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Alumni Profile: Van Zanten eases out of decades in inner city ministry

By Sonya Jongsma Knauss

What God has done through Tony Van Zanten ('59) and Roseland Christian Ministries in Chicago is nothing short of miraculous.

In his 28 years at the ministry, the building that was deserted as the white, Christian Reformed population fled to the suburbs, has become a beacon of hope in a neighborhood still ravaged by drug houses, gangs, and shootings.

Rev. Tony Van Zanten,

Rev. Tony Van Zanten, "Rev. Tony" to those he works with, coordinates a wide range of worship and service activities in Roseland, a neighborhood in Chicago.

"The longer I've been involved in ministry, the more I am becoming convinced that the ultimate - and maybe one of the better - ways to talk about what God is doing in this world is to talk about justice," Tony says. "Setting wrong things right, making bad things good, making broken things whole, gluing fractures back together. God's 'program' is really to put all the broken things back together again."

Tony is vice president of Roseland Christian Ministries Center and pastor of Roseland CRC.

"The call to justice is everybody's call - the pastor, the cook, the truck driver, the journalist … If we work to make broken things whole, we're in line with God's program. That's much bigger than just social service kinds of issues."

And while it's bigger than that, Roseland Christian Ministries does provide a number of important social services. Since its humble beginnings, it has expanded to employ 30 people, both full and part-time. The center now offers not only youth and after-school programming for kids, but also a safe drop-in place for adults with mental problems, a second-floor homeless shelter (the "Strong Tower") for women and children, a food pantry that serves 75-100 people lunch and dinner every day, and a housing development and rehab component. Roseland CRC was started nearby to meet the neighborhood's need for a worship community.

Funded with a combination of state and city grants and ministry shares from the CRC, Roseland has been blessed over the years with the ability to expand its services to the neighborhood it serves.

The Journey to Ministry

So how did an Iowa farm boy get into inner city Chicago ministry?

Born on an Iowa farm during a snowstorm in 1939, Tony attended Dordt College for two years when it was a two-year college. As a farm kid, he didn't really think of himself as college material. But Dordt was close by, and he describes it as a "fairly easy choice" - at that time it was a small, close-knit community of about 80 students.

"If you're not a farmer and you live in Iowa, maybe you could be a teacher, or maybe a preacher. I knew I didn't want to be a teacher or a farmer," he says. He took Greek with Dr. Zinkand and says that was what saved him when he went to Calvin Seminary.

Tony finished his studies at Calvin, going on to Seminary, where he developed an understanding that he was being called to urban ministry. "After two years, still being pretty wet behind the ears, I had a relatively clear sense of call but not in a traditional rural or suburban congregation." The opportunity came for him to serve as minister of evangelism for Manhattan Christian Reformed Church in centra Harlem, New York.

The young man from Iowa who had never been on a plane arrived in LaGuardia with fear and trembling, certain no one would be able to find him admidst the hustle and bustle of foot traffic. It was Palm Sunday weekend in 1963, and he was traveling to the heart of Harlem. It was here he received his "urban baptism," an event he describes as a turning point in his understanding of his role in ministry.

The church was housed in a five-story brownstone, at one time a store and tenement house. There were apartments on the upper floors. At some point during his tour, Tony was left alone on the second floor. There was a meeting in the side room of a group called ARC, Addicts Rehabilitation Center.

"I stood there by myself, somewhat out of sorts, nervous, maybe just plain scared. Someone came out of that room, stood there in the dim light, kind of stared at me, but didn't say a thing," he remembers. "After two long uncomfortable moments of silence, he sauntered over to me, got very close physically, and said, 'Hey man, what do you least like to do? Go to bed at night or get up in the morning?'"

"It was cold and I said, 'On a cold night, I really don't like to get out of bed in the morning.' He said, 'That's easy to say if you got a bed to go to.' That really made me think. I was trying to be clever, but I really hadn't listened to the question."

Tony said the experience later struck him as being very important. It showed him how important it is to listen to people - "and in cross-cultural settings that's triply true," he says. "On the other side of the boundary, we ought not to assume we know a whole lot, and we need to do a whole lot of listening."

Tony and his wife, Donna (Rietema, '57) did move to Harlem, living there from 1963-1964. During that time, she worked as a substitute teacher in the public schools. They returned to Calvin Seminary for Tony to finish his final year of formal classroom education, then went back east to Patterson, New Jersey.

