Long overdue update

Categories:Details, Story
Rob Vander Giessen-Reitsma

Even in the midst of great pain, Lord,
I praise you for that which is.
I will not refuse this grief
Or close myself to this anguish.
Let shallow men pray for ease:
“Comfort us; shield us from sorrow.”
I pray for whatever you send me,
and I ask to receive it as your gift.
You have put a joy in my heart
greater than all the world’s riches.
I lie down trusting the darkness,
for I know that even now you are here.
Psalm 4, adapted from the Hebrew by Stephen Mitchell

Psalm 4 has been something of a mantra for us lately, which may help illuminate, in poetic terms, our sudden silence on the Imagining Space project. Some explanation is certainly in order, so here’s a brief overview of the past six months in the lives of Rob and Kirstin Vander Giessen-Reitsma, sole (unpaid) staff members of *culture is not optional.
Beginning in May and with the help of our board of directors, we raised $25,000 in forty days as a down payment to purchase Huss School, an historic building in Three Rivers, Michigan–22,000 square feet of classrooms, office space and a gymnasium on four acres of land for $75,000. It was a huge leap of faith for this small organization and $25,000 was just the beginning. But the vision was magnetizing: an off-campus program for college students, community development in a struggling Midwestern town, an opportunity to embody the everyday Kingdom faithfulness we profess to in catapult, in the road journal, in Practicing Resurrection conferences, in our fiction and non-fiction books. Over 150 donors contributed and the door opened onto a world of possibilities.
In June, we closed on the school purchase just days before embarking on a two-week speaking tour about faith and food. The tour, which took us from our home in Michigan through five states, was a wonderful opportunity to connect with old and new friends on a topic dear to our hearts (and stomachs, of course). At the far western reaches of our route, however, we saw clouds gathering on the horizon. When the storm finally hit, we realized that circumstance would require us to move out of our house in Grand Rapids quite unexpectedly. We were faced with a choice: move somewhere temporary in Grand Rapids for another year, or complete a renovation nine months ahead of schedule on an apartment 80 miles south in Three Rivers to establish a more permanent home closer to Huss School. Given the miraculous developments with the school in the spring, we decided that, even though we planned to continue our work at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, we were being drawn back toward Three Rivers.
Most of July and August passed in a blur of sixteen-hour days. With the help of many friends and family members, we tiled and painted and scrubbed and sanded and varnished and packed. Renovation projects typically fall behind schedule and this one was no exception. After we moved out of our house on August 22, we rested our heads in temporary beds for about six weeks between Grand Rapids and Three Rivers until we could finally move into our apartment–with functional plumbing and legal permission.
In the midst of adjusting to a commute and exhausting physical labor, another unexpected trial commenced. Just after Labor Day weekend, personal possessions started disappearing from our storage space in the basement of the building where our apartment is located. Not until October, when about $6,000 in property had disappeared over the course of several incidents, were we able to narrow the possible suspects down to one person–someone we’d liked, trusted, helped and accepted help from, who had key access all along. In the end, we were only able to recover about a quarter of what was lost through insurance, but we also experienced a loss of trust and security. Even when we were too blind with anger, sadness and helplessness to see the way forward, a group of friends graciously helped guide us to the best resolution possible–one that reflects our values of justice and mercy and did not involve prosecution.
Now, in November, we have fallen behind on our *cino work and continue to wrestle with difficult questions. Why would God provide for our initial fundraising efforts for the school with such breathtaking abundance, only to watch us lose momentum as we struggled to keep our heads above water through an unexpected move and the heartbreak of broken trust? Why would we be able to meet our first financial goal on schedule only to have the whole thing unravel in the next few months when the needs are still so great? What are we supposed to be learning here? Has this hardship been a test along the right path or a caution along the wrong one? Time may or may not clarify the answers, but we plan to proceed, in faith, with the ambitious vision of the Imagining Space campaign.
Throughout everything that’s occurred over the past six months–from the purchase of the school to the food tour to the renovation to the thefts–we have been clearly affirmed in one belief: we need community. In our worst times, when we felt the least equipped to face the challenges before us, the community of people around us has answered to such various needs as grunt work, lunch, critical advice and timely encouragement. In the best times, community has cohered around a beautiful, ridiculous vision for life in the Kingdom, responding with everything from ideas to connections to money. Six months of great need have also been six months of great abundance, as we’ve learned to “praise [God] for that which is” and “lie down trusting the darkness.”
The board of *culture is not optional will be meeting in December to assess where we are as an organization, pray over future projects for wisdom and discernment and plan for the coming months and years. In the meantime, we still need all of you. Please join us in prayer. Please also consider making a contribution yet in 2009 toward expenses for the school building. We’ve all been captivated by the amazing vision for what could be at the old Huss School, but there will be many months of mortgage payments and electric bills to slog through while we work to gather resources for the costly transformation the space will require. Our most immediate need is for help financing the basic monthly expenses, which include the loan payment of $500, the insurance payment of $360 and the basic electric bill, which is usually around $40. We think you’ll agree that such slogging is best undertaken in good company, so please join us with whatever resources you have to offer.
We sincerely apologize for the loss of momentum and communication that occurred on the Imagining Space project while our lives took unexpected hairpin turns this summer and fall. Like the tall Michigan oaks that have lost all of their leaves, we look forward to re-emerging anew and flourishing for yet another season…but we can’t do it without you. Thank you, in advance, for taking the time to consider how you can best contribute to the needs of *culture is not optional on the brink of 2010.
Grace and peace,
Rob & Kirstin Vander Giessen-Reitsma