayed on the leading edge of so many issues? Somerville says it comes out of a vibrant spiritual life. “He’s very prayerful,” she says, “He challenges us to not forget to put prayer first. He can reach across so many issues because he’s so sure of the Lordship of Christ in all the areas of life.”

We asked a number of Jerry’s peers what they felt we need to learn from him:

John Redekop, a former leader of Canada’s Mennonite Brethren and a former president of the EFC said, “Do not hesitate to tackle issues. If you believe that you are morally right, then no issue is too daunting or too controversial for a clear Christian response. Don’t expect to win all the struggles but don’t give up to soon. Christians are required to be faithful, not successful. Fight for causes, not against people.”

Lorna Dueck, host of the ListenUp television program said: “He was persistent, tireless, kind, diligent and wise. His message was to never forget that the poor need your voice, the broken need your strength, and the lost need your help in direction. Evil can be systemic and needs to be corrected at many levels.”

Charles Pascal, head of the Atkinson Foundation, says, “We need to learn his tenacity. A phrase that describes Tommy Douglas and Jerry is ‘visionary incrementalist.’ He’s always had a clear vision that the future has to be safer and more just for all Canadians. But to move to that better vision requires incrementalism. How do we get to that better future? With tenacity; an unrelenting crusade with baby steps and giant steps. And I never saw anyone with more optimism about the human spirit. He has tenacity and optimism.”

Stay Close to God and Family

Jerry adds this advice, “Keep your spiritual life real and don’t lose touch with your family.”

Still, there are always sacrifices. One evening, as he was about to go away on business, Jerry kissed one of his daughters good night and explained he was leaving. The little girl stomped off exclaiming, “Meetings, meetings, meetings.”

One person who has matched Jerry stride for stride through his journey has been his wife of over 50 years, Wynne. He often acknowledges her devotion and faith. She not only raised their two daughters, Janice and Karen—now parents of their five grandchildren— but also oversaw the eight foster children who lived in their home for periods of a few months up to two years. She has met the challenge of supporting their family while he was often called away. After their children were grown, Wynne went back to school and received her Social Work degree from Ryerson. She was employed as a counselor until her retirement.

One joy they have continued to share has been attending church together. Since 1971 they have been members at Grace Christian Reformed Church in Scarborough. Jerry loves to talk about the sermon. He still asks the same questions: would I speak about the passage this way? How does it apply to my life and my community?

Simon Wolfert was Jerry’s pastor for many years and affirms his well rooted faith. “He was very inspirational in the church, especially on a one-to-one basis. He would speak to young people; he was very influential with many others.” Rev. Wolfert knew that when Jerry came to church he wasn’t a passive listener. He got tapes of the sermons and listened to them repeatedly.

“I watched him grow,” says Wolfert, “and I grew because of him. He became an inclusive thinker. That also became my motto; keep the conversation going, be open to change. You’re never finished talking. Gerald was a very inclusive thinker and that influenced me a lot.” Wolfert agrees with Dr. Goudzwaard that Jerry was a significant and influential figure in the international body of the Christian Reformed Church.

If politics is the art of the possible, then Vandezande has certainly accomplished a great deal. One of Jerry’s esteemed admirers is Dow Marmur, Senior Rabbi Emeritus of Holy Blossom Temple in Toronto who wrote that he “speaks like a prophet and thinks like a politician.”

When he and Wynne turned back from Grand Rapids fifty years ago, Jerry accepted that he wasn’t called to a pulpit. “But I’ve been able to speak in mosques, in temples and synagogues,” he says. He should add Parliament Hill and Queen’s Park. And yet he retains that humble, genuine quality with a freshness of spirit, a spark of hope.

Today, although he moves carefully after a series of small strokes and quadruple by-pass surgery, Jerry is still regularly in touch with many old friends. And he looks forward to developing a relationship with Stephen Harper, with whom he has already had some correspondence. Conversations always return to the example of Jesus, who said, “Blessed are the poor in spirit.” There is a constant awareness that his master’s concern was not individual achievement but human vulnerability and need.

His good friend Dr. Bob Goudzwaard uses a striking metaphor to describe the strength of character which has guided his friend. Goudzwaard explains how palm trees are grown in the desert. A hole is made in the sand and a young palm is placed into it with a stone on top. If it can survive, the young tree will grow downward until it reaches water. Then it will rise up, push away the rock and rise above the sand.

“That is a metaphor suitable for Jerry,” says Goudzwaard. “If he sees there is no way, he goes to the deepest roots of his faith. When he sees an injustice, he’s committed to finding a way.”

Ben Volman is a freelance author living in North York, Ontario.

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1 thought on “Gerald Vandezande: Canada’s Unassuming Prophet”

  1. Great Article on Gerald
    Great Article on Gerald Vandezande.I first heard Jerry speak to our Young peoples group over 40years ago.This past mar.I attended the Street Level conferance in Ottawa and Jerry was there also.It was a great event and it was good to hear a lot of the Speakers and workshop leaders thanking Jerry for leading the way in Juctice issues.It is my hope that the CRC dose not forget one of it’s own and lose it’s Reformed world view. Thanks Jerry you taught us a lot.

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