The church that had called them was a city church in a neighborhood that was undergoing a demographic shift. "The church body had shrunk significantly, but membership was still white and commuting in from the suburbs," Tony says. "The neighborhood had become predominantly African American."

The Van Zantens worked hard to incorporate the youth of the neighborhood into the church and its programs. During the 1970s, when the Black Pride movement was strong, the church had a music drama group called "Voices of God" in Swahili. One year they did four summer tours, traveling all the way to Denver giving programs along the way.

"As a consequence some of the young people became very involved in the church…and some of the parents said, 'Hey, if you're capturing the hearts of our kids, you must be doing something special.'"

The years they spent in New Jersey were not without their challenges.

"One of the things we began to feel ever more strongly about was that this church, which had been dwindling in size for three decades, would likely continue to dwindle in size unless it began to look out to the neighborhood and make some adjustments," he says.

The parsonage had been located in a suburb for about 25 years before the Van Zantens moved into it. After five years at the church, Tony says, "we had the sense that this was not the place for the preacher to be living if we were going to be investing in the neighborhood."

The church lost a couple families, including two elders, over the Van Zantens' decision to move into a house next to the church. Some parishioners felt it was unfair for the pastor to live in a place they didn't want to live. Some people felt the pastor's move into the city was in judgment of them for living in the suburbs. "Today I'd probably do thing s differently, and with a little more tact," Tony says. "Slower."

The Call to Roseland

After eleven years in Patterson, Tony was asked by the Roseland Christian Ministry Center in Chicago to consider the job of "missionary director" for the fledgling organization. The location, a building in Roseland, had been vacated by the CRWRC and Back To God Hour in the 1970s when the surrounding neighborhood underwent a radical demographic transition.

"Roseland itself experienced white flight more dramatically possibly than any place in the country," Tony says. "It went pretty much from white to black within a ten year period - including not only about 100,000 people, but in terms of the CRC, they took with them the Back to God Hour, CRWRC, and eight congregations, most within a two year period."

Tony is somewhat cautious about describing these events. He doesn't want to sound too judgmental. But the facts speak for themselves.

After leaving the area, the CRC formed a feasibility study committee to try to decide whether the building could still be used for some kind of ministry. "There was this swirl of anger on the one hand, and guilt on the other hand. I think people thought, yeah, maybe it wouldn't be good for us, having lived there for 100 years, to just walk away and not look back."

The Van Zantens moved to Roseland in the summer of 1976 and have poured themselves into ministry there for almost three decades.

"For three or four months mostly what I did was walk around the neighborhood, talk to residents, meet kids," Tony said. He put a basketball hoop outside the big warehouse-type building in which the ministry is located. He also spent time talking to the business community and people from supporting churches, asking them what they thought might be good to put in the big, empty building.

"I got about 100,000 different answers," he says wryly, "and I began to pull out my hair. How are we going to be able to make sense of being Reformed and Christian and true to the neighborhood here?"

He says God directed him to Philippians 1:1-11, and from there he took the theme of service, worship, and training. "If you want to have a Reformed and Christian ministry, you have to have the servant character; your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus. I also interpreted that as a call to train - how can we be like Jesus if we don't know what Jesus is like?"

These three concepts, Tony said, became "pegs on the wall on which we ought to be able to hang everything we do and say."

Soon it became clear that a church was also needed, and Tony became the pastor. He explains the need: "I'd been around long enough to know that the tendency for Christian social service agencies to become, after a while, only social service projects. On the other hand, churches often saw themselves as just a place to worship but not to take on the ministry of the kingdom.

"From the beginning we decided to work not only at meeting needs but to invite people to participate in meeting those needs. That has felt pretty comfortable over the years."

For the last six years, every single morning, Tony and others have gathered at the church for morning prayers. Participation ranges from 20 to 40 people, and usually half of the people are homeless. "This is a whole development of community and caring and praying and love put in a place you might least expect it," Tony says. "It has been extraordinary."

Tony and his wife, Donna, recently shared with the Roseland congregation their intention to "ease towards retirement" starting this summer. Reflecting on his years there, Tony says they have been "marvelous… rigorous, usually difficult, but wonderful."

"This has been a magnificent calling and we are humbled to have spent over 27 years here," he says in a letter to the congregation.

Roseland Christian Ministries Center is located at 10858 S. Michigan Ave., Chicago, Illinois 60628. They can be reached at (773) 264-5665.